‘The Fame Lunches’: Daphne Merkin is still wishing for mother’s love


If you were the wild child among more submissive siblings, who refused to be silenced and cried continually, and fought with all the others about their glaring hypocrisies; chances are you were not your parents’ favorite child.  If you sometimes made disturbing comments about wishing to harm yourself while broadcasting to anyone who would listen your opinion about your parents’ deficiencies, you were probably the cause of much familial stress.  If the confusion that swirled around in your head escalated to the point where your parents sent you to a psychiatric facility when you were only 8 years old, you probably only grew more despondent.  By the time adolescence beckoned, the die was cast: You were known only as the anxious and nervous one, a little troubled girl who simply needed too much.

But what if you’re not.  Maybe you were just an exquisitely sensitive and creative little girl who was able to disarmingly articulate your family’s massive dysfunction.  Maybe not getting enough love from your mother and father was simply too much for you to bear.  Maybe you’re Daphne Merkin. 

Merkin, author of  “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an extremely engaging and empathetic writer.  She doesn’t allow herself to form fixed notions about others, but instead wrestles with how most of us choose to present ourselves to the outside world, along with the forces that have shaped our individual self-presentations.  She is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in all human relationships but also sees tenderness and beauty where others don’t even think to look.  Brought up in a Modern Orthodox, wealthy Jewish home in Manhattan, Merkin struggled with a father who had little patience for her and a mother who seemed overly concerned with the aesthetics of their home while ignoring the emotional turbulence lurking beneath it.  There was little talk about God or spiritual matters of any sort.  Their Judaism was expressed mostly by rituals and celebrations and life at the synagogue, which Merkin disliked since it seemed to her the men had all the good parts.  What she did enjoy was studying the Talmud, which stimulated her active mind with its never ending labyrinth of puzzling arguments.  But she studied privately and eventually gave it up.  As for God, he always either ignored or eluded her.

Mostly, she tried to get her mother’s attention, an exercise that resulted in repeated frustration and disappointment.  But Merkin never stopped trying.  She writes about her mother with an almost uncomfortable intensity, one that seems to elude her in other relationships.  Her mother passed away years ago, but is still dominant in her thoughts and misgivings.  She misses her. Perhaps misses what she never had.  They shared a turbulent relationship, but one that Merkin counted on, even though her mother continually disappointed her. The only possible gift bestowed upon Merkin from this ferocious attachment is that it seems to have imbued Merkin with the ability to look at others through a psychological lens that is filtered by kindness and compassion.

In “The Fame Lunches,” her new outstanding collection of essays, Merkin offers us her take on everything from the allure of lip gloss and its relationship to the demise of civilized society to vividly personal and perceptive essays that resulted from her lengthy interviews with everyone from Madonna to Kate Blanchett.  She tries to dissect the enduring legacy of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Courtney Love while offering up thought-provoking pieces about the Bronte sisters, Bruno Bettelheim, and Henry Roth.  She allows space for her own meditations on mental illness, psychoanalysis and the hardships of mothering after divorce.  She is equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow subjects, because she is fascinated by both, and brings an observational sharpness to whatever she is writing about.  Some of the best pieces here have to do with the hunt for a perfect handbag, reality television, and the obsession women have with holding on to their beauty.

What amazes the reader about Merkin is how open her heart has remained, even with age and after several extreme episodes of emotional distress.  Her heart has not hardened, and that is truly a writer’s greatest asset.  She has written at great length in the New York Times about her over 40-year participation in psychoanalysis and its disappointments for her, but the miracle of Merkin is really her resilience in spite of her duress. She perseveres. She writes. She travels. She teaches. She mothers her beloved daughter. She confides in friends.  And, for the most part, she remains afloat.

In one of the most revealing pieces, she tells us about sending a letter to Woody Allen telling him about her adoration for him.  She included a poem for him that ended with these two short sad lines: “You are my funny man.  You know you can be sad with me.”  Woody wrote her back and encouraged her to keep writing.  This led to a friendship of sorts, where they would occasionally meet for lunch.  At one meal, she told him that she was feeling more depressed than usual.  Woody asked her all the appropriate follow-up questions in a clinical fashion and suggested she consider electroshock therapy.  She was furious with him.  She thought, “I don’t know what I had been hoping for — some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not to get hooked up to electrodes, baby — but I was slightly stunned.  More than slightly, I understood he was trying to be helpful in his way but it fell so far short. …Shock therapy?  It wasn’t as thought I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who benefited from it.  Still, how on earth did he conceive of me?  As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare greyly into space.  Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods?  Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa.  It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you… .Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business.  Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge than I cared to admit.  Now that was a refreshing personality.”

There is a steeliness about her that allows her to see things clearly even in the throes of despair.  Merkin’s capacity to analyze her response to Allen’s well-intended advice demonstrates an inner resilience that has undoubtedly saved her many times over.  She knows firsthand the dark forces that can invade your psyche, but she also understands healing and reinvention and transformation.  There is no malice or bitchiness or vengeance present in her work; even towards those whom she knows have caused her the greatest harm.  Even when she senses people are being deceptive or manipulative, she does not castigate them. Instead, she seeks answers as to why she believes they feel they need to be inauthentic at a certain point in time.  She wants to understand, not attack.

For example, when writing about Mike Tyson and his new wife, she senses that Tyson is playing her.  She believes this is simply another incarnation of his continual act, which she describes as a “construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his Invincible Iron Mike persona was.”  Merkin does not challenge him directly about her perception but instead writes about how impressed she is that he is attempting to create a persona that is less violent and self-destructive than he has been in the past.  She wants him to succeed, although she recognizes the fragility of his battle.  Merkin reaches similar conclusions about Marilyn Monroe.  She wonders at first if Monroe was really the victim she is often portrayed to be, or a manipulator of the finest order.  She reviews her background, which includes severe maternal and paternal deprivation, mental illness, and bouts of terrible instability and depression.  She offers up compassion, as she does for Princess Diana, whom she describes as a “knot of contradictions: impossibly glamorous, yet disarmingly self effacing, bold, yet riddled with self-doubt, worldly yet naïve.”  

There are times when Merkin seems to get swept up in a dreamy romantic longing for a world that is less cruel and more forgiving.  On Charles and Diana’s failed union, she writes, “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”

And I find myself wondering what Merkin’s life might have been like if she had received more of the nourishment she craved?  Would she have been a writer?  Would she have had an emotional radar as sharp and perceptive as hers is now?  Would she have been happier?  Does her exquisite artistry only come from having experienced such acute pain?  It’s hard to know.  What is clear is that she is one of our best narrative nonfiction writers.  Merkin’s voice is secular and modern and yet filled with some sort of ancient wisdom, and coupled with intellectual and emotional honesty, while maintaining a pureness of heart.  That is no easy feat.

She once wrote this about her mother in her semi-autobiographical novel “Enchantment”: “I want ­­– have always wanted — her to listen to me forever.”  I don’t think her mother could, or did, for reasons that remain mysterious, but we listen and will continue to do so.


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

Book Review: Three different ‘Family’ ways


Word of mouth is the real maker of best sellers in the publishing world, and I can think of few books with quite as much buzz as David Laskin’s remarkable family chronicle, “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking, $32).

Laskin tells a story — or, rather, three stories — that are emblematic of the Jewish experience in the previous century. His book follows three branches of the Cohen family, all born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, as they struggle to survive amid the historic upheavals of the last century. One strand of the family finds its way to America and makes a fortune in the shmatte business; another makes aliyah to Palestine and pioneers the Jewish homeland; the third remains in Russia and suffers the horrors of the Shoah. Many of Laskin’s readers will have the same or similar stories to tell, but it is rare to find a family historian who is able to gather the family lore, sort out fact from fiction, and deliver a story with such color, sweep and impact.

“History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin explains. “Their daring, their drive, their inventiveness, and ambition, and confidence and secret melancholy strike me now like something out of Dos Passos or Isaac Bashevis Singer. They gave me so much, these fierce, passionate immigrants — my life, my freedom and privileges, my education, my identity, my country. The least I can do is give their stories back to them.”

The story begins with Shimon Dov HaKohen, a member of a little dynasty of scribes at work in the shtetl of Volozhin, in what is now Belarus, but “The Family” is quickly caught up in the currents of history. Shimon’s daughter, Itel, started out as a member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund, but ended up in America as one of the owners of the Maidenform bra and girdle company: “The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled upon one of the pure products of America,” Laskin writes, “seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable.”

Itel’s brother, Chaim, by contrast, was an ardent follower of the martyred Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor, and he aspired to join the other young men and women who were pioneering the Jewish homeland in Palestine. “In his dreams, Chaim would take the hero’s place,” Laskin writes. “But first he must learn how to work. Not the degrading Diaspora work of keeping shop, peddling merchandise, brokering, smuggling. Chaim must master the noble labor of the halutz.” He finally reached Palestine in 1924, and he served in the Haganah during the fateful year of 1929, when the simmering tensions between Arabs and Jews boiled over.

“Chaim had been little more than a boy when he arrived in the Kinneret in 1924, a teenager buoyed by boundless hope and idealism,” the author explains. “Idealism alters when it has to bear a sidearm. The tragedy of the twentieth-century Palestine was that farmers like Chaim had to learn to beat their plowshares into swords.”

A precious remnant of the family remained in the Old Country. When Sonya, a cousin to Itel and Chaim, who had made aliyah, returned to visit the family in Raskov in 1938, she saw that they were “frightened and desperate,” but lacked the wherewithal to get out. A relative in America offered to assist them, and “we hope that something will come of out,” as Doba, Sonya’s sister, wrote. “But nothing did come of it,” Laskin writes. “Some link in the chain broke.” Doba and the rest of the family were trapped at ground zero of the Holocaust: “We met some wise people,” Doba wrote, “who are aware that we are sitting on the mouth of a volcano.” 

Inevitably, the saga ends with a measure of joy but also a measure of pain and loss. Laskin mourns those who stayed behind, and he celebrates the fact that 101 of his relatives survive in America and another 32 in Israel. Above all, he urges us to see the workings of history not merely as a list of dates, places and events, great men and great ideas, but as a tapestry whose threads include the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings.

“The pulse of history beats in every family,” he concludes. “All of our lives are engraved with epics of love and death.” But it is also true that few families produce a scribe as gifted as Laskin himself, a storyteller who has given his own family chronicle all of the depth and detail of a great novel while, at the same time, honoring the truth of their lives.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.” 

Michael Berenbaum review: Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’


Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).

The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.

Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.

The book’s thesis is simple; Zionism has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, it has produced a vibrant, vital, innovative, creative imaginative, prosperous, diverse society that is throbbing with life, and yet its successes have come at a tragic cost and Zionism’s future, even after 65 years of Israeli independence, is uncertain — the neighborhood is dangerous in new and perplexing ways. How Israel has managed to resolve its myriad problems in the past is no guarantor of future success.

Zionism has achieved so much, and yet not its stated mission, which is to end Jewish vulnerability, to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, to normalize the Jewish condition. It might not have even achieved independence, as Israel lives  in a globalizing world that is increasingly interdependent.

A word on Shavit’s methodology: He has neither written a history of Israel nor a chronicle of its wars and woes, although those can be found in the book. Instead, he has chosen 16 epochs in Israeli life, beginning with the arrival of his great grandfather in 1897, to portray the struggles of each generation. Four deal with the first 50 years of the Zionist enterprise, the birth of the Zionists’ movement and Zionism’s vision “for a people without a land, a land without a people.” He understands what his great grandfather saw and what he did not see — could not see. He takes his readers into the swamps as they were being drained, into the kibbutz as it was being formed, into the settlement of the land and its cultivation in the orange groves of Rehovot. He explores the creation of the Masada myth and the oath: “Masada shall not fall again.”

Shavit does not give his readers a history of the War of Independence, but chronicles in one chapter the struggle for Lydda 1948, which was first published in the New Yorker. From there, he grapples with the absorption of immigrants and the great project of Dimona, which sought to give Israel the security, the normalcy for which it so longed. He is careful not to arouse the censors’ ire, and tells his readers only the details that have been published in the West. He avoids dealing directly with the epic wars of 1967 and 1973, and with the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but rather with its aftermath of settlement, occupation and peace, and then focuses on contemporary challenges.

In each chapter, Shavit interviews key historical figures. An unidentified engineer describes his role and the role of his colleagues in creating Israel’s nuclear umbrella; Aryeh Deri tells his story of the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin and Amos Oz are interviewed about the peace process. Shavit listens attentively, asks the most poignant of questions, researches comprehensively and reflects deeply. He comes to listen and to probe; he leaves to consider and to absorb, to reflect and to write. He goes to Israel’s bars and discothèques to explore their hedonistic, individualistic culture; he meets with Israeli entrepreneurs and bankers and with those fighting for social justice against the unrestrained free market forces that have magnified class distinctions and shattered the social justice contract of Israel.  He meets with farmers and industrialists, generals and intelligence chieftains.

And he meets with Israeli Arabs to hear their story, to learn of their tragedy.

He sees the paradoxes of contemporary Israel and is willing to confront them: In Shavit’s writing, the commonplace divide between hawk and dove seems shallow. Right and Left are seen as mirror images of one another. Simple formulas: “If only we annexed [or withdrew] from the territories, there would be peace.” Mutual recriminations: “Our dead have died because of their illusions of greater Israel [or that peace was possible].” Jewish extremism and Muslim fanaticism have fed one another, nourished one another and played into the hands of the other. They may even be allied with one another, seeking a confrontation that will result in the other’s demise. Grappling with the 1967 war — a war that is still being waged — will not protect the achievements of 1948, because that war, too, is also ongoing.

