Rabbi Naomi Levy. Photo by Jay Lawrence Goldman

Interview with Rabbi Naomi Levy: On hope and holy moments


Rabbi Naomi Levy spoke with Jonathan Kirsch, the book editor of the Journal, about her book “Einstein and the Rabbi.”

Jewish Journal: The title of your book reminds us that Albert Einstein — perhaps the most famous Jewish figure in the modern era — was a scientist who also had a lot to say about God. You share with your readers a letter in which Einstein says that achieving a sense of oneness with the universe is “the one issue of true religion.” What do you understand Einstein to mean by “true religion”?

Naomi Levy: My take — or my midrash, if you will — is that I am reading his words as a reference to a spirituality that encompass all faiths, and all traditions, and all people. “Religion” is our sense of common purpose and common humanity, our ability to rise above all of the differences that we see, a recognition that, really, oneness is all there is. My prayer is that it would be a universal faith that we can all sign on to while keeping our individual traditions and faiths. And I would love to be a rabbi in that faith.

JJ: You write about what you describe as your “homemade” bat mitzvah, which was also your first encounter with the limited role that traditional Judaism affords to women, young and old. You’ve come a long way since then, and yet the Jewish world — and especially the rabbinate in Israel —  can still be an unwelcoming place for a woman rabbi. Do you sometimes feel that Judaism itself is moving in the wrong direction?

NL: Obviously, since my bat mitzvah, many aspects of Judaism are moving in very hopeful directions. In extreme Orthodoxy, they are not. I find it very saddening that American Jewry has more freedom of expression and more freedom to experience different voices of Jewish insight than Jews in Israel do.

JJ: One of the most heartbreaking and yet formative experiences that you describe in your book is the murder of your father by an armed robber when you were a teenager. It seems like America is descending ever deeper into gun violence. Yet you also write: “Yes, I do believe great things are coming, sweet blessings.” What brings you to that belief?

I realized that there may be a lot going wrong in our nation and our world, but there are wonderful people everywhere with good hearts and open arms.

NL: On the day of the solar eclipse, I hopped on my bicycle and rode to the beach. We’d gone to a store to get the special glasses you need, but we didn’t find them, and I thought I wouldn’t see the eclipse after all. But I came upon this lovely group of people who could not have been more welcoming or more loving. We shared stories and emails and cellphones. When I walked away from that experience, I realized that there may be a lot going wrong in our nation and our world, but there are wonderful people everywhere with good hearts and open arms. I really do believe in humanity, I do. We can’t afford to give into despair. We have to be warriors for love, and warriors for hope, and warriors for peace.

JJ: You write with both wit and courage about a dire health crisis of your own and a moment of exaltation that came in answer to prayer. That scene in the hospital is so remarkable that you hasten to explain to your readers: “I am not psychotic … at least I don’t think I am.” Do you find it ironic that we live at a time when a rabbi who personally experiences divine intervention needs to assure her readers that she is not crazy?

NL: You know what? I think if I were Christian, I wouldn’t have to explain it as much, but Jews are more skeptical of things like a calling. Even though the whole concept of a calling is a Jewish concept, and our Christian brothers and sisters got it from us, when would you hear a rabbi saying, “I got the call”? But I did.

JJ: You write, “It’s not uncommon for me to spend the morning offering a blessing at the bedside of someone who is dying, and to then rejoice at a wedding or a baby naming that same afternoon.” But I wonder if it takes a toll on you, physically and spiritually, to be the one we go to at moments of the greatest joy as well as the greatest pain and sorrow.

NL: The toll would be so much greater if I didn’t have love at home. I feel very blessed and loved.  And there is a way in which making the shift from death to life or from life to death gives me a perspective that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Are there times when I feel like I just can’t do this? Yes, there are. Then I rise to the occasion and do it, and those are some of the most precious, powerful and holy moments in my whole life.

What would you do? Operation Jericho


Jonathan Ball Operation JerichoWho is Jonathan Ball?

“He skipped the senior prom for boot camp and took his first plane ride to report in San Diego. The environment was challenging and purposely disorienting, but he loved it. He volunteered for all tasks and immersed himself in the training to gain experience and expertise over eight years of service, four on active duty (non combat) and four in the inactive reserve. At an early age as well as throughout his life, he watched as friends and family succumbed to death, and in training, he learned further how to desensitize. Yet Ball feels blessed he never had to carry the burden of killing someone in the line of duty.”

Read Operation Jericho

VIDEOOn the KTLA 5 News at 3, Marine veteran Jonathan Ball discusses his new novel, Operation Jericho, soon to be made into a film.

Who is a hero?

“Heroes, as seen through the innocent and admiring eyes of a child:
If you boil everything away, all the nonsense, the bureaucracy, the politics, then you are left with the total purpose of Operation: Jericho. Americans, no matter their color or creed, are still Americans. Iman and Hasim, as Arab-Americans, are out of place in and out of uniform. Imagine life as an outsider, always on the edge of trust but never gaining it completely. Imagine living on the cusp of society, in a world of anger and hate and death. Imagine the self-doubt in purpose for any mission and what the ultimate outcome could mean for you on any given day.
I think of that, and the excerpt that stands out for me the most right now (the one where I am the little boy, looking upon the faces of heroes and only seeing them as such- no color, no race, no religion- just American bad a**es going to do American bad a** things.” — Jonathan Ball

An excerpt from Chapter Two:

Exhausted from travel and shrouded in uncomfortable uniforms,
the men ached to get to their destination. Their trek
through terminals and corridors was unabated by the light foot
traffic inside the airport. However, the ends of their toes and the
bottoms of their feet burned at the confines of patent leather footwear.
Hasim was still a little groggy from his nap aboard the plane.
He rubbed at his eyes until he caught sight of a small boy.
The boy was visibly tired and less than thrilled to be in an
airport during hours that would otherwise be deep into his
bedtime. His small left hand clutched tightly to the comforts of his
mother’s right. Hasim smiled at the mother and child as their paths
crossed. The little boy, suddenly excited and apparently raised as a
patriot, rendered a salute to the Marines. Each of the men smiled
back and broke uniform protocol. They returned a playful salute
to the boy, and the child lit up. He was elated to have received the
military courtesy as he yelled, “Mommy, Mommy! Did you see?”
Iman and Hasim forgot about the pains in their feet. They dismissed
the itch of form-fitting collars and heavy ties. They discontinued
their silent complaints against the heavy wool of their uniforms.
Rather, they smiled with the slight bump of charging energy
that the child passed to them. Hasim said, “There’s a future Jarhead
right there.” Each laughed lightly as they arrived at baggage claim.
About Jonathan Michael Ball:
He was born in Dallas, Texas and spent his youth in the balance between a country boy loving the wide open space of a cattle ranch and a city kid finding his way through the roller coaster of fast living.At 17 years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps where he served as an Intelligence Analyst in the 1st Marine Division. He deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment; and his experiences abroad inspire his wide-reaching takes into character development and the realities faced outside of any bubble of comfort.Beyond experiences in the Marine Corps, Jonathan Michael Ball has climbed mountains, scaled cliffs, ascended frozen waterfalls, and explored various wild areas around the world. He is an accomplished professional, a devoted family man, and an observer of the human experience. He sets out in the great exploration of life’s adventures with the earnest effort of learning and driving forward in the knowledge that experience creates a great writer.

