Book Tour Blues


“Never again,” I swear every time I’m on book tour.

I’ll never do this again, I don’t care if I sell one book or 10 million, I’m not getting on another 6 a.m. flight out of an airport that’s been closed for two days due to bad weather and is therefore mobbed now with livid travelers — 10 cities in 12 days; nice hotels, but I can’t sleep at night because the windows are sealed shut (is it to prevent authors whose books have tanked from throwing themselves out?), and I get claustrophobic; friendly escorts, but they feel an obligation to talk to you, and I’m too tired from the flight to make conversation; radio and press interviews that I could have done from home, on the phone and who knows if anyone out there is listening to these shows?; bookstores where I’m alone with a salesclerk, a couple of homeless people and one other person — there’s always one person — who’s been sent by God, I know, or by one of the two or three authors in this country who, on a bad day, might consider me a worthy competitor and pray that my book will fail, to witness my mortification before the salesclerk and the homeless guys.

I’ll never do this again, I swear to myself and my husband and children and to all my students whether they want to hear it or not, and they all nod and say, “yes, of course, of course you won’t, it’s not as if you’ve ever made and broken this promise before….”

I’ll never do this again.

Till I’m three months away from the publication of another novel, and my publisher asks if I’ll agree to appear at the Jewish Book Council’s (JBC) Fourth Annual Live Auction (that’s not the real title for the event, but it really should be) in New York.

The JBC, in case you didn’t know, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of “Jewish interest” literature. It operates through a network of Jewish Federation chapters, Jewish community centers, Jewish book festivals, libraries and synagogues around the country, giving awards and reviewing books in its magazine. It is just about the most organized, well-run machine in the publishing industry today, and it’s one of the most effective, as well. If you’re an author with a book to promote, and the JBC likes you and decides to send you on tour, chances are,you won’t spend too many lonely nights in empty bookstores, in freezing weather, in strange cities, wondering why you didn’t go to law school or get a broker’s license or sell shoes at Neiman Marcus when you still had a chance … anything, really, instead of this.

I’ll never do this again.

Yes, I tell my publisher, I’ll gladly appear before the representatives of the JBC in New York. I’ll be one of a few hundred authors, each given a maximum of two minutes — that’s 120 seconds — in which to introduce his or herself, talk about his or her book and make enough of an impression to be invited to participate in subsequent events. Never mind that this means I’d be committing to going on tour again (that is, if anyone from the JBC wants me after the live auction). Never mind, either, that I have no clue what to say about myself or the book during those fateful 120 seconds. Or that I’ll be doing this the night before the opening of Book Expo America, where hundreds of publishers — Jewish and non-Jewish — will be promoting thousands of upcoming books (I swear, there are more authors in this country than there are readers), all to no avail, really, because every one of those books and authors and publishers has already been eclipsed by two upcoming titles: Harry Potter No. 17, or No. 80, or whatever it is; and the new book by the guy who wrote “The Kite Runner.” The rest of us, ladies and gentlemen, might as well go home.

Yes, I say, I’ll appear before the JBC in New York.

The event unfolds over three consecutive evenings in the main sanctuary of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. I’ve been scheduled to speak during the last half-hour of the last night. I arrive two hours early, as instructed, and check in at the door. I’m handed a badge and led into the sanctuary, where I sit in the front row of the “N through Z” section, directly across from the “Ls” and “Ms” of the “A through M” group. I’m easily one of 100 authors here, and I get the feeling that every one of them is looking at me with a mixture of bitter suspicion and indignant disregard. They’re all thinking what I’m thinking — there are too many of us in this business, and certainly in this room. Mine is the only book anyone should read, and it would be, too — the only book anyone read this year — if not for “Harry Potter,” “The Kite Runner,” and all these other people whose last names are not Nahai.