Shavit avoids simple characterization: He sees the occupation in all its horror, the expulsion of 1948 in all its indignity, yet he is under no illusions that peace is readily achievable, even with withdrawal even as he understands its urgency all too well. He believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to the Jewish people. And while he cannot accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s sense of himself as the Winston Churchill of 2013, he believes that the Prime Minister understands the threat, even as he may be contributing to it by not acting more robustly on the Palestinian front and further isolating Israel. Shavit understands that the threats of disintegrating states and non-state actors are very different from the armies that attacked, or threatened to attack Israel, in the past. We cannot fight the past wars to win the next.

Shavit is hard on Israel’s political leadership, a leadership unequal to its task, unworthy of the nation’s past. The more I read Shavit, the more I recalled a remark someone made 30 years ago that sadly still rings true: “Only a confirmed anti-Semite would believe that Israel has the political leadership it deserves.”

One can quarrel with Shavit. Was the tragedy of Israel from the inception of the Zionist movement, from Herbert Bentwich, or from his successors?

One can quibble with some of the details of this work. There is no evidence that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to bomb Auschwitz, no matter how many times and to how many prestigious forums the Prime Minister of Israel reiterates the charge; there is direct, documentary evidence that David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency Cabinet he chaired refused to request that Auschwitz be bombed on June 11, 1944, during the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, because they did not know enough of what was happening on the ground in Auschwitz. They still thought it was a labor camp. Israel must grapple with its own history before it charges betrayal by the West.

Yet “My Promised Land” is a work without peer. No single work depicts the complexity, vitality and achievements of Israel society as well. And no other work also depicts Israel’s failings and its challenges so poignantly, so lovingly and so soberly.

Like many Israelis, Shavit has staked his own life and the life on his children on this uncertain outcome. Such is the believer’s faith. His last words are “come what may.” They sound eerily akin to the Biblical Israelites’ response at Sinai,“na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and hear.”

Warsaw’s other uprising


For most Jewish readers, I suspect, the phrase “Warsaw uprising” refers to the stirring last stand of the Jewish ghetto fighters in 1943.  But there was quite another upwelling of armed resistance in Warsaw a year later, and that’s the focus of “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00), an account of the doomed effort at self-liberation launched by the Polish Home Army against the Nazis even as the Red Army sat and watched on the far side of the Vistula.

Richie’s book is only the latest in a small but important trend in publishing that calls our attention to the richness, complexity and tragedy of events on the ground in Poland during the Second World War. Timothy Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “Bloodlands,” is one example, and so is Louise Steinman’s newly-published memoir, “The Crooked Mirror.” All of these books are worthy efforts to rescue one of the most consequential nations in European history from the realm of “Polish jokes” and to open our eyes to its heroic if also tragic saga.

“My Poles will not revolt” is what Hans Frank, the man in charge of occupied Poland, told the Fuehrer when the first reports of skirmishing in Warsaw reached Hitler’s headquarters. He was wrong, as it turned out, but Heinrich Himmler, the architect and operator of Germany’s machinery of terror, looked on the bright side:  “It would give them the excuse to do what they had wanted to do for years — erase Warsaw from the map,” Richie explains.

Richie, who lives and writes in Warsaw, brings a mastery of Polish history and politics to her book, and she allows the reader to see how the Warsaw uprising is linked to the other and more famous events in the history of World War II. Above all, she reveals the crucial motive of the Polish resistance in taking on the Nazis before the Red Army entered Warsaw and installed a Communist regime in place of the Polish government-in-exile that had taken refuge in London during the war.

“They fought in order to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state,” Riche writes. “With the Red Army moving inexorably towards Warsaw, the decision was made to take a stand in the capital city, for the Poles to push the Germans out themselves, and to greet the Soviets as equals. Surely then the rest of the world would heed their call for independence, and put pressure on Stalin.”

Richie’s narrative of these events is rooted in scholarship but expressed with color, clarity and impact. She has an eye for the telling detail: “Despite his vegetarianism,” she pauses to tell us, “Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decide that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans.” The Red Army was assisted in its victorious counter-attacks against the Wehrmacht by the riches of the Lend-lease program: “American Jeeps whizzed around Byelorussia, and Studebaker US6 trucks were used to launch Katusha rockets; at the same time Russian soldiers feasted on Hershey’s chocolate and wieners stamped ‘Oscar Meyer – Chicago.’” At the same, time she paints on a vast canvas that sprawls across 738 pages and depicts events and personalities both great and small.

The dominant note in “Warsaw 1944,” of course, is horror.  The Germans were no kinder or gentler when it came to the Poles than they were with any of the their other victims, and Richie finds herself compelled to describe atrocities that will break the hearts of readers who already know what the Germans were capable of doing in Auschwitz and at Babi Yar.  And the heroic resistance of the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 was no more successful than the efforts of the ghetto-fighters had been in 1943.

“The general mood in the units of my group is pessimistic and bitter because of the lack of weapons for the past eight days,” wrote one despairing Polish fighter. “We fight alone with no help from our quartermaster nor from the Allies.”

The death toll of the battle for Warsaw was modest when compared to the number of Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Some 18,000 soldiers in the Home Army died in battle, and another 150,000 civilians were casualties of the fighting. The political goal, of course, was not achieved, and Poland passed from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination for another half-century. Indeed, the whole episode has been mostly overlooked. “The destruction of Warsaw was one of the great tragedies of the Second World War,” the author insists. “And yet, after 1945, the Polish capital’s terrible ordeal virtually disappeared from history.”  

Richie, to her credit, has restored that ordeal to the place of honor in the pages of history that it richly deserves.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).

Financial planning for a move to Israel


What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”


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

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology


Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed …” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.


Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at ” target=”_blank”>http://wcce.aju.edu/default.aspx?id=10462.



Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund


Everyone is familiar with Adolf Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Few remember that in the mid- to late-1930s the United States experienced a Nazi crusade of its own, one led by Fritz Julius Kuhn (1896-1951), a radical anti-Semite who dreamed of a fascist America led by a Nazi president. Kuhn never realized his dream, but he did develop a national Nazi movement–complete with propaganda wing, youth group, and its own version of the Schutzstaffel (SS)–that inspired a concerted effort (among politicians, law enforcement and media alike) to destroy him and his organization.

But on February 20, 1939–the day Kuhn's German-American Bund (Der Amerikadeutsche Volksbund) held a Nuremberg-style rally at New York's Madison Square Garden–Kuhn and his rabid followers seemed a very real threat to order. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the Garden while Bundesf hrer Kuhn addressed 17,000 enthusiastic supporters–men and women who demonstrated their support by extending their right arms straight out, palms down, in that instantly-recognizable salute, all the while shouting 'Free America! Free America! Free America!' Yet that night would mark the peak of the Bund's reach and influence, as the New York-based group was effectively marginalized later that year when Kuhn was convicted of larceny and forgery and sent to prison at Sing Sing, the state's infamous maximum-security prison.

In the new book 'Swastika Nation' (St. Martin's Press), author Arnie Bernstein deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the German-American Bund, which emerged from the remnants of a group known as the Friends of New Germany. 'Kuhn did a remarkable job of marshaling the movement,' says Bernstein. If Kuhn was running a corporation instead of a Nazi movement he would have been [considered] an astute businessman.'

The Bund maintained a diversified income stream derived from annual dues and various ancillary fees, as well as the mandatory purchase of uniforms, armbands, pins and badges. Uniforms for both the rank-and-file and the group's Ordnungsdienst ('well-dressed bodyguards who undertook their duties with brutal seriousness,' according to Bernstein) had to be purchased from Bund-approved tailors. In fact, the Bund strongly encouraged its membership to spend their hard-earned dollars at Aryan-owned businesses that were a part of the Deutscher Konsum Verband (D.K.V.), or German Business League.

Meanwhile, the organization's publishing arm (the AV Publishing Company, the name derived from the initials of the Bund's German name, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), pushed out books and propaganda materials, and also published a weekly newspaper, The German Wakeup Call and Observer (Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter). Members were obligated to subscribe to the newspaper, and to buy a copy of Hitler's autobiography/manifesto 'Mein Kampf,' among other propaganda materials.

But what really drew the ire of the American public were the Bund's camps and retreats–Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, andCamp Nordland in Andover Township, New Jersey, for example–where thousands of Bund members gathered en masse to picnic and swim. Think summer camp, with a Nazi twist.

The retreats were a key component of the Bund's youth initiative, which was loosely modeled after Germany's Hitler Youth and female counterpart, the League of German Girls. As in Germany, youth group retreats were sexually charged gatherings. 'They encouraged the boys and girls to sleep with each other to produce good Aryan children for the day that they would take over,' notes Bernstein.

Predictably, neighbors didn't take kindly to the idea of Bund members goose-stepping the streets of Yaphank or Andover Township in Nazi-styled uniforms, and the pushback against the camps attracted media coverage coast-to-coast. Syndicated newspaper columnistWalter Winchell painted Kuhn and his followers in a particularly unflattering light, the former taking delight in referring to the Bund leader as Phffftz Kuhn, Fritz Kuhnfucious, or simply Fat Fritz Kuhn. In fact, Winchell became Kuhn's chief antagonist, so much so that The German Wakeup Call and Observer declared Winchell 'Kuhn's worst enemy.' Worse yet, Kuhn promised to 'blacken Walter Winchell's eyes' (promise kept, courtesy of two thugs) and to piss on his grave (promise not kept).

Hitler and the rest of Germany's Nazi leadership didn't think much of Kuhn, either. In the summer of 1936, the Bundesf hrer and his lieutenants visited Germany and, via a mutual connection, managed to gain an audience with the F hrer. 'It was basically one of those grip-and-grin photo ops. Hitler shook Kuhn's hand and said, 'Go over there and continue the fight,'' recalls Bernstein, a statement that Kuhn viewed as an official endorsement. 'Of course, Hitler meant nothing by it,' continues the author. In fact, Hitler was embarrassed by Kuhn, and Nazi officials wanted nothing to do with the German-American Bund, viewing the 'stupid and noisy' group as damaging to the Third Reich's image in America.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., powerful forces began amassing against the Bund. In August 1937 United States Attorney General Homer Cummings launched an FBI probe of Bund camps, and five months later issued his findings in a fourteen-volume report, Nazi Camps in the United States.

But the campaign to bring down Kuhn went into high gear shortly after the Madison Square Garden rally, when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and prosecutor Thomas Dewey seized the Bund's financial records, hoping to put Kuhn away on tax evasion charges. The plan worked: Kuhn was charged with grand larceny and forgery for embezzling from the Bund's bank accounts. After being found guilty he was sent to prison, first to Sing Sing, then to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where he was incarcerated until being paroled on June 18, 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the federal internment camp system for wartime enemy aliens, and was subsequently deported to Germany, where he spent the next several years in and out of prison.

Though the Bund attempted to soldier on under the leadership of Bund F hrer Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, 'the movement flopped around like a fish on a deck for a couple more years,' quips Bernstein. 'Then Pearl Harbor happened and that was that.'

As for Kuhn, his death attracted little notice; the news didn't reach the United States until two years later. 'Hitler's U.S. Bund Chief Fritz Kuhn Died Friendless in Germany,' announced Winchell in his February 6, 1953, column for the Daily Mirror. Kuhn had fallen so far, so fast that the columnist had little to say about the disgraced Bundesf hrer. Winchell's final words about Kuhn and his dream of a Nazi America were: '(End of shrug).'


Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of failuremag.com.

The art of feeling Sholem Aleichem’s unforgettable legacy


Never underestimate the enormous emotional power of a piercing narrative voice, one that can decimate and exhilarate the reader, often simultaneously.  Listen to the eloquence of Israeli author David Grossman recounting his early experiences reading Sholem Aleichem, one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature:

“From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave.  I was eight, and within a few months had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time — the children’s stories, the writing for adults, and the plays.  When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me.  Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu?  Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mender.  Or his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman?  What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different landowner each day of the week?  About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?”

Grossman continues luring us back in time with him:

“I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before.  I read like someone entering a foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land.  In some sense, I felt that I was coming home.  And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way — the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the way of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers.”

If you had never heard of Sholem Aleichem, and did not know that he was born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, where he endured a traumatic childhood and married into fabulous wealth, only to lose it all and then become a phenomenal success as a Yiddish writer after abandoning Russian and Hebrew, you would still be seduced by Grossman’s prose to want to know more.  Grossman’s writing is an intoxicating brew of personal entanglement and fierce intellect feeding upon each other on the written page.  His early exposure to Aleichem’s and the wonderfully complex and flawed characters who littered all of his pages once really existed and were now dead forever; as was the intimacy of the shtetl and their way of life.  Grossman was able to finally realize that the Jews in these stories were actually connected to him, and now they were gone, perhaps explaining his mother’s perennial sadness and now his own.  He writes poignantly of the brutal starkness of this realization:

“It struck me all at once.  Suddenly.  The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people.  They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chaveleh and Lily and Shimek.  On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakarem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me…It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust.  And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.”