‘David and the Philistine Woman’ imagines the man behind the mythical King David


Nothing in the Bible is quite like the life story of King David, as told in the Book of Samuel, for its potent blend of politics and passion. It’s the stuff of both Shakespearean tragedy and tabloid scandal, which is exactly why David has attracted the attention of authors ranging from John Dryden to William Faulkner to Joseph Heller, among many more.

The latest writer to reimagine King David is Paul Boorstin, the Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker whose debut historical novel, “David and the Philistine Woman” (Top Hat Books), is rooted in the biblical text and yet soars into the realm of imagination. Where the Bible is spare and suggestive, Boorstin is ornate and explicit. Indeed, his real accomplishment is to extract David from pious tradition — the “sweet singer of Israel,” God’s “beloved” and anointed king — and present him to us as a flesh-and-blood human being. 

Young David, for example, has long been depicted in religious art with a lyre in his hand, the instrument with which he soothed the rage and lifted the depression of King Saul. Boorstin, however, allows us to enter David’s mind as he plucks the strings of his famous instrument and, in doing so, deftly reminds us of David’s humble origins as a shepherd.

“The taut strands of sheep sinew allowed David to sense what would take place before his eyes could see it or his ears could hear,” the author writes. “Sometimes there was a sweetness in the notes, like turtle-doves at dawn, which filled him with hope. At other times, the notes stung like thorns, announcing that a dust storm was brewing or that a pack of wolves had cornered a ram in a ravine.”

Thus does Boorstin echo biblical words and phrases while evoking the setting in which a real shepherd would have worked. When David comes upon a ewe about to give birth, he wonders: “Had the Almighty sent him a sign at last?” But he quickly breaks off his reverie and sets about the task of easing the delivery. “In that tense moment, David did not pray to the Almighty. There was no time for prayer. It was his way to act quickly and let the work of his hands serve as prayer enough. He hastily wiped the mucous from the lamb’s nostrils with his tunic, to make it easier for the creature to breathe.”

Still, Boorstin recognizes and honors the charisma that the biblical David possesses. He adopts the name given to David’s mother in the Talmud, Nitzevet — she is unnamed in the Bible — and depicts her as a doting Jewish mother who sees greatness in her son: “Moses they respected,” David’s mother is made to say by the author to her son, “but you the people will love.”

Among the wealth of stories that are told about David in the Bible, Boorstin singles out the mythic battle between David and Goliath. As it appears in the Book of Samuel, the incident seems like a fairy tale, but Boorstin boldly introduces new and wholly imaginary characters and exploits to the old Sunday school favorite. For example, he credits Nitzevet for giving young David his first slingshot and teaching him how to use it. “The lyre allows you to feel,” she tells him, “but the sling allows you to act.”

Much of the narrative, in fact, is pure invention. Boorstin imagines a woman named Nara, the daughter of a Philistine ironsmith who secretly initiates her into the skills and rituals of making weapons, a craft that is reserved for men alone. Nara, who is unusually tall, is singled out to marry Goliath, “a fitting match for him in her strength and stature” precisely because she possesses “a body created by the god Dagon to bring forth Goliath’s heirs.” And the author contrives an elaborate conspiracy between David and Nara, each of whom is assigned a crucial role in the life and death of Goliath that appears nowhere in the Bible.

Pious readers of the Bible may object to the liberties Boorstin has taken with the ancient text. But “David and the Philistine Woman,” like other post-biblical works of art and authorship, also can be approached as a kind of midrash, if only because it may send the attentive reader back to the family Bible to find out what actually is written there and what originates only in the author’s imagination. Entirely aside from such hermeneutics, Boorstin deserves praise for writing a novel so full of adventure, intrigue and passion that it stands entirely on its own as a great yarn.


JONATHAN KIRSCH, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel.”

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky’s search for meaning


To be sure, God is a hovering presence throughout the book, but Tobolowsky’s book also is a memoir about his own efforts to find himself — and a measure of fame — in the entertainment industry.  (“The first commandment for any pursuit in the arts is: Keep your day job,” he cautions.) His points of reference are dazzling in their variety, ranging from the Zohar to “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” from the Torah and the Talmud to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Jaws.”

Along the way, he concedes that the earnest seeker can find himself on some strange byways.

“We seek transcendence through sex, drugs, payer, poetry, electric guitars, alcohol, pornography, superheroes, ballet, barbecue, zombies, trampolines, yoga, skydiving, Billie Holiday, Beethoven, Broadway musicals, running through forest fires on your way home from school, all-you-can-eat buffets, Santa Claus, and the lazy man’s form of transcendence, lying,” he writes.

For Tobolowsky, the journey began in his early childhood in Texas, which he recalls in colorful and charming detail. “In our home, we didn’t have Plato or Epicurus,” he writes. We had my mother. She was the spiritual center of our family, our philosopher in chief.”

As he shows us, she challenged her young son’s mind with her provocative adages. “One morning as I watched cartoons, Mom walked past me carrying a load of laundry. She stopped and said, ‘We should all be cats.’ Then she walked on.” For Tobolowsky, the words called him away from the TV set and started him thinking deep thoughts. “She was my Oracle at Delphi.”

But Tobolowsky also was compelled to confront the hard realities that he experienced as he grew up. A childhood friend was kidnapped and murdered; he experienced the tumult and heartbreak of the Kennedy assassination in the place where it happened; he heard from a teacher about how the man’s sister called on her 40th birthday and committed suicide while he was on the phone with her. He quickly learned that scary things were not confined to the pages of books or the movie screen. “All dreams end up with a silent partner, the real world,” he writes.

Tobolowsky describes his dues-paying years in Los Angeles in the mid-’70s. His girlfriend, who worked in a dog food plant by day and wrote at night, was Beth Henley, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. As her own career soared on the wings of “Crimes of the Heart,” Tobolowsky recalls, she was able to afford a house in the Hollywood Hills and a large staff. “I once joked that I had been demoted from sweetie to yard boy,” he writes.

His social encounters often were drug-enhanced, but he discovered that “cocaine was a substitute for having something worthwhile to say.” And the heights that he sought to ascend began to strike him as not only pointless but dangerous: “We were all lemmings looking for higher cliffs to jump off.”

What he really was seeking, Tobolowsky eventually discovered, was redemption — and not the kind that one achieves with green stamps, as he points out, jokingly. He found it at a little shul in the San Fernando Valley called Beth Meier, where his return to Jewish observance began in earnest. He is still on that path: “Language-wise I am still somewhere in the subbasement of the Tower of Babel,” he writes of his command of Hebrew. “At the rate I’m learning, I will be able to read fluently around the time our sun explodes.”

As he recounts in the book, when asked by an interviewer to describe his Jewishness, he says: “Judaism is not something I do. It is something I am.”

As I read “My Adventures With God,” I recalled a role that Tobolowsky played on “Seinfeld” — a holistic healer who tells Jerry: “You’re eating too much dairy.” It’s a sharp-edged parody of the religious improvisation that Tobolowsky encountered when he came to California in search of an acting career. I realize now that it was a role he was born to play, and his book will explain exactly why.