The moderator explains the rules: Two minutes, she says. Go over the limit, and you’ll be hauled away from the podium in disgrace, never to be invited to speak before the JBC again, or to be sent on tour by the JBC, or to sell another book to a Jewish reader. OK, fine, she doesn’t really say that. But that’s what she means when she says that the two-minute rule is “strictly enforced.” She shows us large yellow signs — “one minute,” “30 seconds,” “10 seconds” — that she’s going to hold up as reminders throughout each presentation, and this makes some authors chuckle nervously, or snort disdainfully, because, of course, we each have so many thousands of hours’ worth of interesting things to say about ourselves and our work — but no one’s about to object. Partly, this is because they don’t want to offend the JBC or be labeled “troublemaker.” Partly, too, we each see the wisdom of keeping everyone else’s presentation short. As for me, I have no trouble settling in for the long evening. I don’t know about the others here, but I’m quite used to this — the two-minutes at the podium, preceded by years of toiling in solitude and hoping for the best, followed by months of waiting and watching and wondering why I didn’t finish law school while other authors, whose last names are not Nahai, are called up to the podium. l

Gina B. Nahai’s new novel “Caspian Rain” will be published this fall. Her column appears on the first Friday of every month. She will write more about the evening at the Jewish Book Council next month.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 19th

Now extended through Sept. 30 is the Marvin Chernoff play, “Chaim’s Love Song.” In it, a 74-year-old Jewish man tells his life stories, tall tales and musings to a young blonde Iowan girl, whom he meets on a Brooklyn park bench.

Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 700-4878. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.historychannel.com.

Monday the 21st

We can’t resist a clever promotion, nor free matzah balls for that matter. Head to Canter’s Deli today to partake in both. In honor of the DVD release of the Passover comedy, “When Do We Eat?” they’ll be setting the Guinness Book record for making the largest matzah ball ever. Moreover, those wishing to view the gargantuan ball may also partake of their own. There will be free matzah ball soup for all, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, and the band Chutzpah will also perform.

10 a.m.-noon. 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.

Tuesday the 22nd

Enjoy live acoustic music by David Shepherd Grossman at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Muddy Moose Bar Tuesday nights. The guitarist plays Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, as well as his own Grossman tunes. Then go for a stroll among the swans.

Tuesdays, 7-10 p.m. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 755-5000.

Wednesday the 23rd

Judging the album by its cover is encouraged at Tobey C. Moss Gallery. “We’ve Got You Covered” is their new exhibition (curated by RockPoP Gallery) of iconic album cover art. More than 40 works by prominent graphic artists and photographers in the music business are on view, including covers created for Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Greenday.

Opening reception is Aug. 19. Through Sept. 7. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523.netflixroadshow@bwr-la.com. 8 p.m. 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. “>www.soundNet.org.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Tonight, West Coast Jewish Theatre launches Clifford Odets’ “Rocket to the Moon” at the Pacific Resident Theatre. Set in the 1930s, the love triangle centers on an unhappily married dentist, the secretary he falls in love with and the older man who has everything but youth on his side. A special fund-raising performance hosted by Monty Hall and honoring Arthur Hiller, Rocky Kalish and Leslie Martinson will be held June 6.

8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.) $20-$23.50. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8392. June 6 Fund raiser, 2:30 p.m. $100. (310) 828-1296.

Sunday

Amid the weekend’s barbecues, take time out this evening
to remember. KCET airs the “National Memorial Day Concert,” hosted by actor and
veteran Ossie Davis. Musical performances will feature bluegrass singer Alison
Krauss, Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas and country star Brad Paisley.
Violinist Joshua Bell and Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will perform
with the National Symphony Orchestra. A documentary about the building of the
new World War II Memorial follows the broadcast. 8 p.m. KCET. “>www.milkenarchive.org

.

Tuesday

Architecturally inspired music is the thematic centerpiece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s and the Getty’s collaborative project, “Building Music.” A two-day symposium on the subject is flanked by individual lectures, as well as a concert series of music informed by the architecture of the Getty and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and older works motivated by architecture of the past. Today, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presents Green Umbrella Concert, featuring four pieces, including Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.”