Cynthia Ozick is equally compelling on Sholem Aleichem.  She believes he found a way to reveal the Jewish soul with all of its harrowing complexities and contradictions.  She believes Aleichem was able to capture the essence of Jews forced to confront the tumultuous forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that spread through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the 19th century.  She points to Aleichem’s most famous creation, Tevye, as the embodiment of a Jewish man who was intelligent, loving, generous and open, without needing to be overly sentimental or heroic.  Tevye dealt with pogroms, crushing poverty, incessant fear and family troubles by talking intimately to an accessible God, but one whom too often seemed overly distracted.  Tevye, says Ozick, is never optimistic; he is too much at home with the worst that can happen.  But she reminds us that he is not overcome by despair: “He is too much at home with Scripture and with the knowledge of frailty, mutability, mortality.”  Ozick reminds us that this great Yiddish writer spoke Russian to his own children but found the Yiddish language exceptional in its ability to allow him to be simultaneously satirical and cynical and soft-hearted and sad and ironic and irreverent while addressing God in long monologues that eventually were watered down sufficiently for the American stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There isn’t one passage in “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95), Jeremy Dauber’s new biography on Sholem Aleichem, that approaches the personal pathos of Grossman or Ozick.  Dauber’s strengths lay elsewhere. 

Dauber has written a comprehensive account of Aleichem that holds your attention and is meticulously researched, but comes up short.  Dauber, who was educated at Harvard University, and then Oxford, is still a young man; at least a generation younger than Ozick or Grossman, and this perhaps explains the distanced lens with which he seems to view his subject; one feels as if he is watching him from afar instead of standing beside him.  Dauber is a professor of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University and has written elsewhere about his idyllic childhood, his wonderful parents, and his delightful wife and son.  Oddly, his seemingly charmed life does not serve him well here.  When he discusses Jewish history and anti-Semitism and the struggles of Jewish men who were repeatedly victimized and restricted from almost all avenues of advancement, he does so without tapping into the trauma and burden and shame and remorse such struggles wrought.  This is surely a supreme victory for Jews of his generation in America at this time, but it does seem to blur his vision when trying to find Aleichem’s pulse.  Aleichem’s life was not charmed; it was fraught with illness, the loss of a child in his twenties, poverty, virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence, the loss of his mother while still a child, and constant worry about his family’s future as Jews contemplated and disagreed about the various issues of their time.  Was there a place for them in the larger Gentile world?  What would happen to their traditions and religious faith if they traveled too far? 

Aleichem’s father, the merchant Nochem Rabinowvich, was a traditionally observant man but entranced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He allowed his son to attend a secular school in Tsarist Russia, where the young boy fell hopelessly in love with Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  Sholem Aleichem remembered being teased at school because he was Jewish, and although his academic record was stellar, he remembered bitterly years later a certain professor who would often remind him that the “Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.”

Aleichem set out to reinvent Yiddish literature into serious literary art.  He was turned off by the work of Shomer (pen name for Nokhem Meyer Shaykevich), who wrote highly melodramatic tales he felt were low brow, and he felt he could create stories that were more sophisticated and still accessible to the 11 million Yiddish readers in Europe two decades before the Nazi decimation.  Many Jews and Gentiles alike viewed Yiddish as mere gibberish and less than a cultivated language worthy of respect, and he set out to change that perception.  Readers responded with great enthusiasm, and when he traveled to various cities in Europe he met throngs of fans who waited at the railroad stations for him to get a chance to see him and hopefully to hear him read aloud. 

Dauber patiently takes us through the evolution of almost all of Sholem Aleichem’s characters and shows how they were often created in response to what was happening in Aleichem’s life at a particular time.  He introduces us to Motl, the cantor’s son who loves to make mischief and emigrates to America where he is a “happy orphan.”  We meet Menakhem-Mendl, the ever-striving, never succeeding businessman who writes his wife letters of his pursuits and waits for her replies, which are usually admonishments for his foolish ventures.  Like this one: “To my dear, learned, and illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!  First, we’re all well, thank God.  Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows!  You’re throwing away rubles like last week’s noodles, money-schmoney, eh?  I suppose it grows on trees over there…”  We hear echoes in these stories of the struggles Sholem Aleichem faced brought to life in these characters.  Like Motl, Aleichem went to America a “happy orphan’ and struggled in a land where he never really felt at ease.  Like Menakhem-Mendl, he felt the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law when he lost much of their inheritance in the Odessa stock market, forcing them to struggle financially for years.

Dauber expertly traces for us the evolution of the Tevye stories, which began in 1894 and continued over a 20-year period.  He created Tevye the Dairyman based on a man he actually met.  Tevye was a rural Jew hauling logs from the forest and hoping to save up enough money to buy a cow.  In the initial Tevye story, he is described as “a healthy Jew, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair, his age is hard to guess; he wears heavy boots…”   Tevye is a talker and speaks using a unique blend of parable, a bit of Torah, and a mixture of high and low art.  He speaks frequently in long monologues.  Dauber offers an insightful analysis as to why the monologues worked so well for Tevye, claiming “The monologues’ an aggressive genre, in other words: the speaker satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of the listener, who lies helpless beneath the constant, punishing pressure, physical and psychological, of their breathless, unceasing delivery.  Think of the classic stand-up comedy, the monologic art par excellence: I killed ‘em.  Unsurprising, then, that monologue and comedy — with Sholem Aleichem as Exhibit A — have often been claimed as the Jewish counterattack to history’s depredations; This is how Jews fight back, with, you know, a really vicious one-liner.  More vociferous forms of opposition may be impossible, but you can talk at the problem, around it, suffocate it or minimize it or redefine it in a torrent of words.”

But first, Jeremy Dauber, you have to feel it.


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

‘Fiddler’ makes the world richer


On a visit to Budapest earlier this year, my wife and I asked the concierge at our hotel for a restaurant where we could find authentic Hungarian fare.  As we took our seats in the bustling little place he recommended, I was encouraged to see a house band tucked away in the corner, and our meal was accompanied by what I assumed to be traditional Hungarian and Roma tunes.  About halfway through the meal, however, the musicians took a short break and then returned to start their second set with “If I Were a Rich Man.”

How a hit song from a Broadway musical entered the global pop culture is one of the wonder of wonders that is explored and explained with both charm and authority by theater critic, journalist and scholar Alisa Solomon in her wholly winning book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).

Solomon tells the whole story of “Fiddler” from beginning to end, starting with the story by Sholem Aleichem in which Tevye first appeared in 1894, and showing us in suspenseful detail how  “Fiddler on the Roof,” created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), reached the Broadway stage in 1964. In that sense, “Wonder of Wonders” is a rich and lively slice of theater history.

For example, Solomon points out that, even as late as the 1950s, “Broadway’s musical makers, though most were Jewish, were not yet putting overt Jewish characters front and center.” To be sure, Jewish audiences were afforded the opportunity to attend “Yinglish revues,” such as “Bagels and Yox” and “Borschtcapades,” but the Yiddishkayt of a character like Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” was encoded in a single line of the song he sings: “I’m just a no-goodnik. All right already. It’s true. So nu?”

No detail is overlooked. She reveals that the Sholem Aleichem family received a 4.8 percent royalty, but an enterprising producer who had tied up the theatrical rights to the stories demanded a royalty nearly twice as large. “From underwear to overcoats, [costume designer Patricia] Zipprodt used natural fibers that would have been available in 1905 for the 165 costumes she made.  But the makers of the musical were unwilling to make the show too authentic; by choosing the name for the character of Yenta the matchmaker, Solomon points out, “[Joseph] Stein made one of his book’s few concessions to the Yiddish language, which the authors had vowed to avoid.”

Solomon reminds us that “Fiddler” was not universally admired when it opened on Broadway. Irving Howe complained that the producers “discard[ed] the richness of texture that is Sholem Aleichem’s greatest achievement,” and Robert Brustein accused them of “falsifying the world of Sholem Aleichem, not to mention the character of the East European Jew.” But she also insists that director Jerome Robbins deserves to be remembered and praised for “labor[ing] mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber.”

Robbins is also credited for the crucial casting decision that put Zero Mostel into the role of Tevye. “There would have to be some madness in his Method,” as Solomon playfully puts it. Among the actors in contention were Danny Kaye, Rod Steiger, Red Buttons and Eli Wallach. But there was much off-stage drama before Mostel accepted the role. Much of the tension was provoked by the fact that Robbins had named the wife of Jack Gilford — Mostel’s co-star in “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum” — before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. “But it wasn’t just political bad blood that caused Mostel to call Robbins ‘that sonofabitch’ in place of his name,” Solomon explains. “Mostel was an unstoppable force, Robbins an immovable object.”

The author, of course, is fully aware that “Fiddler” is much more than a record-breaking Broadway hit and a celebrated Hollywood movie. She points out how “Fiddler,” like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a “Jewish signifier” for both Jews and non-Jews: “ ‘Now I know I haven’t been the best Jew,’ ” Homer tells a rabbi from whom he is trying to borrow money in an episode of “The Simpsons,” “ ‘but I have rented “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I intend to watch it.’ ” But she also shows how “Fiddler” came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders. 

“[Tevye] belongs nowhere,” Solomon concludes. “Which is to say, everywhere.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.

‘The Friedkin Connection’: Living forward, looking back


In the prologue to his new memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin writes, “Life is lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”

As he looks backward on a career spanning some 50 years, the director perhaps best known for the iconic films “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973), gives the reader a plethora of delicious anecdotes but also conveys a sense of the vicissitudes involved with getting a film made in Hollywood.

“I wanted people to try and understand what my process was,” he explained in a recent interview, “and some of the obstacles I encountered along the way, and where I was successful and unsuccessful in dealing with them. In that way, I thought people might get a deeper understanding of the life of a film director.”

As illustrated in his book, it is a life of constant struggle against people who are trying to interfere with a filmmaker’s vision.

“From all of recorded history,” he observed, “there is the story of a creator whose work is constantly being undermined by a destroyer or a kind of devil. And that’s pretty much how I have viewed a lot of the people I’ve come in contact with making films. I haven’t made that many films, by the way. I think I’ve made less than 20 films in about 50 years of doing it. But, I always come up against the same barriers. There are people who don’t make films, but they’re in charge of the studios where films are made, and you get in their way, as they get in your way.” 

Friedkin didn’t set out to be a film director. He grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, the son of immigrant Jewish parents who fled the pogroms in Ukraine. After graduating high school, he went to work in the mailroom of a local TV station, and eventually progressed to directing live television. He never went to college and credits a writer at the station, Francis Coughlin, with exposing him to the world of books, art and other intellectual pursuits. 

Then, he had a life-changing experience. “It was fate, or God, that led me to see a movie called ‘Citizen Kane,’ and that inspired me to want to make films. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but whatever Orson Welles did to make ‘Citizen Kane,’ that’s what I wanted to do. And then, either fate or God put this story in front of me of the black man who was going to the electric chair in Chicago.”

The man was Paul Crump, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a security guard during an armed robbery. Believing the man to be innocent, Friedkin made the documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” which was instrumental in getting Crump’s sentence commuted to life in prison. (Crump was later paroled.) It also led to Friedkin being signed by the William Morris Agency and being hired by the famed documentary producer David Wolper, who brought the young director to Hollywood.

Friedkin ultimately delved into feature films. His first three efforts were “Good Times,” a musical spoof of various movie genres with Sonny and Cher; “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” an homage to old-time burlesque; and “Boys in the Band,” one of the first films to deal openly with homosexuality, about a birthday party attended by a group of gay friends and one supposedly straight man. The movie was well received by film critics.

Then Friedkin exploded on the scene in 1971 with “The French Connection,” about two New York City cops pursuing drug smugglers who get their product from France. It was second only to “Fiddler on the Roof” in grosses for that year and won five Academy Awards, including best director for Friedkin, who also won the Directors Guild and Golden Globe awards. The film has become legendary for its unique car chase sequence. 

Two years later, Friedkin made what many consider his signature film, “The Exorcist,” which depicts the demonic possession of a young girl. With some exceptions, it garnered rave reviews and has been re-released several times, earning a worldwide gross of more than $400 million.

In his memoir, which he will discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, Friedkin writes of “the roller coaster that is Hollywood, where dizzying heights are followed by gut-wrenching depths.” He chronicles the years following the heady success of “The Exorcist” as a succession of ups and downs, with some of his films being highly praised or finding more favor with age, while others have had disappointing outcomes. But, he stressed, they were the kind of films he would want to see, while the movies with mass appeal are of no interest to him.

“The film that I’m most proud of is this film ‘Sorcerer,’ he stated. “It was one of my least successful. And now, at the recent Venice Film Festival, on my birthday, Aug. 29, they ran a restored version of ‘Sorcerer’ that looks like it was made yesterday, and now it’s coming out again in theaters, in home video, and on television. The film was dead. It’s been raised like Lazarus.” The story concerns four fugitives who accept a job driving nitroglycerin for 200 miles over dangerous territory in South America for an American oil company.

He added, “I’m not interested in superheroes, somebody who puts on a spandex suit and flies around and saves the world. I wouldn’t be interested in either making that kind of film or watching it. … I’m way out of step with public taste, because the public flocks to that kind of film, films about vampires and zombies, and films that are video games.”

But Friedkin, who has lived through heart attacks and major surgeries, continues to make movies, and his latest film, “Killer Joe,” a dark comedy about a young man who is in debt to a drug dealer and who plans to kill his mother for the insurance money, has been welcomed by most film critics. 

Friedkin has also expanded his horizons to direct plays and numerous operas. A few years ago he staged Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson and Delilah” in Tel Aviv. And he starts rehearsals in January for a production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at the Geffen Playhouse.

He confesses to having mellowed with age and with his marriage to Sherry Lansing, a pioneer who, in 1980, became the first woman to head a major movie studio.