Author Ariel Levy. Photo by David Klagsbrun

Ariel Levy’s “Rules” addresses motherhood, feminism and guilt


When The New Yorker writer Ariel Levy was 38 years old and five months pregnant in late 2012, she boarded a flight to Mongolia. The journalist had accepted an assignment to report on that country’s mining business and “wanted one last brush with freedom” before becoming a mother, she explains in her new memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply.”

But on her second day in that country, Levy found herself in agony, squatting on the floor of her hotel bathroom after suffering a placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. “And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive,” she writes.

Her 19-week-old son was “as pretty as a seashell,” but he lived for only about 10 minutes. Levy took a photograph of him to remind herself that he had ever existed.

Back in New York, her grief was so intense that, at times, she would clutch at a kitchen counter or a subway pole to keep from collapsing. Her guilt back then was profound, even though doctors had told her that air travel was safe for pregnant women up until the third trimester, and that the miscarriage was inevitable and could have occurred anywhere. “I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me,” she writes.

In the aftermath, Levy’s wife, Lucy (a pseudonym the author uses to refer to her in the book), continued her own downward spiral into alcoholism — something she had been battling even before the miscarriage — and their marriage soon was over. “In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse and my house,” Levy writes.

She will discuss “The Rules Do Not Apply” on May 13 at Book Soup, and with author Maggie Nelson (“The Argonauts”) on Mother’s Day, May 14, at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Levy first wrote about her experience in her award-winning essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2013. She expanded on the story to pen her memoir, which came out in March.

“I realized that I wasn’t done,” she said in a telephone interview from her one-bedroom walk-up apartment in Manhattan. “I had more to say … about being a woman … my initial ambivalence about motherhood, about my wanderlust, about the meaning of marriage [and] the fundamental human conflict between the desire for adventure and novelty and stimulation on the one hand and intimacy and home and safety on the other.

“And also the maturation process by which a person realizes that everyone doesn’t get everything, and you will bump up against limits. … The book is really a coming-of-age story about figuring out what the limits of life are.”

For Levy, those limits include the fact that she has not been able to bear children, even though she tried to get pregnant via fertility treatments for two years in the aftermath of her miscarriage.

The prospect of not becoming a mother is “hugely painful,” she said. “It’s been the great sadness of my life. But it’s also the case that I get a lot of other things. … Anyone can spend his or her life thinking about what he or she doesn’t have, but that’s not how I want to live.”

Levy, now 42, grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Larchmont, N.Y., where her mother attended feminist consciousness-raising groups and her father worked for liberal organizations, including the National Organization for Women and Peace Now.

As a girl, she was often told she was “too loud, too much. … My notebooks were the only place I could ‘talk’ as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted,” she told the Journal. “That’s part of what drew me to writing — communicating exactly what I thought with no limits.”

A career in journalism enabled Levy not only to write for a living, but also provided a means for her to travel the world and experience the adventures she craved. In 2005, she published her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” As a staff writer for The New Yorker several years later, she journeyed to Africa to write about a controversial champion female runner, and in 2010 met conservative politician Mike Huckabee at the Western Wall in Jerusalem while he was leading a tour group of evangelical Christians to Israel. She also wrote about lesbian separatists, gender and race, among other subjects.

Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” essay and her memoir have resonated with other women who also have lost a baby, she said. “I’ve yet to speak to a woman who hasn’t felt horribly self-recriminating after a miscarriage,” Levy explained. “The hormonal letdown is oceanic, but normally if you’re lucky, you have that letdown and you also have a baby.”

Delivering her child on that hotel bathroom floor “did feel like an Old Testament world of barbaric suffering,” she said. “It also felt biblical in the sense that I cannot overstate the volume of blood that was part of this experience — giving birth to a baby and watching him die.”

Although “The Rules Do Not Apply” has received many laudatory reviews, Charlotte Shane, writing in the New Republic, critiqued the book in a piece titled “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement.” In the article, Shane takes to task Levy’s statement that “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism … a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us.” Shane wrote, “The conviction she’s describing actually belongs as much, if not more, to whiteness than to mainstream feminism — which is also called ‘white feminism’ for this very reason. It’s unlikely many Black women or Arab women or undocumented women would presume a similar degree of permission and mobility, regardless of their exposure to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.”

In response, Levy said, “Essentially, what [Shane is] critiquing isn’t the book; it’s the system in which privileged white women’s experience takes up more space in the public discourse than underprivileged women of color. … But if you really look at it, the problem isn’t with the book, but with culture at large. If I hadn’t published my book, it’s not like that would change society such that suddenly everything would be egalitarian.”

Levy added that she has “spent 20 years writing about unconventional women, so the idea that silencing me is what needs to happen is … just silly.”

At the end of her memoir, Levy writes of her budding friendship with Dr. John Gasson, the South African physician who treated her after her miscarriage. But she does not reveal that their friendship eventually blossomed into romance and an engagement to be married. The couple “may very well still consider” adoption, Levy wrote in an email to the Journal.

Writing about her new relationship in the memoir would have “actually been misleading to the reader, because it would imply that I fell in love with a man who sort of solved everything; like he saved me,” she said. “And that wasn’t really what happened. Falling in love with him didn’t take away my grief about my son … [or] at the dissolution of my last marriage. I really felt like falling in love with him was the beginning of the next story in my life, not the end of this one.”

For more information about Levy’s Book Soup event, visit http://www.booksoup.com/event/ariellevy-discusses-and-signs-rules-do-not-apply-memoir.  For reservations and information about her Skirball appearance, visit http://www.skirball.org/programs/words-and-ideas/ariel-levy-rules-do-not-apply.

‘No Country’: A view of Israel many won’t cheer


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Larry Derfner is one of us.

He grew up in Los Angeles and started his career at City News Service, a fixture of L.A. journalism. A former contributing columnist to the Journal, he still contributes to a long list of distinguished American publications, ranging from Tablet to U.S. News & World Report.

Nowadays, however, he lives in Israel, where he serves on the editorial staff of Haaretz, and his home is in the “model city” of Modi’in. The story of what he found there — a story with deep resonance for many American Jews — is told in “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (Just World Books), a searing memoir and a challenging critique of Israel by a disaffected American Jew who is no longer at home in his new homeland.

Modi’in stands on the near side of the boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and when Derfner moved there in 1995, the development was meant to “show that while the previous Likud government had put its energy into building West Bank settlements, the Rabin government would forget about settlements and build on the Israeli side of the old pre-1967 Six-Day War border.”

Derfner, whose identities as a Jew and a liberal “meshed very smoothly,” embraced the “now-embarrassing, nostalgic, socialist idea that Modi’in would be the modern-day Israeli version of my Aunt Rose’s apartment complex in the Bronx that we used to visit in the ’50s: a humble community where Jewish working people gather in the evenings on the benches on the big lawn to kibitz.” What mattered just as much to Derfner and his young family was the fact that “the apartments would be big by Israeli standards and relatively cheap.”

“That was then,” Derfner writes. What matters now, as we discover in Derfner’s urgent, often witty and deeply unsettling book, is the hardening of Israeli politics that has reached even Modi’in.