8 p.m. $15-$40. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

Wednesday

The Los Angeles Conservancy revives Old Hollywood again this year with their “Last Remaining Seats” film series. First in their lineup is the classic cross-dressing comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” screening at the historic Los Angeles Theatre this evening. Barring scheduling conflicts, Tony Curtis will reminisce about the movie and his career with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Makiewicz.

8 p.m. $16-$18. 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 430-4219.

Thursday

Literary flavor of the moment, “The Sleeping Father” by Matthew Sharpe, (please, Dan Brown is so five-minutes-ago) gets the full book tour treatment, stopping in our fair city this evening. The novel people are “very excited” about centers on an American Jewish family in crises: the titular paterfamilias has fallen into a coma after unknowingly mixing two kinds of antidepressants. He awakens to find his daughter considering conversion to Catholicism and suicide alternately, and his son lost in his own way. Book Soup hosts a signing with the author.

7 p.m. 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Friday

P.C. (and worthy) event of the week: “Perspectives 2004”
at the ArcLight runs today through June 6. Subtitled, “When You Look at Me, What
Do You See?” the series presents films that depict the lives of the
developmentally disabled. Among the movies being screened will be Ira Wohl’s
“Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and All of Us Twenty Years Later,” which revisits Philly,
Wohl’s cousin and the subject of his Oscar-winning documentary “Best Boy.”
$10-$15. 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 464-4226. Or, for something on
the spiritual side, attend a new monthly Friday night service led by Rabbi Naomi
Levy. Nashuva, which means “we will return,” combines new Shabbat melodies, a
live band, meditation and joyful singing. 6:45 p.m. Westwood Hills
Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd.

Don’t Judge aBook by Its Cover


The media has been busy for months with “One People, Two
Worlds” (Schocken Books, 2002), the book I co-authored with Ammie
Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after
two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust
has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my
own.

A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now-solo
appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote an article (“Two Authors, One Book Tour,”
Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had
met “thousands of Jews. Precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach —
mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world.”

It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated
well with the people during the first two appearances — in the “State of World
Jewry” forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis —
despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people
approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also
connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the
tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A
great loss.

So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this
opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare
phenomenon?

Ammi offers the answer. “The Jewish world needs you,” he
calls out to the Orthodox, “to bring your love of Torah, discipline,
commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world…. The enemy is not
Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see
ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish
continuity.”

You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful
opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis?
Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It
is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the
Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he
can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.

But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of
perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism,
denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies
the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our
ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so
eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don’t
display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just
different flavors of the liberal stream.

During these last few months, I have met and heard from
numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I
wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society.
Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their
ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their
chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator
and His people is real.

Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a
firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding
any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing
common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our
ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They
placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.

Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of
communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down.
Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider
them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and they have stood guard over the people
to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.

So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered
sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away
and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.

There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox
community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling
that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized
and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it
was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since
I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate,
my participation was considered “individual” rather than “official” contact; I
mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus
circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.

We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit
distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the
Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even
bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror,
painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see
one serious, in-depth review of the book.

The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed
what we already knew — that the distinctions had failed to register with all
those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better.
Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.

What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew.
Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed
ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication
against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.

The members of the council are wise, intelligent, highly
principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their
respects when I was sitting shiva for my father recently. The sages just set
policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened
me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and
respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from
the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary
statement. I have only good things to say about them.

In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but
what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and
pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as
convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and
compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our
expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.

In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not
to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet
Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the afterword. If you need more
guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.

As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the
moderator asked me, “If someone has a choice between watching ‘The Sopranos’
and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?”

Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to
wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do?

So I took a deep breath and said, “He should watch ‘The
Sopranos.'”

There was an audible gasp from the audience.

I was mortified.

Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told
me, “Don’t worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides,
many people will go home wondering, ‘What is so bad about learning Talmud with
a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?'”

Why, indeed.

Article reprinted courtesy The New York Jewish Week. Â


Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J.