As for what he feels it takes to be a successful filmmaker in Hollywood, he cited “ambition, luck and the grace of God. I don’t believe talent figures into that equation at all. Sometimes it does. Sometimes very talented people succeed. Other times, very talented people don’t even get an opportunity. Without ambition or luck and the grace of God, it doesn’t matter how great your talent is.”

William Friedkin will appear on the Park Stage at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, 2 p.m. at West Hollywood Park, 647 N San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 659-5550 or visit westhollywoodbookfair.org.

United and divided: Inside ‘Like Dreamers,’ Yossi Klein Halevi’s extraordinary new book


The stirring scene that opens “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, $35), is a flashback to the night of June 6, 1967, when the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces crossed the no man’s land from West Jerusalem and approached the Old City, a sacred place that had not been under Jewish sovereignty for nearly 2,000 years.

“They changed the history of Israel and the Middle East,” Halevi observes. But Halevi has not written a hagiography of those courageous young men. Some of them were secular kibbutzniks and some were religious Zionists, a fact that strikes Halevi as emblematic of the tensions that have reshaped Israel during the half-century that followed what is now known as the Six-Day War. Their story, he insists, is really about “the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.” In that sense, “Like Dreamers” is as much about the future of Israel as it is about what the author describes as “Israel’s most transcendent moment.”

Halevi is a journalist, memoirist and commentator with a unique perspective on both Jewish history and the destiny of Israel. Born in Brooklyn, he was an early follower of the late Meir Kahane, a member of Kahane’s controversial Jewish Defense League and an activist in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he gradually moved from the far right of political Zionism into Orthodoxy and ultimately emerged as an advocate for rapprochement among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as he advocated in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.”

Today, at 60, Halevi lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His byline is familiar to readers of many publications, among them the New Republic — where he holds the position of contributing editor — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine. He is much sought after as a commentator on the Middle East, and he brings a hard-edged, highly realistic perspective to his work. To his credit, he refuses to mythify or idealize the people whose exploits he is writing about, and yet he is capable of showing how seemingly ordinary men and women are capable of doing great things.

Thus, for example, Halevi is quick to point out that all of the main characters in his book are Ashkenazim — Jews of European ancestry — even though nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population today is of Middle Eastern origin. And he emphasizes that the seven members of the 55th Brigade whom he interviewed over a period of 10 years are markedly unsentimental; he is impressed by their “faith in human initiative and contempt for self-pity,” and “their daunting quest for solutions to unbearable dilemmas that would intimidate others into paralysis.” Above all, their feat of arms in 1967 — which united Jerusalem as an Israeli city, taking what had been ruled by Jordan — can be seen as an augury of the problems Israel still must resolve: “To a large extent,” he writes, “Israel today lives in the partial fulfillment and partial failure of their contradictory dreams.”

Halevi uses the biographies of those seven Israeli soldiers as a device to tell a much larger tale about the influences and pressures that shaped them. Avital Geva, for example, grew up on a kibbutz that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist movement with distinctly Marxist values.  “Avital and his friends had been raised to revere the Soviet Union as the ‘second homeland,’ ” he explains, and he reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned on the front page of the movement’s newspaper. By contrast, Yoel Bin-Nun was a member of a religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva, and when he confided his “deepest longing” to a girl of his acquaintance, it was to see the construction of a third Temple.  “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he answered.

Halevi allows us to see the conflicting Israeli views of the Holocaust barely 20 years after the liberation of the camps. Some native-born Israelis were astounded by and contemptuous of the survivors, whom they called sabon — the word for soap, a reference to the notion that corpses were rendered into soap. Only when Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, met the survivors who had founded Kibbutz Buchenwald did he come to see that they were worthy of his respect: “They’d survived through not passivity but constant alertness,” Achmon came to realize. “Sabon: what jerks we were.” But Halevi reminds us that one of the enduring victories the 55th Brigade achieved was to “[replace] skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.”

The centerpiece of the book, of course, is the operations that took place on the night of June 6-7, 1967, when the 55th Brigade was assigned a mission that had been a failure when it was tried during the War of Independence, in 1948. A tactical map of the battle lines will come as a shock to anyone who has since visited Israel as a tourist and strolled through the streets of Jerusalem where, on that night, the trenches and minefields were laid out. At the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, the fast-changing situation on multiple fronts was under constant scrutiny, but at least one order was clear and unequivocal: “Be prepared to take the Old City,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commander of the central front, told Arik Achmon. “I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.

Exactly here, I think, is where we glimpse the unique importance of the battle for Jerusalem, and the various reasons why it was so consequential. For the battle-hardened officers of the high command, the taking of the Old City was a point of honor as well as a crucial strategic objective. For others, it was a religious undertaking with messianic implications: “Next year in Jerusalem,” sang a group of soldiers, echoing the closing words of the Passover seder. A student watching them provided a new lyric: “Next week in Jerusalem — in Jerusalem rebuilt.” For just about everyone, including the largely secular popular of the Jewish state, the strains of a new hit song called “Jerusalem of Gold” represented “the nation’s suppressed anguish for the Old City of Jerusalem.”

But Halevi presses on in his search for the layering of meanings contained within the taking of the Old City. The tensions within the 55th Brigade are now writ large in Israel — the divisions between the religious and the secular, the settlers and the kibbutzniks, and the arguments over whether and how to change the “facts on the ground” that were first established in 1967. We read of how the veterans of that fateful mission go on to live their lives, to reinvent themselves, to enter and leave relationships, to pursue careers and enterprises in civilian life, to endure illness and confront death, and Halevi shows us how the same urgent issues that stirred in their hearts and minds in the heat of battle remain the same issues that the whole nation confronts today, often with heartbreaking and even fatal consequences.

That’s why “Like Dreamers” is such a rich, complex and eloquent book, both challenging and enlightening, an extraordinary effort on the part of the author to capture a vast historical saga through the lens of the lives of seven flesh-and-blood human beings.  

“In their disappointment, some Jews had forgotten to celebrate, how to be grateful,” Halevi concludes. “It was a recurring Jewish problem, as ancient as the first Exodus.” His achievement in “Like Dreams” is his own ability to celebrate the courage of the men of the 55th Brigade, without for a moment overlooking the perplexing aftermath of their victory on that remarkable day.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Sinai Temple, together with the Jewish Journal, host a discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi on Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 481-3243 or visit 

The Jewish Jane Austen


One of the remarkable things about Ruchama King Feuerman’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (New York Review of Books, $9.99) is the fact it is only available as an ebook in the NYRB Lit series.  Such is the fate of literary fiction nowadays, and it remains to be seen whether authors and publishers will find their readership in the world of digital publishing. 

Feuerman is certainly worthy of attention. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was published in a print-on-paper edition by St. Martin’s Press, and one reviewer hailed her as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new book is more nearly a thriller, although it is, like her earlier work, much concerned with romantic intrigue, too. 

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Feuerman now lives and works in Israel, where her new book is set.  One of the great pleasures of her novel, in fact, is her rich and vivid evocation of contemporary Jerusalem, and especially the people and places in Jerusalem that would not be out of place in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.” Her protagonist is Isaac — “forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side” before he sold his haberdashery, boarded an El Al flight to Israel, and put himself in service to a charismatic rebbe in Jerusalem. 

Isaac soon encounters an Arab man named Mustafa, a trash collector on the Temple Mount who is reduced to his low labor by a physical disfigurement with which he was born. “Satan is inside Mustafa,” his mother observed. “Expect seven misfortunes from a cripple.” And his sister warned him against marriage: “How’ll you kiss your bride?” she taunts, referring to his twisted and frozen neck.

Isaac also befriends a worldly young woman, Tamar, a motorcycle-riding redhead who is seeking advice from the rebbe on how to find a yeshiva boy for a husband. “I wish you a lot of luck finding the best,” says Isaac, though life usually has something else to say.” But, inevitably, Isaac notices that Tamar appears to be interested in him. “A man is a human being, not an angel,” he reflects as he tries to talk himself out of “another entanglement, more trouble.” Says Isaac: “The two of them together, it was like milchigs and fleishigs, meat and dairy; they just didn’t mix.”

Between these three points of contact — Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar — Feuerman tells a tale of human beings who seek to make connections with each other against all odds against and with no inkling of the consequences. From the outset, Feuerman manages to inject a note of tension into her narrative, and it carries us through the suspenseful story that she has chosen to tell.

Along the way, Feuerman displays a sharp eye for the rhythms of real life in Jerusalem. She knows, for example, that the lobby of the King David Hotel is a favorite venue for couples whose first meeting has been arranged by a matchmaker, and that’s where Isaac goes on “blind dates” with “a stream of Rochels and Leahs and Mindys and Yocheveds … a decade and a half of shidduchs.” 

The author is interested in the lives of the religious, both Jewish and Muslim, and when she allows us to glimpse the wider world of contemporary Israel, it is usually through their eyes.  When Isaac rides a bus down Jaffa Road, the passengers fix their eyes on a dark-skinned man with a backpack until he opens it and takes out a volume of Talmud. “Too much bus drama!” Isaac muses. “If only those foolish boys — and of course Peres — hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started.”

Mustafa, as it happens, makes a gift to Isaac that turns out to the fatal link between them.  He finds an interesting object in a pile of rubbish on the Temple Mount — to Mustafa, of course, it is called the Noble Sanctuary — and innocently presents it to Isaac, who brings the object to an Israeli archaeologist. The little red globe of clay turns out to be an artifact that may date from as far back as the First Temple, a rare and even revolutionary archaeological treasure. Mustafa regards the whole notion as blasphemous because he has been taught that the Temple of antiquity was pure myth. “Crazy Jews, he scoffed. Talking, always talking.” But the significance of his gift cannot be overlooked.

Indeed, the artifact turns out to be a crucial but also volatile object, one that is capable of transforming the lives of both Isaac and Mustafa. Here the author shows that she may be the Jewish Jane Austen, but she is also something of a Jewish Graham Greene.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1.

Kafka — demystifying the man behind the “Kafkaesque” mystique


Franz Kafka has entered our language as an adjective — “Kafkaesque” is applied nowadays to almost anything that strikes us as senseless or surreal — but the man himself remains obscure. Saul Friedlander’s short biography in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” (Yale University Press, $25.00), offers an intriguing effort to fill in the blanks of a famous but little-understood author.

Friedländer, of course, is a much-honored historian of the Holocaust, but he is also a man of letters, a native speaker of German — the language in which Kafka wrote — and, significantly, a deeply sensitive and reflective observer of the world in which he lives. (His memoir, “When Memory Comes,” is an account of his own experiences during and after the Holocaust, both courageous and sublime.) Above all, he feels a kinship with Kafka because both of them are products the precarious Jewish community of Prague.

“My family’s world was that of Prague Jews, belonging to a slightly younger cohort than Franz’s generation,” he writes. “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended some fifteen years before….  My mother’s first name was Elli (Gabriele), as was that of Franz’s eldest sister. And, like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps. All of these hidden links, discovered over time, may have added to my predilection for Kafka’s texts, beyond the appeal of their intrinsic greatness.”

As the author of commanding works of history on the Holocaust, Friedländer regards his own book on Kafka as “a small biographical essay,” and he acknowledges that he is approaching his subject as a non-specialist. But his modesty is unnecessary. He has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind.

To various Kafka scholars, Friedländer explains, the enigmatic author “appeared as a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more; in short, he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.” But the flesh-and-blood Kafka, he insists, aspired to none of these roles: “Kafka was no builder of theories, no designers of systems; he followed dreams, created metaphors, and unexpected associations; he told stories; he was a poet.”

Yet Friedländer concedes that Kafka’s work is illuminated by the facts of his life, and the biography serves as a companion and a key to the novels and stories.  After studying Kafka’s letters and journals, as well as his fiction, Friedländer concludes that Kafka’s family conflicts — and especially the lifelong tensions between father and son — prompted the writer to “[take] upon himself the role of toreador in a lifelong corrida, meant as the secret assertion of his own particular self.”

Friedländer is especially interested in how Kafka understood his Jewish origins and identity. His Hebrew name was Anschel; he went through the motions of a bar mitzvah, which his parents referred to as a “confirmation;” he was intrigued with Yiddish theater and Chasidic folklore and once participated in an audience with the Belzec Rebbe. But he felt as estranged from his father’s religion as he did from his father: “What have I in common with Jews?” the young Kafka mused. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe….”

The frail and sickly young Kafka, as Friedländer shows us, was afflicted by a sense of doom that finds expression in all of his writing. For example, Friedländer gives us a close and thoughtful reading of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” pointing out the “wanton sexual violence” that the doctor confronts but fails to prevent, the “shamanistic healing ritual” that unfolds during the “surreal night journey,” and he finds a dire meaning below the surface of Kafka’s narrative: “Uncovering the truth about oneself and about the evil at the core of mankind could have become the first step to redemption; in Kafka’s world, though, truth seems to open the gates of annihilation.”

Friedländer is perfectly willing to venture his own interpretations and explanations, but he quips that “Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka if all signs were easily accessible.”  Kafka himself acknowledged as much in one of the letters that he wrote to one of the women in his life: “You have no idea, Felice, what havoc literature creates in certain heads.” Yet Friedländer has succeeded in ordering the seeming chaos inside Kafka’s head, and his “Kafka,” although modest in length, is rich in meaning.


 Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the Newport Beach Public Library on September 19; at American Jewish University on October 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on November 1.

Power of Yizkor


I suppose that Kol Nidrei is still the best-attended service of the Jewish calendar, but surely the memorial service known as Yizkor is a close second. After all, Yizkor — which means “May God remember…” — is the moment when we are invited to recall in solemn prayer the loved ones who have passed away, a deeply poignant and sometimes painful experience that stands out in sharp relief from the other services during the High Holy Days.