“The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most modern Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government,” he writes. “The people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli ‘security hawk’ consensus.” To make the point, he quotes Gideon Levy, one of his colleagues at Haaretz: “It used to be that if you asked two Jews a question, you’d get three opinions. Now you only get one.”

Derfner thinks Israelis are nicer than they used to be — he attributes the softening of the Israeli character to “the advent of prosperity, consumerism, careerism, foreign travel, even air conditioning” — but he also insists that nationalism and patriotism, rather than the moral burden of serving as a light unto the nations, are now the core values of the Jewish state.

“The mindset here is very much like that in red-state America,” he writes. “I think of Israel as a small, Hebrew-speaking Texas, with Tel Aviv the country’s answer to Austin.”

Unlike the rest of the world, American Jews included, the Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the Palestinians, or so Derfner argues. “Israelis don’t believe in a solution; they think that trying to solve things will only make them worse, like it did before, and get a lot of them killed,” he explains. “The army has the Palestinians under control — why tamper with the way things are?”

All of these developments are deeply alienating to Derfner, who points out that ignoring a problem is not equivalent to solving a problem. “Fear and aggression, this has become the Israeli way,” he writes.

He deplores the treatment of Palestinians, African refugees and the Arab citizens of Israel, and he unapologetically declares that “Israel and I have gone in opposite directions.” He writes that he loves Israel “as much as I’m capable of loving a country,” but goes on to say that “it has done awesome damage to the Jewish soul and Jewish conscience.” Indeed, he is even willing to argue that “Palestinian terrorism, for all its hellishness and its innocent victims, amounts to self-defense,” an assertion that would be fighting words if uttered in certain places here and in Israel.

Like many American Jews who make aliyah, Derfner bumped into the sharper edges of the Jewish homeland, where the sacred mission of Zionism — the creation of a place where Jews can seek refuge without passports or visas — has been tragically compromised by those who are empowered by the state to decide who is a Jew. “My wedding was a glorious day, but, unlike my kids’ bar mitzvahs, it did not fill me with gratitude to Israel: Philippa and I got married in South Africa after I repeatedly failed to meet the medieval Israeli rabbinical establishment’s standard of proof of being Jewish,” he writes.

As I read Derfner’s troubling account of his experiences in Israel, I was fully aware of how his book will be received by a great many readers who are not prepared to hear, for example, that he does not blame the Palestinians for cheering the Scud missiles that Iraq launched against Israel, because “when you treat people like inferior beings, they’re going to want revenge, and we’d been treating the Palestinians like inferior beings for a very long time.”

But I could not forget that Derfner voted for Israel with his feet when he made aliyah. He pays his taxes in Israel, he served in the Israel Defense Forces, and so have his children. He has mastered the details and nuances of Israeli history and politics, both as a journalist and as an eyewitness to the most consequential events and personalities of the past several decades.

“Writing this is not treason,” Derfner insists. “It is an attempt at patriotism.”

For that reason alone, when Derfner speaks about Israel, I feel obliged to listen.

Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Adding a healthy helping of humor to the haggadah


For anyone weary of the traditional retelling of the Exodus story during the Passover seder — sometimes filled with as much talk of the suffering Israelites as actual suffering by bored participants — a newly released haggadah written by three legends of laughter aims to inject some comic relief.

“For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them,” by Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach, is a humorous answer to Maxwell House’s classic haggadah, filled with irreverent twists on the Passover story, fart jokes and plenty of “Godfather” references.

“[The traditional Exodus story] is a lot of death and plagues. You’re wandering in a desert for what, literally, should take 11 days and it took them 40 years. … You’re incessantly washing your hands during the seder. You’re drinking enough wine or Manischewitz, whatever that is,” Zweibel told the Journal. “We just figured there’s enough there to make fun of and to tell a different version of the story. … It just seemed like it was virgin territory.”

An original “Saturday Night Live” writer with numerous Emmy and Writers Guild of America awards to his name, Zweibel, 66, said he, Barry and Mansbach came up with the idea to write the book in response to their shared frustration with traditional haggadot. Barry, a Pullitzer Prize-winning humor writer, and Mansbach, author of The New York Times best-seller “Go the F— to Sleep,” met through Zweibel, who had worked with each of them on past projects.

Although Barry isn’t Jewish, his wife, Michelle Kaufman, is and he’s quite familiar with Passover traditions, Zweibel said.

“We all felt the same way about seders — they’re interminable. You sit down with every good intention and the kids are there and the grandma and grandpa are there, and it just takes forever until you eat,” Zweibel said. “We knew there were enough people out there, enough Jews out there, who felt similarly. We also felt that, look, for 5,000 years, Jews have been hearing one version of this story. It’s about time they heard ours.”

As expected, the writers’ version dives into silliness right from the get-go. The reader is told the haggadah was named for a former Hebrew slave who drowned when the Red Sea’s walls collapsed on him after he went to retrieve a lost sandal. A list of the Ten Plagues includes Jerry Lewis and “constipation like you would not believe.” We’re told the three prayers uttered while lighting the candles are to commemorate the number of situps Moses did before the slaves escaped (he would have done more, but he was in a hurry).

The hardships of desert life are said to explain the frequent hand washing during the seder.

“After forty years under the scorching desert sun, the Israelites were totally disoriented,” the authors write. “Whenever they asked Moses, ‘Have we washed our hands?’ he invariably replied, ‘I don’t remember. Let’s wash them again, just to be on the safe side.’ ”

It’s the kind of haggadah that might have enlivened Zweibel’s seder meals as a kid. He grew up in a Conservative Jewish household on Long Island, N.Y., and his parents followed the Maxwell House haggadah. He said he always enjoyed the food part of the seder, but it never happened soon enough.

“You look forward to seeing your cousins. You look forward to eating, but you don’t get to eat for a long, long time because the old people there make you say every … word,” he said.

Today, Zweibel, who lives in New Jersey, said he still celebrates the seder annually with his three children, five grandchildren and extended family. He said he’s not sure which haggadah he’ll be using this year, since he will be a guest at another family member’s house.

Despite the book’s irreverence, Zweibel insisted the authors aren’t trying to poke fun at the rituals of the seder, just inject some lighthearted humor.

“We just want people to have a good time,” he said.  “Yeah, it’s a different kind of haggadah. Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it gives different explanations from the ones you’re used to, there are different discussion questions. … But it’s done with affection, and I think it can be something that’s unifying. That’s the intent here.”

"On Tyranny" author Timothy Snyder. Photo from Wikipedia

‘Tyranny’ historian warns Americans: Don’t forget lessons learned


Yale historian Timothy Snyder has spent the better part of his career studying 20th- century authoritarian regimes, from fascist Germany to the communist Soviet Union. Educated at Oxford, Snyder has written extensively about the rise and fall of modern political systems and the catastrophes that ensue when civil society breaks down.

His latest work, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” is addressed to Americans who are disturbed by the radical new politics introduced into American democracy by the Trump administration. It is both a warning and how-to manual, urging citizens who cherish American democracy to defend democratic institutions and their own independent minds.

Snyder will appear in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills through Writers Bloc.

DANIELLE BERRIN: At what point did you start to consider the threat of tyranny — a serious charge — a legitimate critique of the current administration?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I’m trying to adopt the perspective of the Founding Fathers, [who thought] that we need to be very thoughtful about [democratic] institutions, because if you’re not thoughtful about the institutions, the system can fall apart at any time. What I’m trying to do is look back at recent examples of modern tyranny — Nazi Germany, fascism, communist regimes — to see how democratic republics tend to break down. I have to point out, if the book seems relevant now, I wrote the “Twenty Lessons” in November, and had [finished] the book by Christmas. So I couldn’t even judge the present administration. What I was judging were the tendencies of a [president-elect] who seemed to be entirely indifferent to the foundations of our political system.

DB: What did you find most alarming about him?

TS: In Donald Trump’s campaign, there was an absence of support for democracy and an absence of support for human rights. He never talked about those things, whereas other American politicians do. The second thing that concerned me was the Russia connection; I don’t think American politicians should be seeing foreign tyrants as models of leadership. The third thing was the war on truth — not just lying at the margins the way all politicians lie — but the broad-gauge full-on attack on the truth. [Trump] was using language to build up a kind of counter-world, an alternative reality, a myth in which his supporters could live … that’s fascist.

DB: In the book, it’s clear you’re trying to address a wide audience — both left and right. But do you really think the same people reading Breitbart are going to read a work of scholarship?

TS: Look, this book is written from the position of an American citizen who thinks that the American republic is in danger. And the various kinds of moral and intellectual commitments I have don’t line up perfectly with one party or the other. In a lot of ways, I’m sympathetic to conservatism — when it’s actually conservative.

DB: You talk a lot in the book about truth and lies. How do you combat propaganda when truth itself has been politicized?

TS: Without the enlightenment — without the belief that there is truth on earth, and that we can discover that truth — there will not be democracy. There will not be rule of law. If we let truth go, we’re not going to have the system that we have. Journalists are now in a position where you get to be pioneers; you get to be the stars. Because the mainstream is now all this junk. People still say “mainstream media” but the mainstream [has changed]. You guys are now edgy. You guys have a chance to be heroes in 2017.

DB: In order for Hitler to be successful, you write that he needed the complicity of ordinary citizens to carry out his policies. That puts a lot of responsibility on citizens. How much power does the populace actually have to make or break a dictatorship?

TS: Citizens have a huge amount of power and usually what they do is give it away without thinking about it. We [learn] the rules and we adapt. That’s how we survive. But sometimes things change so drastically, we have to check our social impulses and be an individual. We have to stop and say, “This situation is different. I’m not going to automatically adjust.” The smartest analysts of authoritarianism, they all make the point that it depends upon consent. That the little choices you make matter. Just going along is a choice; and when you go along, you’re making regime change happen.

DB: Some people are deeply disturbed by what is happening within our government, but others argue that democracy remains intact — the press is still functioning, we still have rule of law. Even you could write a book “On Tyranny” without fear of repercussions. How close do you think we are to fascism? 

TS: There are things that are short of fascism that are absolutely terrible: If America becomes a kleptocratic, authoritarian regime where we have ritualized elections in which everybody knows who will win in advance; where you can’t become prosperous or wealthy without the support of the people in power; where you think about what you’re going to say before you say it — we’re not very far away from that. It won’t take too many pushes to get into a situation where it’s normal for us to think that the president is the richest person in the country and that the next several presidents need to be named Trump. Fascism would be something more. Fascism would be [White House chief strategist Stephen] Bannon succeeding in creating a sense of white nationalism in the U.S. [with] lots of internal violence deliberately directed toward creating a national identity. That’s a higher bar for evil.

DB: Trump has targeted and maligned many minority groups. Why is it important for an authoritarian leader to have scapegoats?

TS: If you want to change the regime, you take a group and say, “This group is not your neighbors, it’s not your fellow citizens; this group is an element of an international plot.” For Hitler, it was Jews, but it can be anybody. The mechanism is the same. So with American Muslims, you’re taking a group that is basically assimilated, basically small, and you’re saying, “Don’t think of them as individuals. Don’t think of them as citizens or as customers. Think of them as part of some larger threat.” That is politically important because it changes domestic politics [to become] about fighting the larger global threat — whether it’s terrorism or the Jewish international conspiracy. And that means that the normal things of domestic politics — like prosperity, group interest or freedom — those things are suddenly less important.

DB: The president hasn’t targeted Jews the way he has Muslims and immigrants, but the political climate has enabled an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. As a historian of the most anti-Semitic period in history, is the current surge of anti-Semitism here significant?

TS: Those who are saying that anti-Semitism isn’t as bad as it seems is what the Orthodox community in Poland did in the second half of the 1930s; it’s exactly what the German Jews did in 1933. If Jews are going to remember the Holocaust, they have to remember the whole thing — including that normalization burst right after Hitler was elected. That impulse to rationalize — you have to check yourself: What do I think it means as an American Jew that the [headstones in] cemeteries are going down? What do I think it means that there’s all this hate speech? That there are now swastikas in places where there weren’t swastikas before? It sounds crazy and obvious, but this is a time for American Jews to be thinking about the Holocaust — not so much from 1944 in Auschwitz, but from early 1933 and the transition. Because if you only think about the end, you forget about the beginning. And if you only look at the end, nothing is ever as bad as the end — until the end.

Timothy Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m. on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Tickets are $20.

Inside the tuberculosis ward at Ellis Island. Photo by Stephen Wilkes.

Ellis Island: Gateway and holding cell


When photographer Stephen Wilkes first visited the sprawling abandoned hospital complex on Ellis Island almost two decades ago, he became obsessed with the wards where more than 1 million immigrants languished from 1892 to 1954. The émigrés had been detained — and prevented from entering the United States — for suffering illnesses including trachoma and tuberculosis.

It was “a place where the huddled masses yearning to breathe free remained huddled … yearning, many permanently, just inches short of the Promised Land,” Wilkes writes in his 2006 photography book, “Ellis Island:  Ghosts of Freedom.”

More than 30 pictures from that project are on display at the Peter Fetterman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica through May 27.

During Wilkes’ initial visit to the decaying hospital in 1998, he discovered “the shoes of immigrants long forgotten; shards of mirror, remnants of beds … [and] a chamber where tuberculosis-infected mattresses were sterilized with scorching heat. … A surreal sculpture of vines, leaves and moss, mingled with shattered plaster, curling paint and rusted iron, meandered through empty corridors and dead rooms.”

Wilkes, 59, who lives in Westport, Conn., was mesmerized not only by the juxtaposition of thriving plants and detritus but also, he said in a recent telephone interview, by “the palpable sense of humanity that was in these ruins. I felt the presence and the energy of our ancestors.”

Wilkes’ own mother passed through the Great Hall at Ellis Island after fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1939. Traveling alone at the age of 9, she clutched a homemade teddy bear into which her mother had sewn the family’s bonds and jewels. While she bypassed the medical facility, Wilkes said, “The island always had for me this connection to her. So [the project] was quite powerful for me personally.”