“Memory is dear to the Jews,” explains Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor of “May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism — Yizkor” (Jewish Lights, $24.99). “As Isaac Bashevis Singer is said to have commented (I wish I could remember where), ‘We Jews have many faults, but amnesia is not among them.’ ” 

The origins, meanings and uses of Yizkor are explored in depth and with powerful insight by the contributors to “Yizkor,” whose perspectives variously include biblical scholarship, linguistic study, mystical musing, theological speculation and feminist aspiration. The book is an ambitious and illuminating work of midrash on a single prayer service, and no one who reads this book will experience Yizkor in quite the same way again. Indeed, the book itself will inevitably enrich the experience in shul.

Like so much else in Jewish history, the liturgy of Yizkor originated with a tragedy — the slaughter of Jews by the Crusaders in the Rhineland in 1096 — and was gradually embraced by Jews throughout the Diaspora who suffered their own martyrdoms over the centuries. For that reason, the Yizkor service is a relatively recent addition to Jewish observance, a fact that Hoffman describes as “an anomaly, in that its prayers were matters of custom more than they were of law.” The prayer called El Malei Rachamim (God, full of compassion), for example, was added only in the 17th century, after the massacre of Jews by the Cossacks under the Ukrainian warlord Chmielnicki.

Yizkor exerts a unique power over those who attend the service. “Traditionally speaking, the time taken to recite the prayers in question was not great — not more than 15 minutes, if no sermon was attached,” Hoffman observes. “But the emotional ambience of that quarter of an hour was enormous, especially because of the superstition attached to the occasion.” One measure of that power is found in the tradition that required congregants whose parents were still alive to leave the sanctuary during Yizkor: “It was felt that they might prematurely become orphans so as to have to recite the prayer in earnest next year.”

Along with Hoffman, 30 rabbis, scholars and authors from around the world have contributed essays to the anthology; most of them are scholarly in tone and content, but some of them are also morally challenging. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, reflects on the subversive quality of Yizkor in a provocative essay titled “The Age of Amusement.” 

“American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive,” he writes. “We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distractions, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement.” In such a culture, he proposes, Yizkor can be dangerous to our complacency: “The spirit of Yizkor embarrasses us,” Feinstein explains. “Yizkor reminds us of our finitude — the startling truth that not one of us has an infinite number of tomorrows … it compels our attachment to matters of eternal significance.”

Many of the essays contain more than a little sermonizing, which, after all, is a standard accompaniment to the liturgy during a Yizkor service. Sometimes, however, the moral stance of the sermonizer is disruptive. Author and novelist Catherine Madsen, for example, is courageous enough to confront the question of recalling in prayer a deceased parent who was hurtful, and she cites an addition to the liturgy by Robert Saks, which appears in a new Conservative machzor.

“The parent I remember was not kind to me,” goes the revisionist version according to Saks. “His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.”

Madsen — and, in a larger sense, the book in its entirety — calls us to experience Yizkor in a much more powerful and life-changing way than sitting dutifully in shul and mouthing the words. “People know what they feel about their dead; the liturgist need not supply them with adjectives or attitudes,” she writes bluntly. “The point of Yizkor is to generate an act: to establish a reflex, a neural pathway, from your own loss to someone else’s survival.”

Note to reader: I have had business dealings with the publisher of this book.


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

The mystery of the missing husband


While reviewing “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons (Plume Original), the bestselling author of “The House at Tyneford,” I was also reading Ralph Ellison’s, “The Invisible Man,” and the thought occurred to me that invisibility can take many forms that might have nothing to do with skin color.

Juliet Montague feels invisible in her suburban, conservative Jewish community.   Her husband vanished years ago, leaving her stranded with two children.  She is considered “Aguna,” or more correctly,  “Agunah.”  She is neither a widow nor a divorcée—according to Jewish law only a man has the right to grant a get, a religious divorce, to a woman.  Nevertheless, Juliet is chained to her marriage and forbidden to carry on with the normal activities of a vibrantly young, single woman.

But Juliet refuses to live by the suffocating rules of her society.  On her thirtieth birthday, when Charlie, a wealthy artist, offers to paint her portrait, she decides to spend her hard-earned money on the portrait, rather than on a much-needed refrigerator.   Besotted by Juliet, Charlie wends his way into her life, but Juliet is quick to remind him: “We are not like you….  Don’t be fooled by the electrical kettle …. The modern world hasn’t reached us yet. … You can come and eat strudel and everyone will be terribly kind… but you don’t belong.”  The truth is that Juliet doesn’t belong either, nor does she belong in Charlie’s “white studio,” with its “white walls.”  But that doesn’t stop Charlie from introducing Juliet to his artist friends and to a more exciting life, where laws differ from the ones she is used to.   And it doesn’t stop Juliet, the good Jewish girl, “who had never heard her father swear,” and whose mother is “bewildered by the appeal of excitement,” from being seduced by the rocking, rolling, boozing, drugging, and dangerously exciting art world of 1960s London.    

Charlie, recognizing that Juliet possesses an eye for art, invites her to run a gallery.  So begins Juliet’s effort to be noticed through a series of portraits artists in her circle paint of her.  Still, despite the “many Juliets” that emerge in these portraits, despite the recognition she garners in the art world, and despite finding love, Juliet will not feel noticed until she solves the mystery of her vanished husband.  “My husband never divorced me.”  Juliet ponders.   “So I was never really married at all.  I’m an adulteress.  Well, I don’t really know who I am.”

As she embarks on a quest to find her husband, the reader wonders whether the Juliet, who thinks: “There I am,  … Always about to fall; never falling,” will eventually tumble and fall, once she discovers the surprising mystery of her husband’s disappearance.

The story will especially resonate with many Jewish women who continue to suffer the shame and guilt of being agunot, and who, like Juliet, are left afloat in their quest to grapple with their identity.

‘Resistance’ was not futile


As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”


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

A work unworthy of Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker


What is a reviewer to do when a truly gifted writer writes a genuinely awful book?

I suspect that I was invited to write this review because the editor suspected that I might be open to the author’s experience, moved by the power of her words, and might not dismiss her critique of Israel, her sympathy with the Palestinians and her participation in the Gaza flotilla out of hand. 

Alice Walker is of my generation. I am familiar with her writings and often moved by her passion and the power and majesty of her words. We marched in many of the same marches; we knew in different ways many of the same people. Her mentor at Spelman College in Georgia, Howard Zinn, was later my teacher at Boston University. I marched with Zinn, I demonstrated with him, still I remained far more critical than Walker of his work then as now, but one could not fail to be impressed by his charisma and determination. She writes movingly of my college classmate Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, two Jews and a black, civil rights workers during 1964’s “Freedom Summer.”

So, as I began reading Walker’s “The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wanderings as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way” (The New Press, 2013), I was prepared to be moved and pained, to be made to cringe by Israel’s occupation and the heavy-handedness of some of Israel’s actions.

Instead, I found a work that was uninformed and self-indulgent, where mistakes that could be corrected by a simple click of the mouse and stroke of the key in Google, remained untouched by the author and her editors, where history is unreliable and maps so thoroughly distorted that anyone who knows the Middle East finds them comical.

Examples abound. Permit me a few: Ariel Sharon was not the president of Israel, but its prime minister.

Example: An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the murders at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The actual killing was done by Lebanese Christians who entered the camps and settled old scores. But one couldn’t learn that from Walker’s writings. According to Walker, “He [Sharon] led a massacre of the people.” I celebrate the fact that the Israeli public in response to the lessons of Jewish history and Jewish morality insisted that if a massacre occurred on its watch, it was its responsibility. But there is a world of difference between direct and indirect responsibility for a massacre, as any moralist — including Walker — should well know.

Further, I have no fondness for the Israeli general who only late in life came to understand that Israel could not continue to dominate a Palestinian population that did not want its rule. Sharon used the word occupation [kibbush], much to the chagrin of his former supporters and their fellow travelers in the United States. He withdrew from Gaza, resettling its Jewish inhabitants and abandoning settlements that had been productive and prosperous, able to house Palestinians comfortably, to offer them a livelihood from fertile hothouses that yielded fruits and vegetables. These settlements were burned down by an irate Palestinian population that was more intent on eradicating any remnant of Jewish presence than on bettering its own situation.

Example: A map illustrates the loss of Palestinian land from 1946 to 2000. It neglects to mention that Israel accepted partition in 1937 and 1947. The Arab countries chose to go to war when Israeli statehood was proclaimed in 1948. It omits the fact that it was Jordan that began the assault against Israel in 1967, after repeated requests that it stay out of the war, and that Israel’s conquest of the territories was the result of a defensive war.

Walker’s sentiments, however well-intentioned — and I don’t want to bother challenging her motives — are fundamentally unserious. Walker advocates a one-state solution. Muslims, Jews and Christians living together. Kumbaya.

 Anybody looking at the landscape of the Middle East has to wonder how one-state solutions are working for Shiite and Sunni Muslims, for Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt, for Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, for Alawites and Shiites in Syria.

In fairness to Walker, she is no less foolish here than Jews in Israel and in the United States who advocate a one-state solution, saying that Israel’s security is served by dominating a Palestinian population that does not welcome its rule. At least the president of the Palestinian Authority is clear, even if he is not politically correct, when he says that the Palestinian state to be created on the West Bank will not welcome Jews. 

I hate the wall that was erected to divide Israel and the Palestinian territory, but any serious student of the region must at least mention why it was erected and be cognizant of the fact that it has been effective in preventing killings.

Walker is an advocate of nonviolence. Yet she writes as if Israeli wars against Gaza were unprovoked, as if Israeli citizens were not bombed and innocents not murdered. She also writes as if the leaders of Gaza did not place its military resources within the civilian population hiding behind schoolchildren and sick people, presuming that Israel would be restrained because of its values. The best argument for nonviolence as a Palestinian tactic is to remember the difference between the tactics of Intifada I and of Intifada II and the response of the Israeli public.

Alice Walker has written many serious books worthy of your consideration; “The Cushion in the Road” is, sadly, not one of them. There are also substantive critiques of Israel’s action in Gaza and the West Bank by serious people who feel responsible to understand the complexity of the situation in its historical, moral and political context. This, too, is not one of those.

When an important writer writes a book unworthy of her reputation, one can respond with anger or with sadness. I prefer sadness.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

An accidental theologist tackles Muhammad bio


In 2010, Lesley Hazleton was asked to give a brief talk about the Quran. 

“As far as I was concerned, I was talking to those several hundred people in the hall,” Hazleton said in a recent phone interview. “I certainly had no idea that a nine-minute video about reading the Quran would go viral. … I mean, I’m in my 60s, so the words ‘Lesley’ and ‘viral’ don’t even belong in the same sentence.”

Hazleton said that if you total up all the places where her lecture about the Quran subsequently appeared — TED, YouTube, etc. — it’s gotten about a million hits.

The main reason for the wide dissemination of Hazleton’s lively and informative lecture is that it raised alarm bells: She mentioned that her delving deeply into the Quran was prep work for a book she was working on: a biography of Muhammad. 

That’s right: the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. 

A decade earlier, Hazleton had written a historical exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, based on what life would have been like for a Jewish peasant woman in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, so she’s used to writing about a revered figure who — like Muhammad — has a billion people deeply concerned about the portrayal. 

But nothing prepared her for the barrage of messages she received after it became known that an agnostic Jewish woman was now writing about Muhammad.

“Suddenly, it’s as if there were a million Muslims looking over my shoulder wanting to make sure I got it right,” Hazleton said. 

“Every morning I’d get messages — through e-mail, Facebook, on my blog — and I’d answer back: ‘Thank you for your concern. It will probably not be the biography you want — it will be a historical one, not a devotional one, so all I can do is ask you to trust me to find my own way.’ ”

Writing an accurate, credible biography of Muhammad is a tricky challenge for anyone, but the difficulties are compounded if you’re a woman, Jewish, and have lived in Israel for many years. 

Hazleton is used to taking on tough challenges and facing them with a quick wit and self-deprecating humor: she named her blog — which deals with the interface of religion, society and politics — “The Accidental Theologist.”

In her early 20s, she left her native England and moved to Jerusalem, where she lived for 13 years, studying psychology and later becoming a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine. While living there, she wrote books about Israeli women, about the Negev and the Sinai, and about Jerusalem.  

From 1979 to 1992, she lived in New York and wrote on a variety of subjects, including cars and race-driving, which led to a book with the captivating title “Confessions of a Fast Woman.” Then she moved to Seattle, got her pilot’s license — her “hardest-earned possession” — and has remained there, living on a houseboat.

Psychologist by training, journalist by experience, for more than a decade Hazleton has been writing about figures and events important to the world’s monotheisms.

After her biography of Mary, Hazleton wrote a book about the biblical character Jezebel, digging into the struggle between the “harlot queen” and the prophet Elijah. After that, she delved into the origins of the Shi’a-Sunni split in early Islam.

“The First Muslim” is full of great, accessible stories. And it introduces non-Muslims to an extraordinary life with which they’re probably unfamiliar.

“Here’s a man [Muhammad] who carved a huge profile in history,” Hazleton said, “a man who radically changed his world and, in a sense, is still changing ours — and the question to me was: Who was this person, really? This is what drives me, this intense curiosity, the need to know who was really there.”

Hazleton writes about how, at 40, Muhammad had a revelation on Mount Hira near Mecca. Based on what was revealed to him, he preached monotheism as well as a radical program of social and economic justice.

“It was correctly seen by the powers-that-be in Mecca as a challenge to them,” Hazleton said, “as radical and subversive.” As a result, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca. 

“But it was with that exile,” Hazleton said, “when he was thrown out of Mecca and took refuge 200 miles to the north in Medina and set up this extraordinary idealistic community which included Jewish tribes, that he realizes he’s become a political leader, not just a spiritual leader, not just a preacher. 

“And along with that comes what’s expected of a political governing authority of the time: How do you establish your power? Do we fight? What happens when we fight?”

In her book, Hazleton describes how, in Muhammad’s struggle to gain both political and religious power while in Medina, some Jewish tribes paid the price.

“Muhammad’s relationship with the Jews was extremely fraught,” Hazleton said. “Medina, where Mohammed sought refuge, had been, until a few generations before, largely controlled by Jewish tribes. By the year 600, however, Jewish tribes were the minority and therefore vulnerable. …

“[Muhammad] confronted three Jewish tribes, all relatively powerless. One tribe was exiled from Medina, then a second one [was exiled], and the third was massacred.”

Hazleton said that the massacre was a “ruthless” decision, but — given the time and place in which Muhammad lived and the obstacles he faced — a “pragmatic” and “effective” one. 

“I think it was a way for Muhammad to establish his political authority. I don’t really think it had to do with anti-Jewish animus. … It had to do with the dynamics of power, and it’s the only time something like that happened.”

Hazleton pointed out that two of Muhammad’s wives were Jewish and added that “Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of the Jewish tradition. … Islam was a radical call back to the basic values of the Torah and even talmudic stories. Many people are amazed when they actually do read the Quran that one-third is devoted to reprising biblical stories, that so many prophets of Islam are Hebrew prophets.”

“The First Muslim” is Hazleton’s seventh book about the Middle East, a place she left 34 years ago. Or did she?

“In some ways, I’ve never actually left [the Middle East]. It never lets go of you, not if you’ve spent any time there. By writing about it, I lead a double life: On the one hand, I’m here in 21st century Seattle; on the other, I spend my days in the ancient Middle East.

“This sense of place for me, the Middle East, is very vivid. You’re talking with someone who has an olive tree in her floating garden here in Seattle. The olive tree is my little piece of the Middle East in this misty outpost in the Northwest.”

The importance of ‘Paper’


A profound irony suffuses this book review.  “Paper, An Elegy” by Ian Sansom (William Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.99) is a celebration of the civilizing function of pulped vegetable matter, but you are reading about the book in the paperless environment of the Internet.  And so passes the glory of the world.

Appropriately enough, “Paper” is a superb example of print-on-paper publishing. The book’s paper stock is a pleasure to the touch, its typography is elegant to behold, its illustrations are exquisitely reproduced and displayed, and the words that Sansom has chosen to express are deeply rooted in what the digital natives among us insist on calling the “dead-tree” tradition of world literature.

Yet the book is slightly mis-titled. To be sure, Sansom has written a sentimental history of paper, but he always reminds us of the ways in which we will continue to rely on this ancient and humble material for things both great and small in our world: “Without paper, we are nothing,” he writes, alluding to the fact that our lives begin with birth certificates and continue to accumulate documents of identity until we are awarded a death certificate. “We are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin.  Everything we are is paper: it is the ground of activity, the partner to all our enterprises, the key to our understanding of the past.”

So Sansom is not yet willing to concede that paper is obsolete. “Without paper our lives would be unimaginable,” he insists, although he is referring to objects other than books — after all, where would we be without tea bags and coffee filters, toilet paper and Post-it notes, napkins and emery boards.  “Will there be a continuing role for paper? Short answer: Yes.”

Sansom begins at the beginning with the invention of paper-making, the wedding of paper and printing (“[T]hey’re a couple; it’s a perfect marriage”) and the revolution that the printed book worked in history. “Books produced by this sort of method have been accorded responsibility  by historians for everything from the scientific revolution to the Protestant Reformation, to the collapse of the ancien régime in France, to the rise of capitalism and the fall of communism, and just about everything in between.”

But the author does not neglect the more mundane uses of paper; in fact, his argument for the importance of paper is all the stronger when it comes to functions that digitization will never replace, and toilet paper is only the most obvious. Artists, architects, and activists may resort to computer-assisted media, but he uses the famous image of Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey as an example of the unique and enduring power of paper.

“The Obama poster, initially printed by hand in a small batch by Fairey, and eventually reproduced everywhere on signs, flyers, stickers and badges, has an immediate, low-tech, anachronistic appeal: it suggests the workmanlike pull of ink through a screen with a squeegee, and thus the human scale of the Obama project,” he writes. “Paper, somehow, despite all the odds, remains radical.”

One nagging question is anticipated and answered in detail by the author in a passage that I found utterly (and characteristically) charming.

“In total, this book is made from twenty reams of plain white 80 gsm copier paper, fifteen A4 lined, narrow-feint pads, four Moleskine pocket notebooks, six packs of A5 lined index cards, fifty manila folders (green), and three wrist-thick blocks of Post-it notes (assorted colors),” he discloses. “The finished product is printed on Glatfelter’s Offset 70 lb. B18 Antique form a mill in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania — virgin paper with no added optical brighteners, made by a chlorine-free process and using pulp from woodlands that comply with guidelines set by the Sustainable Forest Initiative.” 

To which he adds a coda. “Too much?” he muses. “Too much. Not enough.”  I take his point — every book, but especially a book as full of delight as “Paper, An Elegy,” is itself a winning argument for the survival of paper.


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

A tale of a Golem, a Jinni, of love and of humanity


Every now and then a reviewer might have the luck of a novel landing on her table that is not only engrossing, imaginative and a pure joy to read, but also well-crafted and intelligent.   This is the case with Hellen Wecker’s debut novel, “The Golem and the Jinni” (Harper\Harper Collins Publishers).

Rotfeld, a Prussian Jew and “an arrogant, feckless sort of man,” approaches the fiendish Yehudah Schaalman, who “liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabalistic arts,” and places an order for a female golem.  The Golem is delivered to Rotfeld with an important piece of paper that holds the two required commands that will bring the Golem to life and destroy her, when her violent nature is provoked.   We are told that, “once a golem develops a taste for destruction, little can stop it save the words that destroy it.”

Rotfeld sails to New York, with his not-yet-brought-to life Golem safe in a nailed crate.  Despite Schaalman’s warning against awakening the Golem on the crowded ship, where it will raise suspicions, Rotfeld does so.  Tragedy strikes when Rotfeld dies before they reach their destination, leaving the Golem lost and aimless without her master.

At the same time, a Jinni, made of fire as all these creatures are, and imprisoned for a thousand years, is accidentally freed from his oil flask, finding himself in Lower Manhattan, in the shop of Arbeely, a Syrian tinsmith.  The Jinni is handsome and elegant, with a flippant arrogance about him that is reminiscent of Anne Rice’s the Vampire Lestat, minus the taste for human blood.  One wonders how long the imposing Jinni, with his face that glows as if behind a lampshade and the ability to melt iron, create metal figurines and light a cigarette with his bare hands, will succeed to keep his nature a secret.  The same is true of the Golem, with her extraordinary height, inhuman strength, and the power to read minds.  Still, it is inevitable that the two must eventually mingle with their neighbors and, soon enough, Arbeely, the tinsmith, and Rabbi Avram Meyer, who finds himself responsible for the Golem, slowly introduce and encourage their charges to step out into the dangerous streets of New York.  

The Golem and the Jinni are different in many ways, yet similar in that they are both outsiders with no need for sleep and ill-prepared for the world in which they have been transplanted.   The two, when they eventually meet, struggle to comprehend the ways of humans with “their constant sense of urgency.”  In the process, they pose all sorts of questions—philosophical, religious, ethical, cultural, and emotional—that will reveal a human world more puzzling than the fantastical worlds the Golem and the Jinni come from.  In one scene, the Jinni declares “that of all the creatures he’d ever encountered, be they made of flesh or fire, none was quite as exasperating as a human.”  And the Golem, as she struggles to understand why it is sometimes more polite to lie rather than state the truth and why it is not proper to take something away from someone and give it to a more needy person, asks: “If the act of love is so dangerous, why do people risk so much for it?”    Quite perceptive, wouldn’t you say?

The relationship between the Golem and the Jinni unfold against the backdrop of a cast of fascinating characters—the gossipy, kind-hearted Maryam, the ice cream man, Mahmud Saleh, whose sight has been tampered with by an evil spirit, Anna, in the bakery where the Golem works, Sophia Winston, whom the Jinni impregnates with his own spark of fire, Mathew, the orphan boy who forges a bond with the Jinni, and Michael Levy, Rabbi Meyer’s nephew, who falls in love with the Golem. 

It is an imaginative coup to bring the Golem and the Jinni together and through their freshly innocent point of view give life to the immigrant Jewish and Syrian communities of New York in 1899, with their all too real human dilemmas.  And against my own better judgment, I began to hope that the Golem and the Jinni, despite their warring natures, would find love and happiness together and settle in this alien, human world.

But Yehuda Schaalman, in search of the “formula for something called the Water of Life,” makes his way to New York and to the Golem he created.  With his spells and incantations, the man for whom “the fires of Gehenna had long been a foregone conclusion,” wreaks havoc on all of their lives and in the process churns up a flood of unexpected events.

It is a mark of Wecker’s deft touch that the meeting of all these characters and the closure of the story does not feel contrived, but rather inevitable in this fantastical story that is rendered with such precise emotional analysis and detailed sense of place that one is readily engaged, involved and invested.

Stern thriller


The legal thriller is a fast track for debut novelists, but Robert Rotstein enters the race at winning speed with “Corrupt Practices” (Seventh Street Books, $15.95).

Rotstein gives us an updated version of Los Angeles that recalls the mean streets of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled mystery fiction. His protagonist, a 37-year-old phobic trial lawyer named Parker Stern, sits in a West Hollywood coffee bar and loses himself in a book about Gladys Towles Root, a celebrity lawyer of an earlier era. The place is his purgatory: “One of the baristas brings me a fresh macchiato, even though I didn’t order one,” Stern tells us. “I really am a fixture in this place.”

Stern is a flawed hero. Ever since his mentor took his own life, Stern has suffered from disabling stage fright that keeps him out of the courtroom where he once shined. “I’ve tried everything — psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, bio-feedback, Valium, Xanax,” he tells the reader. “Nothing works.” But he is challenged to enter the courtroom again when Rich Baxter, a former colleague, is charged with embezzling funds from a client.

The client — and the focus of the mystery plot — is the Church of Sanctified Assembly, a cult that reminds us of any number of eccentric religious communities that have sprung up like mushrooms on the Southern California turf over the years. “Christian fundamentalism meets New Age doctrine,” Stern explains, “the Pentecostals meet Scientology.”

Rotstein is a prominent Southern California entertainment attorney, and his professional experience considerably enriches the mystery story that he tells in “Corrupt Practices.” But he is also — and above all — a gifted storyteller. The narrative is fast-paced, the characters are variously endearing or intriguing and sometimes both, and plenty of secrets and surprises are thrown off like sparks. For fear of spoiling the suspense, I will not disclose them here. Suffice it to say, however, that nothing is exactly what it seems at first, and more than one suicide begins to look like murder.

“[T]he act of suicide is so accessible, because it’s so human,” muses Deanna Poulos, another lawyer who has fallen from grace and now runs the coffee bar where Stern hangs out. “No other species does it. Not really. And there’s a perfect logic to it — what better way to end pain? And it works for the atheists and the true believer.” 

The author even masters the sex scenes, a treacherous exercise for many mystery novelists, although the explicit passages are somewhat softened by Stern’s sentimental side: “We undress and lie on the couch,” he writes of an erotic encounter with Deanna. “I inhale her familiar scent of verbena and coriander, now leavened with the aroma of roasted coffee.” Deana, in return, compliments his sexual prowess in a way that, um, transcends gender orientation.

But Rotstein is also willing to go to the darkest of places. Stern moonlights as a law school instructor, for example, and mentors one of his students — a beautiful young woman with the unlikely name of Lovely Diamond — in the defense of an accused child pornographer. So we find ourselves confronting the worst-case-scenario of a lawyer’s professional life: “No matter how much you believe in the adversary system, there are some cases you refuse to take,” Stern says. “This sleazebag … doesn’t deserve a defense.”

Lovely is full of surprises herself. She may present herself provocatively — “She’ll get a chill dressed like that,” cracks Stern about one of her outfits — but she is also capable of setting a traditional table for Shabbat. “My mother was a challah baker,” she says. “I can never bake it like she did, but I try.” Still, the author offers an ironic joke when Lovely serves the main course: Linguini puttanesca, which means “whore’s pasta.” Later, the joke pays off when Lovely “spends the rest of the evening showing me several ways of an observant Jewish girl to honor the Sabbath.”

“Corrupt Practices” is the ideal summer read — a genuine page-turner by an author who respects himself and his readers enough to enrich his accomplished thriller with a healthy measure of moral quandary, erotic byplay and sly good humor.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright). Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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” (

How you can counter hate on the Web


Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is the Paul Revere of our era, and his latest call to arms is “” target=”_blank”>http://www.lfla.org/event-detail/859/A-Boy-Avenger-a-Nazi-Diplomat-and-a-Murder-in-Paris.

A questionable woman in the synagogue?