In fact, he said, he was so moved after his first journey to the hospital that he couldn’t sleep for two weeks afterward. He returned to the site more than 75 times over the next five years to capture luminous images of every corner and crevice.

In a measles ward, he photographed burnt-yellow light illuminating a single chair that “was such a powerful, almost physical presence in the way it was directly in my face as soon as I opened the door,” Wilkes recalled. “I felt it was like a family member — my mother or my grandmother — waiting for me to come home.”

Above two grimy sinks in a tuberculosis wing, Wilkes shot a mirror reflecting the Statue of Liberty from a nearby window. “I got chills because I just had this vision of an Eastern European woman, very much like my grandmother, who saw the statue every morning when she got out of bed to spit or wash her face,” he said. “She would be literally so close and yet so far from freedom.”

In a room covered with peeling green paint in the psychiatric hospital, Wilkes captured an old desk that appears to dominate an adjacent chair — as if a menacing psychiatrist were interrogating a patient. A stack of chairs in another chamber is reminiscent of the huddled masses. And a study of a light switch against a wall of crumbling blue paint reminded Wilkes of a map as well as the sea traversed by the émigré patients.

Wilkes’ photos, as well as a video he produced on the complex, helped convince Congress to spend $6 million toward stabilizing the structure some years ago. “It will never again look like it does in my photographs,” he said.

Approximately 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, one quarter of them Jewish. Wilkes himself grew up in a family of Jewish émigrés, in Great Neck, N.Y.  His mother’s immediate relatives had managed to flee the Holocaust, while his father survived Buchenwald before escaping the camp and hiding in a bakery for the duration of the war.

It was the photographer at Wilkes’ Conservative bar mitzvah who first introduced him, in earnest, to the craft; the boy was riveted by the man’s portrait of Stephen and his identical twin brother that had been taken by candlelight. Wilkes went on to apprentice with the photographer for almost a year, then opened his own business, in his mid-teens, photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs.

After attending Syracuse University, Wilkes published photographs in Time magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine and other periodicals. In between those assignments, he embarked upon fine art exhibitions such as his “Day to Night” project, which captures cityscapes from a fixed camera angle over time, and a show on the rapidly changing country of China.

His “Ellis Island:  Ghosts of Freedom” was named by Time magazine as one of the five best photography books of the year in 2006.

That project began when one of Wilkes’ former editors from Life magazine asked him to capture images of Ellis Island’s moldering hospital. Wilkes jumped at the chance while braving dangerously rotting floorboards and donning a respirator to prevent poisoning from asbestos and toxic lead paint still clinging to the walls.

Like the legendary Lewis Hine, who photographed immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, Wilkes used only available light to shoot his pictures. Transparency film enabled him to capture “the subtleties and the nuances, the depth and the richness of lead paint along with the magical, extraordinary highlights and shadow detail that I saw in those rooms,” he said.

“I try to bring viewers in with the beauty, the texture and the light, but what I’m really interested in is having people connect with the history of the people who lived in a particular room,” he added.

At a time when immigrants again are under siege, Wilkes said he hopes his photographs will create increased empathy for new Americans.

“Each one of us has a direct DNA connection to an immigrant, and that’s something these pictures speak to,” he said. “It’s my hope that they inspire others to feel that
connection.

For more information about the exhibition, contact the Peter Fetterman Gallery at (310) 453-6463. 

‘Inside’ Jessi Klein: From lingerie to baby drool


In Jessi Klein’s eyes, there are two kinds of women: Those who are poodles and those who are wolves.

The poodles are delicate, hyper-feminine women who always wear matching bras and underwear and lose their virginity in high school. Then there are the wolves. They’re funny, sweat a lot, own two bras total, and don’t have sex until at least their junior year of college. 

Klein is a member of the latter group, and in her new book, “You’ll Grow Out of It,” the comedian and head writer and executive producer of “Inside Amy Schumer” talks all about her wolf status, motherhood and going from what she calls a tomboy to a “tom man.” 

In the book, released in July, Klein reveals her vulnerability, especially in situations where she was confronted with the idea of womanhood. She writes about trying on more than 100 wedding dresses before getting married and pumping breast milk at the Emmys after winning an award for “Inside Amy Schumer.”

Though she’s written for many other shows, “Inside Amy Schumer” is where Klein can get personal and incorporate her real-life experiences, she told the Journal. In one sketch that aired this past May, Schumer goes shopping for a black T-shirt in a size 12. The thin sales associate shows her doll-size tops and then takes her out to a pasture with Lena Dunham and a cow, two of the other shoppers. 

The sketch, which pokes fun at body shaming in retail stores, is similar to the time Klein went into an upscale French lingerie store and ended up crying because nothing fit, an episode that is related in her book. 

“All of the writers [go personal],” she told the Journal. “The voice of the show is very intimate, and our process involves the writers embarrassingly kicking around the more awkward details of their lives.”

The Jewish con man who scammed Hitler


“A con man with a heart of gold.” That’s how Variety described Freeman Bernstein in his obituary. The vaudeville manager, boxing promoter and fake-jewel salesman loved to tell wild tales, and his favorite was how he’d once swindled the Third Reich. He sold the Nazis 35 tons of embargoed Canadian nickel, but instead delivered scrap metal and tin.

Political columnist Walter Shapiro was told many such stories about his great-uncle by his father, but it all seemed so implausible. Shapiro’s father, a mild-mannered city planner who spent his evenings in zoning board meetings, described Bernstein with reverence. Shapiro treated the stories with skepticism.

After his father’s death, Shapiro began digging into newspaper archives and government files. He uncovered hundreds of files from the New York District Attorney’s office, several federal agencies and the State of California archives, as well as 2,500 newspaper clippings about his great-uncle. He found the stories were not just true, but more incredible than he had believed.

Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer” (Blue Rider Press), offers a deep dive into the debauchery of Hollywood’s early days, revolving around a man who loved to play fast and loose with celebrities and with his creditors. Sime Silverman, publisher and founder of Variety, once called Bernstein the “Pet of Broadway.” With his flamboyant style (Bernstein loved men’s fur coats), over-the-top pronouncements to the press and a knack for slipping out of the justice system’s grasp, it’s not hard to see why. 

Shapiro, a longtime political reporter and columnist for Roll Call, is in the midst of covering his 10th presidential race. He said in an interview with the Jewish Journal that on the book tour, he’s often asked to compare Bernstein to GOP nominee Donald Trump.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest difference is that my great-uncle Freeman Bernstein was good-hearted; went through life with a smile on his face, not a snarl; and ultimately wasn’t a hater,” Shapiro said. “He liked foreigners. He particularly liked those foreigners who had never heard his hustle, so he might be able to use some of his old ones on them.”

Bernstein claimed to have met Hitler, and that the Führer spoke flawless English. There’s no evidence such a historic meeting occurred, or that Hitler could speak any English at all. But Bernstein did travel to Germany in 1935, when it was still possible for Jews to visit Germany using a foreign visa. According to Shapiro, he probably attended High Holy Day services in Germany around the same time the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. 