Ah!  How authors wax poetic about the allure of a vulnerable woman!  How tempting it is for that mensch in shining armor to whisk that vulnerable waif off her delicate feet and carry her away on his white horse, how tempting to rescue her from unnamed perils, and especially from her own demons.  When that mensch happens to be the just-engaged 28-year-old Adam Newman, who lives in the close-knit Jewish community of Temple Fortune in the suburb of London, where tradition rules and everyone’s nose is in everyone else’s business, that mensch is in deep trouble.

Francesca Segal’s wonderfully nuanced debut novel, “The Innocents” (Hyperion, 289pp), is the winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Awards, the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize.  It was also longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (The Orange Prize).  The novel, we are told, is loosely based on Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.”  But to this reviewer, Segal’s portrait of the social manners of today’s Jewish community in Temple Fortune was so absorbingly familiar that any similarities or differences to Wharton’s aloof New York 19th-century community was soon forgotten and “The Innocents” took off on its own.

Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert have been sweethearts for 12 years, and their  much anticipated wedding date is fast approaching.  The entire community is abuzz with the news and preparing for the big day.  Adam is enamored of Rachel, of her beguiling innocence and her deep respect for the traditions of their community—not a rebellious bone in her body.  The only difference they are having is that Adam wants to move the wedding date closer, even if that means there won’t be enough time to prepare for a lavish party.  But Rachel will not hear of it.  She has to consider the wishes of her mother, Jaffa, and grandmother, Ziva, in addition to an entire community that expects nothing less than a grand affair.  Adam can only insist that much.  He owes much to his future father-in-law, Lawrence.  Not only is he employed as a barrister in Lawrence’s firm, but Lawrence has replaced the father Adam lost in childhood.

The story opens on Yom Kippur in synagogue, the “congregation is fasting until sunset tomorrow night; in the meantime they were meant to be atoning.”  But that becomes increasingly difficult when Rachel’s cousin, Ellie Schneider, who lived in New York for years, appears unexpectedly in the women’s balcony.  The scandalous Ellie is a model who presumably acted in a pornographic movie.  Segal brings Ellie to life with all her charming qualities as well as her faults—the clear inquisitive green eyes, the dark circles around them, the chutzpah to wear revealing clothes and to smoke outside of synagogue on Yom Kippur.  She is tall and frail-looking and free-spirited, a tortured soul in dire need of rescuing.  In short, she is everything Rachel is not.  Adam’s first reaction is that “whatever other rumors might be circulating about her, he did not want the congregation thinking his fiancée’s cousin was a porn star.” 

But it will not take long before Adam finds Elllie’s otherness, her independence, her disregard for tradition and especially her vulnerability, hard to resist.  To Segal’s credit, the drama unfolds slowly, realistically and against the backdrop of fully-developed characters.  Adam’s inner conflict is rendered with wisdom and believable poignancy as he grapples with unfamiliar emotions and struggles to break away from a culture and a love that suddenly feels suffocating.

I sped through the pages and across a richly rendered tapestry of Jewish life to discover where Adam is headed.  In the process, Ellie’s shady past is further revealed, the Gilberts experience a financial crisis,  Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashanah, and “Christmakah party,” come and go, and the wedding date is here.

Is Adam so naïve and unable to weigh the consequences that he might risk all, whisk Ellie off her feet and gallop away to join her tempting world?  Will he conclude that since his father would disapprove of the man he has become, “Now he would make it right only with honesty” and that “he would have to leave Rachel, would have to leave Lawrence, and that he was losing this beautiful, precious family that he and his first love had brought into being and that would be broken by his betrayal.”

What is Judaism in a ‘post-ethnic’ world?


The ongoing public conversation about the future of American Judaism is embodied in a small library of recent books, many of which have been considered here. None of them, however, offers quite the same potent brew of courage, clarity, passion and expertise as Shaul Magid’s “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society” (Indiana University Press, $40), a scholarly but also visionary book about what it means to be a Jew in America today.

Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, received his ordination in Israel, completed his Ph.D. at Brandeis University, and later served as the rabbi of Fire Island Synagogue. Along the way, his religious life ranged from Charedi communities in Brooklyn and Jerusalem to a collective founded by students of the charismatic Chasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, all of which means that he is uniquely positioned to perceive and understand the subtleties and complexities of Jewish history and destiny. He focuses on “Jews who happen to live in America,” which is something quite different from “American Jewry,” and he wonders “how much ‘America’ is in American Judaism” and “[h]ow much ‘Jewishness’ [has] changed in contemporary America.”

The cutting edge of his analytic method is the assumption that we live in a “postethnic” era, that is, a time where ethnicity is no longer “the primary anchor of identity.” For American Jews, according to Magid, “post-Judaism” implies more than assimilation and acculturation; rather, it means that “the age-old strategies Jews deployed to meet the challenges of survival of both Jewishness and Judaism become largely inoperative.” Jewishness and Judaism itself, he argues, “have become liquid categories” and he boldly raises the heart-shaking and mind-bending question of “whether Jewishness can exist beyond Judaism.”

What makes “American Post-Judaism” so compelling is Magid’s insistence on digging deeply into his subject and his candor in revealing and examining what he has found. The “Jewish collective” in America is “in a state of collapse,” he writes, but he insists that we can be hopeful about the process if we are only courageous enough: “The Jewish collective in America will survive; it will just look different than before.”

Familiar aspects of contemporary Jewish life are viewed from a fresh perspective. He cites Chabad (which he spells “Habad”) and the Kabbalah Centre of Rabbi Philip Berg as examples of “contemporary Jewish mysticism in North America,” and he singles out the Jewish Renewal movement founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as the third example, but he singles it out as the only truly American innovation: “a Judaism whose theology and metaphysics are born from America’s intellectual spiritual tradition of pragmatism, democracy, and theological pluralism.” Precisely because Jewish Renewal draws on so many sources, he characterizes as “post-monotheistic — an amalgam of nature religions, Far Eastern non- or polytheism, Transcendentalism, Jungean and neo-Jungean psychology combined with a strong reading of the Jewish mystical spiritualism of Kabbala and Hasidism.”

Magid is equipped to write knowledgeably and critically about the many variants of Jewish theology and practice in America, but he also understands how to hot-wire an abstract idea to an artifact of popular culture. Thus, for example, he reminds us of a quip by Schachter-Shalomi, who characterized “The Jewish Catalog” as “the ‘Mishna’ for Jewish Renewal.” According to Magid, “The Jewish Catalog” — a Jewish version of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” a counterculture classic — is that and much more, “a kind of Mishna or, if you will, template for post-halakhic Judaism.”

Similarly, Magid drills deeply into the publications of ArtScroll, which produces not only a line of elegant prayer books and learned commentaries, but also a series of biographies of Jewish sages and heroes. He sees in these titles an unwritten but also unmistakable agenda: “ArtScroll offered an alternative to the dominance of Jewish nationalism that emerged from the widespread influence of Zionism in postwar America,” he explains. “While ArtScroll generally refrains from entering the web of political controversy … it is a fact that many of the sages seen as the inspiration for this project were outspoken critics of Zionism, even openly anti-Zionists.” When ArtScroll refers to “the Nation of Torah,” Magid argues, the phrase “suggests, as many haredi anti-Zionists did, that Israel is a nation only on the merit of the Torah, thus disqualifying any nationalism not founded on the strict adherence to Torah values and Jewish law.”

The marketplace for religion, rather than the marketplace for books, is what’s really at work here. “ArtScroll and Habad filled the vacuum of an American Jewry ready for a ‘useable nostalgic’ Judaism,” the author writes. Yet, ironically, they were innovators, too. “They falsely believed they were protecting something old when, in fact, they were creating something new.” 

If Jewish Renewal seeks to redefine American Jews, he suggests, so does Chabad, Modern Orthodoxy, the ba’al teshuva movement, and other Jewish institutions that regard themselves as guardians of tradition.

Magid is a kind of Jewish futurist. “The Holocaust and Zionism have arguably been the glue that has kept American Judaism intact since the Second World War,” he sums up. “This will not likely be the case in the next few generations.” The whole point of “American Post-Judaism” is to provide us with charts of the troubled waters ahead: “Historians, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and text scholars should be paying attention to what is already a fascinating, exhilarating, and yes, frightening turn in the history of the Jewish people.” 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).  Kirsch will be featured in conversation with Louise Steinman in the ALOUD public lecture program at the Los Angeles Central Library on Tuesday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information, visit

Memories of Auschwitz, on a return trip


How does any man survive unspeakable trauma?  After 70 years of controlled silence, Otto Dov Kulka, Czech-born Holocaust historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has come forward to show us his roadmap in “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination” (Allen Lane/Penguin: $23.95), an intricate journey of muffled grief and remembering, translated by Ralph Mandel. 

Eighty-year-old Kulka has remained eerily quiet about his childhood experiences in Auschwitz and the loss of his beloved mother.  He speaks now for reasons that remain mysterious.  His utterly original voice is laced with a painful authenticity and has a stuttering eloquence.  He feels no need to claim authority over what has befallen him, but wanders freely between flashbacks of vivid memory and the haze that still surrounds him.  Kulka seems to have been able to create for himself his own private universe for remembering; complete with its own vocabulary and select images.  Auschwitz for him is never Auschwitz, but rather a land he refers to as the “Metropolis of Death.”  He lived there as an 11-year-old boy surrounded by corpses and the terrible stench of death under what he describes as an intoxicatingly beautiful blue Auschwitz sky.  It seems that it might have been Kulka’s ability to store in his fragile young mind images of great beauty alongside utter despair that ultimately saved him from succumbing to complete desolation.

Kulka first began making notes about his feelings back in 1978, during a trip to Poland where he went to attend a professional conference.  Afterward, he set out to visit the Auschwitz site and found his mind saturated with new memories that for decades had lain dormant.  Kulka lived with his mother and 5,000 other Jews in the family camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At first, these Jews thought themselves “lucky” to have secured such accommodations.  They were not tattooed or shaven and allowed to sleep with their families in private quarters, an unheard of situation for prisoners of Auschwitz.  But it was merely a malicious scam conceived by the Nazis to fool the Red Cross inspectors who were coming to investigate.  Shortly after their visit, almost all 5,000 were immediately gassed.  Otto escaped since he was being treated for diphtheria in the camp hospital; it would be the first of his many miraculous escapes.

Kulka found his return to Auschwitz in 1978 unsettling.  He wandered the desolate grounds disturbed by the silence, remembering when it “had been so densely crowded with people, like ants, with armies of slaves, with rows of people making their way along the paths. …”  Now he stood facing concrete pillars with taut steel wires that back then had upon them huge lights that flooded their faces as they entered the camps.”

Many months later, Kulka and his father would leave with others on a death march out of the camp.  He writes: “What I remember from that journey, in fact, I remember everything, but what is dominant, is, as I said, a certain color of snow all around, of a very long convoy, black, moving slowly, and suddenly black stains along the sides of the road: a large black stain and then another large black stain, and another stain…”

Kulka remembered how he attempted to hold on to any lifeline he could find.  There were some who were particularly helpful to him.  He recalls a teacher in the special barracks who continued to teach him and the other children their daily lessons, as if a bright future awaited them.  Looking back, he feels a deep sense of awe for this man’s repeated acts of denial and resistance.  Another young man whom he met in the camp hospital tried to inculcate young Otto with his abundance of knowledge about European culture.  He would teach him about Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Beethoven and then segue to politics attempting to analyze for him the merits and drawbacks of Zionism and communism.  Otto remembers being comforted by these diversions, but they were always short-lived.  He admits that he knew back then that regardless of his fate he would always remain “a prisoner of that Metropolis, of the immutable law which leaves no place for being rescued, for violating this terrible ‘justice’ by which Auschwitz must remain Auschwitz.”

Kulka’s prose seems reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, a writer who seemed to simultaneously live in multiple worlds at once.  Kulka reveals almost nothing to us about his life for the last several decades as a teacher and writer and husband and father.  He does not speak about religious faith.  He states quietly that he knows that there has always existed in him “a dimension of silence, of a choice I made to sever the biographical from the historical past.”  He has chosen not to read any of the major literary works on the Holocaust and has not visited any of the museums and exhibits around the world that commemorate it.  He has used the archives at Yad Vashem for his research, but has never seen the central exhibit or memorial there.  He avoided seeing the film “Shoah” for reasons he cannot express.  He reports being disturbed by hearing other survivors speak, finding their experiences utterly alien to his own.  He finds solace in guarding his own memories, which he describes as “these landscapes, this whole private mythology, this Metropolis, Auschwitz — this Auschwitz that was recorded here, which speaks here from my words, is the only entrance and exit, perhaps, or a closing — the only one that exists for me alone.”

Writer Jay Ladin asked: “Do we, in fact, have words for the Holocaust, or does the Holocaust mark the grim border of language, a boundary of anguish and degradation beyond which, before which, silence is the only possible signifier?”  Kulka seems to have found a way to break through his own self-imposed silence.  His prose carries within it no false sense of triumphalism, or rigid ideology, or heroic bravado.  He refrains from overt declarations of anger or fantasies of revenge.  He mourns quietly just as he has lived. 

This incredibly compelling work echoes the aching sentiment found in the poetry of Tadeusz Rozewicz, who wrote:

“After the end of the world
after death I found myself in the midst of life
Creating myself
Building life
People animals landscapes…
 
people eat to live
I kept saying to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
is greater than the value of all things
which man has created
man is a great treasure
I repeated stubbornly….

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

What it really feels like to be alive today


David Shields, author of the hotly debated “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” has bewitched us once again with his innovative genre-bending meditation “How Literature Saved My Life” (Knopf, $29.95).  Shields remains a mysterious man.  He initially seems to be one part seducer, and another part con man and aging hipster, with just enough earnest integrity and soul searching passion to remind you of the boys we met ages ago in college who couldn’t stop talking about their search for “truth.”  Shields is enthusiastic about writing but bored to tears with the majority of plot-driven contemporary novels that flood the marketplace and feel lifeless.  He particularly dislikes the artificiality he finds littered throughout Jonathan Franzen’s lengthy books and resents the esteemed critic James Wood, whom Shields feels is hopelessly misguided and rigid in his assessment of modern works.

Shields wants to be at the forefront of a new form of literature that more accurately mirrors what it feels like to be alive today, living amidst the continual interruptions and chaos that characterize modern life, particularly in light of the new innovations in social media.  His recent works no longer represent traditional novels in any way.  Instead, he puts forth a collage-like narrative that blends his own autobiographical renderings within the context of a larger conversation that includes heavily referencing other people’s works and ideas.  So his account becomes a dialogue of sorts between himself and others.  He seems able to bounce effortlessly between time and space and memory.  His assortment of remembered moments, intimate confessions, sudden epiphanies, and distant recollections reveal a serious mind always in search of higher ground.

Shields grew up an insecure child beset by stuttering and severe acne.  He is the only son of journalists, and lived his formative years in a secular Jewish home in Northern California.  His mother died of breast cancer while he was a junior at Brown University.  His father lived until 98 but suffered greatly from serious bouts of manic depression and was very rejecting of young David.  He still hurts when remembering his father’s response to his inquiry about what he thought about his writing.  The old man replied, “Too bad you didn’t become a pro tennis player.  You had some talent.”  Although his life has been arduous, one senses a ferocity in Shields to overcome whatever obstacles come before him.

Shields’ quirky riffs impress us with their originality.  For example, he writes about his uncomfortable realization that he shares too much in common with former President George Bush.  Shields writes “It’s hard now to reanimate how viscerally so many people hated Bush just a few years ago, but looking back on him now, I remember him as a homebody, someone who doesn’t like to travel without his pillow, is addicted to eight hours of sleep a night; so am I.  In India, he wasn’t sufficiently curious to go see the Taj Mahal.  I must admit I could imagine doing the same thing.  For his New Year’s resolution nine months after invading Iraq, he said he wanted to eat fewer sweets; he was widely criticized for this, but this was also my New Year’s resolution the same year.  He pretends to love his father, but he hates him.  He pretends to admire his mother, but he reviles her.  Check and check…He just wants to be secure and taken care of and left alone — pretty much my impulses.”  Shields’ cleverness is in showing us how by acutely observing what he dislikes in others he is more able to understand himself.  His personal journey is not linear and insular but part of a larger fabric.

Shields does not shy away from more serious matters.  He reprints for us a note he sent to his only child which reads “Email to my daughter, Natalie, eighteen, insulin-resistant and hypothyroid, who faced weight issues throughout high school: “I felt utterly isolated in high school and college (not part of any social scene), but over time my speech issues receded and I became the immensely social butterfly I am now.”  We feel his pain for his daughter’s sorrow, his hope for her future, and his desire to help her.

But most of the time Shields is struggling with his own demons.  This now ancient hippie is still asking the existential questions he struggled with as a young man wondering “What’s ‘true’?  What’s knowledge?  What’s ‘fact’?  What’s memory?  What’s self?  What’s other?”

Shields believes new forms of writing can help bring forth clarity and revelation.  He admires writers like Milan Kundera, Geoff Dyer, Sarah Manguso, David Markson, and W.G. Sebald whom he believes are following in this path.  He welcomes the rawness and vulnerability of their prose, and their openness to their own confusions.  There are some who may dismiss Shields’ work as merely a mask for narrative impotence, but many more will sense he is on to something.  This self-appointed prophet encourages us to think and read in a different manner that seems impeccably suited to our changing times.


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

‘My Mother’s Wars’: Witness From Afar


I met Lillian Faderman last Saturday when we both appeared on a panel titled “Holocaust Lives” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. To be sure, the Holocaust figures crucially in her new memoir, “My Mother’s Wars” (Beacon Press, $25.95), but her book is more than a testimony of the Holocaust — it is a love story, a family memoir and, above all, an American tale.

“My mother kept no secrets from me about her strange and difficult life before I was born,” explains Faderman, a leading scholar of lesbian history and literature. “But the older I got, the less I understood. … Thirty years after my mother’s death, my young-womanhood long gone, a sadness suddenly came upon me with the thought that though I’d known all her secrets, I hadn’t known her.”

The starting point of Faderman’s search for meaning and memory is her mother’s lifesaving flight, at the age of 17, from Latvia to America, where she hoped to become a dancer. She soon ended up sewing pinafores in a clothing factory on Delancey Street and living with her older sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn. On the day she left Vilna, she vowed to the rest of her family that she would bring them to safety in America, too: “I swear on my life, as soon as I have the money. All of you!” But when she happens to meet a charming young man called Moishe in a park in the Bronx, it turns out to be a fateful encounter.

“In the old country they would have said it was beshert, destined,” observes Faderman. “I’m not sure that I believe in beshert, but I am sure that … this moment, too, led inexorably to what she would pay for to her last rattling breath.”

The saga of Mereleh Luft — who would soon rename herself Mary Lifton — will remind some readers of Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” or Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky.” Indeed, Faderman is a gifted storyteller, and her haunting book carries all the toolmarks of the novel, the sights and sounds and smells that allow the reader to enter the narration in an especially intimate way. But she always reminds us that “My Mother’s Wars” is memoir, not a work of fiction, by heralding each new chapter with a fragment of reportage from the 1930s and 1940s, an era when every private life was impacted, distorted and often ended by the workings of history. “The world was rocking,” she observes, “and would soon tip over.” 

It turns out, in fact, that Mary Lifton is an eyewitness to some of the most momentous events of the era in which she lived. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organizers in the clothing factory where she works, for example, appeal to the cutters and drapers to strike. “I bet that’s why the bosses didn’t want to fix the toilet,” says one of her fellow workers. “[T]hey don’t want the radicals meeting in the ladies room.” For Mary, the risk of losing her job threatens not only her livelihood but also her ability to send money back to the family in Latvia. Yet she acts on principle: “Welcome, Comrade” she says to each one who joins her on the picket line. She is rewarded with a blow to the head from a horse-mounted cop.

“ ‘F—ing kikes!’ he sneers, and again swings his billy club.”

Now and then, Faderman herself enters the story she tells with an aside, often ironic but even more often tender and poignant. She knows, for example, that her mother’s tumultuous love affair will result in the birth of a child, but not in a marriage. “I cheer her on,” writes the author. “Much better, for so simple a soul, to be obsessed by simple slogans than by a lover who’s as cloudy as a muddy river. Much safer, despite even the baton’s blow, to think day and night about unions and comrades and struggles for justice than about a love as insubstantial as the ether: that’s what I’d like to shout to her across the eight decades. But she would hear such selfless nattering like a deaf person hears the shouting of a mute — which is just as well, for if she’d chosen better and safer, how could I come to be?”

From back in Latvia, even more ominous events are reported to Mary in letters from her younger brother, Hirschel. The so-called Perkonkrusts are the Latvian version of the Nazis, and “they look and sound like that lunatic wind-up doll in Germany with the black toothbrush pasted above his lip.” Hirschel envisions a dire future: “You’d have to be a mole not to see where this is going.” For Mary, love and history are enmeshed: “And if things get worse for the Jews in Latvia and the family has to come here and she has a baby and isn’t married.” But it turns out that Mary makes a choice in her love life that closes off what may have been the best chance of escape for her family.

Thus does Faderman allow us to understand the significance of the title she has chosen for her book. Even as her mother yearned to find love in America, she was forced to witness from afar the workings of history that would ultimately extinguish the lives of her cherished family — “she’s standing on a high cliff watching shipwreck victims, those she loves, foundering in the sea far below.” In a strange and shattering way, her struggle for private happiness worked against her family’s struggle for survival, an irony that impressed itself first on Mary Lifton herself, then on her brave and discerning daughter, and now on her daughter’s admiring readers.


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

The comfort of lies


The ups and downs of everyday life, the many dramatic struggles woven into the fabric of life, provide writers—this group of shameless voyeurs and hoarders of stories—with invaluable ideas for our novels.   In “The Comfort of Lies” (Atria Books, 323 pp) Randy Susan Meyers, the bestselling author of “The Murderer’s Daughter,” explores such modern-day themes of love and obsession, motherhood and adoption, trust and infidelity, and above all, the resiliency of the human spirit and the intrinsic need to forgive.

The story is told through four alternating points of view: Tia, a young, impressionable woman, who gave her daughter up for adoption five years ago; Nathan, a married man, who has a short-lived affair with Tia, but turns his back on her and disappears when she becomes pregnant with his child; Juliette, Nathan’s wife, whose life is upended when she learns about Nathan’s affair; and Caroline, the adoptive mother, whose work as a pathologist seems to take precedence over her motherly responsibilities. 

Initially, the women are clueless of each other’s affairs, but soon enough secrets are revealed, emotions prevail, actions are taken, often rash, forcing the women to confront one another.

At stake is the future of Savannah, a five-year-old girl, whose adoptive mother seems ambivalent about her role as a mother until faced with the possibility of losing Savannah.

Meyers delves into the layered facets of motherhood and how children not only shape the fate of their parents, but also manage to sometimes tinker with their emotional balance and sense of judgment.  Tia compiles a scrapbook of Savannah’s mailed photographs, and the reader knows that trouble is not far behind.  No sensible person, with such an explosive secret, is allowed to collect evidence for the world to witness.  But Tia’s obsessive love for Nathan, in addition to her desire to know her daughter, sets her on a reckless path.  So much so that she sends a letter to Nathan that ends in the hands of his wife, causing a whirlwind of events—some expected, others not—and forcing everyone to come face-to-face, unearth secrets, and acknowledge past mistakes.

The strength of the book lies in shedding light on the much-too-common dilemmas of modern times, and its weakness in the fact that few of the characters, while embroiled in their own sense of right and wrong, fail to take the child’s future welfare into account, until too late into the novel.

Meyers has given us a tapestry of family life that begs a universal question: how would we react if we were to find ourselves in the same predicament as any one of these characters?

Yiddish: The enduring language


Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes in the opening pages of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (Wayne State University Press: $34.95), the academic study of Yiddish is a fraught subject precisely because it is loaded with memories of suffering and loss.

“To study Yiddish is, it could be said, never neutral…because languages are by their very nature highly charged phenomena even after the best efforts to purge them of their politics,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains. “Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Yiddish studies, in which the language becomes a proxy for its absent speakers.”

“Choosing Yiddish” is not an exercise in nostalgia or pop culture, and its contributors consciously distance themselves from the “kitchen Yiddish” of family usage. Rather, it is an academic colloquy on how Yiddish is studied in colleges and universities as a living language. “Early in the twenty-first century, Yiddish increasingly functions as an important form and forum of exchange in the marketplace of ideas,” the editors insist, “and the revived study of Yiddish language and culture represents one of the most innovative shifts in the academy today.”

One cannot think about Yiddish, of course, without recalling its murdered readers, writers and speakers. Shiri Goren, for example, contributes a kind of literary eulogy on the life and work of David Vogel, a native Yiddish speaker who made a principled decision to publish only in Hebrew but left behind an unpublished Yiddish manuscript when he was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz — “a testimonial narrative,” writes Goren, “created on the verge of catastrophe.”  For Goren, the choice of language is full of meaning.

“Crucially for a writer whose existence was synonymous with in-betweenness, Yiddish also metaphorically functioned here as a mediator between German and Hebrew,” explains Goren, “serving as a medium that allowed Vogel enough distance for distinct artistic creation.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Yiddish found a foothold in America. “Before World War I, no other city in the world hosted a larger Yiddish-speaking intellectual community than New York,” Tony Michels writes in an essay titled “The Lower East Side Meets Greenwich Village.”  And Jeffrey Shandler, in “Prelude to ‘Yiddish Goes Pop,’” points out that the academic study of Yiddish is now such a sober enterprise that “it is a challenge (but also a delight) for scholars today to engage, sometimes to rediscover, Yiddish as vulgar,” by which he means the “raucous Jewish lore” that can still be found in books ranging from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” to Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch.”

The Yiddish scholars whose work is collected here refused to characterize Yiddish as a dead language, but they are painfully aware that it lives only in the margins of the contemporary Jewish world. “Small pockets exist where Yiddish is still spoken as an everyday language, both in the Haredi/Black Hat Orthodox communities and among a few hundred other Jews dedicated to keeping Yiddish alive,” acknowledges Sarah Bunin Benor. “Yet, for most American Jews, Yiddish is a ‘postvernacular language,’ a source of nostalgia, crystallized in the form of jokes, tshatshkes (keepsakes), refrigerator magnets, and festivals.”

Indeed, one notable and highly significant fact about “Choosing Yiddish” is that not a single word of Yiddish is reproduced in Hebrew characters (as opposed to English transliteration) except in photographic plates.  This is clearly a conscious choice, because it allows non-Yiddish-speakers like me to fully understand the argument that is being conducted among scholars, but it also reminds us that we are locked out of the more intimate conversation that can only be conducted in what was my grandparents’ language, but not my own. Thus are we reminded that one goal of the contributors to “Choosing Yiddish” is to lure non-Yiddish speakers back into the mamaloshen.


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 May under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.