Bernstein was born in Troy, N.Y., to Jewish immigrant parents. Shapiro couldn’t find any evidence in synagogue records that Bernstein had a bar mitzvah. He married a young, blue-eyed vaudeville singer of Irish-Catholic descent, May Ward. An Orthodox rabbi officiated the wedding, perhaps to assuage Bernstein’s parents. Or, as Shapiro writes in the book, the rabbi “was willing to work cheap, since he had been in America for less than two years and lacked a congregation.”

In one anecdote in the book, Bernstein was trying to provide a refuge for vaudeville actress Laura Biggar, who was wanted for inheritance fraud. “He had put a deadline that they have to be in touch with me by noon,” Shapiro said. “The deadline was there, we found out, because it was sundown of Rosh Hashanah.”

It’s not clear how deep his relationship with Judaism went. “He was conscious of being Jewish; he probably celebrated the High Holy Days, but it was certainly not a major priority in his life,” Shapiro said.

Bernstein’s name could be in the dictionary next to chutzpah. He once ran a vaudeville troupe through Outer Mongolia, accepting payment in furs. After jumping into the silent movie business, the struggling producer ended his business with an insurance fire. He later ran an Irish festival in Boston under the unlikely name of Roger O’Ryan, and disappeared with the gate receipts. The Boston press dubbed him “O’Ryanstein.” As recounted in Mae West’s biography, Bernstein smuggled diamonds into the U.S. by feeding his adorable little dog a “mineral-rich diet” three hours before arriving at port.

But his biggest scheme involved defrauding the Führer. Germany needed the nickel for lining guns, and there was a boycott on selling such goods to Germany. Bernstein was paid what today would amount to $2 million for the rusted car parts and tin cans he actually delivered to the Nazis. He later claimed in a pamphlet that the nickel was swapped on the high seas without his knowledge. But he also boasted of the scam to the press and tried to spin his actions as political, so what really happened is anyone’s guess.

One amusing anecdote in the book involves Bernstein trying to sell jewels to West at her Hollywood apartment in February 1937. The two had known each other since 1903, when Bernstein was a vaudeville booking agent in New York and hired the 10-year-old West as a performer in some of his theaters. 

The movie star was no stranger to jewels, real or fake. After pulling out her scale, she bought some rubies and sapphires, but handed the artificial diamonds back, telling Bernstein that if they really were such high quality, “then you should have no trouble selling them.”

The night ended just after Bernstein left West’s apartment. He was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department from the back of a chauffeured limousine. Through a middleman in New York, the Nazis had indicted him for grand larceny. Then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, at the request of the German government, issued the warrant. 

A major Los Angeles extradition fight followed the arrest. The Jewish community in Hollywood, including Al Jolson and film-studio executive Joseph Schenck, put together a Freeman Bernstein support network and successfully prevailed upon then-California Gov. Frank Merriam not to extradite him.

According to Shapiro’s research, the Los Angeles Times visited him for a jailhouse interview after he had been in jail for a day. As the unnamed reporter put it, Bernstein requested a cigar. When he was told no cigar was available, he reluctantly took a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring.

Shapiro’s book resurrects a lively character otherwise forgotten by history. His body lies in a nearly unmarked grave in a small Jewish cemetery just outside Los Angeles. 

“If this was a fictionalization,” Shapiro said, “I would’ve had a few happier elements at the end. But the point was, more than anything, he wanted to be in the game to the end.”

Bernstein died in 1942 after suffering a heart attack in the hotel suite of William K. Howard, a major Hollywood director. That suggests that “even in decline, even in being nearly broke,
he still was considered someone to reckon with, someone who could get a meeting,” Shapiro said.

Perhaps, in that final meeting, Bernstein was pitching his life story. It certainly would have made a riveting feature film.

Sex with Jews is fun — just ask Kellen Kaiser


When she started writing in about 2005, Kellen Kaiser had planned to call her book “How to Plan a Gay Kosher Wedding for 250.” Instead, her relationship with the story’s male lead unraveled. 

In May, Kaiser published “Queerspawn in Love: A Memoir” (She Writes Press), an allegorical, even cautionary, tale of Jewish love. 

Over bibimbap at a Koreatown strip mall, Kaiser, who was in town for a July 7 reading at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, delivered her one-liner on what the book is about: “What happens when the daughter of a quartet of lesbians falls in love with a guy serving in the Israel Defense Forces.” 

Kaiser’s circumstances are unusual to the point of being singular: Raised with an abundance of motherhood by four lesbians, she was called upon at a young age to act as a precocious spokesperson for “queerspawn,” the children of gay parents.

Hers has been a life examined. Kaiser knew during her youth in Berkeley that she was growing up as a test case of a “small pioneering demographic.” Today she’s a companionable 35-year-old with a wide smile and little in the way of a filter. 

“Part of having gay parents is that people talk to you about sexuality at a much younger age than average, because they talk to you about your parents’ sexuality, and sexuality in general,” she said. “So, like, when I was 5, I had reporters ask me if I’d ever been molested by my parents.” 

But Kaiser belongs to an even smaller demographic than queerspawn — she is, as her transatlantic love story impresses beyond a doubt, Jewish queerspawn. 

“Queerspawn in Love” is the story of how Kaiser, before she was old enough to buy booze, fell in love with Lior Gold, an American-born IDF recruit, and embarked on a long-distance relationship that survived an intifada and an invasion of the West Bank only to flounder back in the States.

The IDF is rarely as sexy as in the scene where Kaiser for the first time undresses her lover from his army uniform.

“He took off his M16, removed the ammunition and locked it somewhere separate from the gun, then checked the empty chamber and put the rifle away,” she writes. “Finally, I could undress him.”

Kaiser is well suited to the task of dissecting Jewish sexual mores, a large part of what she does in the book. 

Her Jewish credentials run deep. She spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel before college and taught Sunday school at a Reform synagogue after graduating — all this in spite of the fact that she is not, in a technical sense, Jewish.

Her dad was Jewish, and a Cohen, no less, but also a one-night stand in Paris who was more or less duped into conception. Kaiser has puzzled over the ethics of this situation even while at the same time half-seriously considering the same course of action in Israel (“Watch out, boys,” she said over lunch).

Kaiser’s biological mother, Nyna, is not Jewish, but she married a Jewish woman  during Kellen’s childhood, and they celebrate Jewish holidays. Kellen is, by her own telling and according to her long Jewish C.V., “a very Jewish person.”

Her brother has the opposite situation: a Jewish biological mother, a non-Jewish father and little attachment to the faith.

“And we’re like the classic sort of reactions to it, where I was bat mitzvahed, grew up in a labor Zionist youth movement, went to Israel, worked for Hillel,” she said. “My brother did none of it. None of it! And he’s like, ‘I’m a Jew.’ ”

Wherever Kaiser finds herself, she said, she seeks out Jews and gays. 

During a five-year stint in Los Angeles after the events in her book, she flirted with the Jewish community here, but her tryst through the city’s multitude of Jewish singles events was a qualified success.

“They got me laid, but I’m still single,” she said with characteristic candor.

“I think it was mainly geared toward conservative Sephardi Westsiders, some of whom were ridiculously good looking,” she went on. “They were some of the prettiest Jews I’ve ever seen in my life. Beautiful, beautiful Jews.”

Kaiser now lives in Mendocino County and works as a sex education teacher and part-time cattle farmer on a ranch belonging to one of her mothers. But her book makes her a de facto spokesperson for Jewish sex positivity.

According to her research and experience, “Jews just have a much more healthy sexual culture and philosophy than Christians do, generally speaking,” she said over lunch. “Jews are much more sex positive than Christians. They don’t have the same dynamics in terms of shame.”

As evidence, she pointed to the “preponderance of Jewish lesbians.”

“I have zero data on that,” she said. “But I just know so many Jewish lesbians.”

Kaiser is well groomed for the role of Jewish sex evangelist: “I have always loved having sex with Jews,” she said. 

Her romantic experience has been Semitic from the moment of her first kiss, which took place at her LGBT synagogue during the waning minutes of Yom Kippur when she was 13.

“It was right at the break-fast,” she recalled. “We were hanging out by the giant tables of food, and at the time my crush was like, ‘I’m going to eat something.’ And I’m like, ‘You can’t — there’s not three stars in the sky yet, it’s not time.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I’m like, ‘You should kiss me instead.’ ”

Cheesy, sure, but effective — he kissed her.

The only thing missing from Kaiser’s Jewish love story is an ending.

She’d imagined her wedding as a place where all her different crowds — queer, Jewish and otherwise — could come together in all their kaleidoscopic color. That hasn’t happened. But her book tour has been something of a consolation prize, she said.

On July 7, Kaiser was the last in a group of six women authors brought together by her publisher to read in front of a crowd of some two dozen in a narrow, book-lined space looking out onto Sunset Boulevard.

The reading went well, the audience laughing at the proper moments. Afterward, the authors adjourned to a table in front to sign books, with cookies and wine on offer.

Kaiser quickly found herself with a line of callers, while the other authors chatted idly with one another. Asked if they were fans or friends, Kaiser barely needed to glance at the line.

“Entirely friends,” she said.  

Writer-director talks about adapting Roth’s ‘Indignation’


“Indignation,” the new movie based on a novel by the immortal Philip Roth, opens with a skirmish in Korea in 1951 and ends with a scene so shocking that I cannot reveal it here, although readers of the book will know what’s coming. In between, however, the movie focuses on the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of a troubled Jewish adolescent from Newark, N.J., whose childhood home is a battleground, and a college deferment means the difference between life and death. He is a highly indignant young man, as the title suggests, and his indignation plays out in both comic and tragic ways.

“Indignation” is one of Roth’s “late” novels, but it is a gem. As re-imagined by James Schamus, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, life in America in the early 1950s comes fully alive, as does the experience of a generation of Jewish Americans for whom the second world war was a fresh wound and the prospect of making a life among the goyim is burdened with anxiety and gloom. When it is announced that young Marcus Messner will leave Newark upon graduation from high school to attend a small, private college in the town of Winesburg, a friend of the family frets out loud: “How will he keep kosher in Ohio?”

Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he is a formidable figure in the entertainment industry. He worked closely with director Ang Lee over many years, serving as a writer and producer on films ranging from “Eat Drink Man Woman” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and producing “Brokeback Mountain.” He also oversaw production of many other movies of distinction as the founder and head of Focus Features. With “Indignation,” Schamus reveals himself to be a gifted director whose work is elegant and yet poignant, superbly well observed and even painterly, informed by Schamus’ own Jewish upbringing and identity, driven by powerful performances, and capable of moving us and surprising us.

Working from New York afforded Schamus resources that would not have been available on the West Coast for a movie with a modest budget. While the star of the show is Logan Lerman, a winning young actor who already enjoys a fan following among the 20-somethings, the cast also features several Broadway veterans and luminaries, including Danny Burstein (who re-created the role of Tevye in the recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Linda Emond (who was nominated for a Tony for her recent role on Broadway in “Cabaret”) as the afflicted parents of the story’s young hero.

An outstanding performance is delivered by Tracy Letts, a playwright and stage actor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit “August: Osage County.” Most filmgoers, however, will recognize him as the CIA director in “Homeland,” and his role as the dean of the Midwestern college Marcus attends is unforgettable. Indeed, the on-screen encounters between Marcus and his college dean are the dramatic center of gravity in a movie that offers one intense scene after another, many of them explicitly erotic.

I had the opportunity to talk to James Schamus on two occasions, first in his production office in a gentrified building in the old Garment District in Manhattan and again at a sold-out preview screening of “Indignation” presented by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.  

Jonathan Kirsch: Has Philip Roth seen the movie yet, and if so, how did he respond?

James Schamus: Yes, he has, and, thank the Lord, he responded very well!

JK: What was the career path that led you from your work with Ang Lee to writing, directing and producing “Indignation”?

JS: Your question assumes that there is a path, when it was more like stumbling through the brush. We tend to think opportunistically in terms of what’s stirring the imagination. I was at an airport a number of years ago, and I picked up a copy of “Indignation,” which had just been published in a mass-market paperback edition. This was a time when Wi-Fi was not available, and a long flight was one of the few places left on the Earth where I could really unplug. I just fell in love with the characters, and I acquired the rights to the book.

JK: Roth discloses a shocking fact about Marcus Messner early in the novel. Based on my first viewing of the movie, it is not revealed until the end. Am I right? And, if so, what was your reason for delaying the disclosure?

JS: It is disclosed, but in a way that is not necessary for you to register it consciously. I played around a lot with when to disclose. And I am playing with the audience a little bit in one scene, where it is suggested in the lighting and the set. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt, and I was trying to figure out a way to reproduce the sense of what’s left at the end of the book, when you know you have a consciousness who’s reaching out from young adulthood. That’s where I created the framing devices for the film, which are not in the book. 

JK: Your cast is deeply rooted in theater, and especially the Broadway theater. Was that a principle of selection in casting the film?

JS: It wasn’t a principle of selection. It was a requirement of budget. But I knew I could get actors who would precision-target that world and just live it. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are theater royalty, and I think of Tracy Letts as the king of American theater.

JK: One of the glories of your movie is the way in which it conjures Jewish life in midcentury America in such authentic detail. But the counterintuitive moment for me, both in the book and the movie, is the scene in which Esther Messner objects to her son’s romance with the Gentile character called Olivia Hutton, a beautiful young blonde played by the stunning Sarah Gadon. Esther notices the scars on Olivia’s wrist and tells her son that he can date or marry anyone he wants, even a non-Jew, as long as it isn’t one who has tried to commit suicide. 

JS: Clearly, Roth gave me the gift of this character, and it would have been a mistake to depict her as a caricature of the Jewish mother. This is a mother who knows what she’s doing. Esther Messner is probably the first person in Olivia’s entire life who gets her the minute she sees her. Esther knows who Olivia is and what she’s gone through. Nobody else gets it. But maybe Esther is just thinking: Let’s solve the problem of Olivia and move on. If there’s another battle to fight later on, I’ll figure out the next move in my campaign.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal

Half-Jews outlast Nazi regime in ‘The Kaminsky Cure’


It is to the great credit of Christopher New, the author of the “The Kaminsky Cure” (Delphinium Books), that one is able to laugh, if not out loud, at least to smile sadly, while utterly immersed in a story that takes place in Europe during the most shameful time in our not-so-distant history. A time when “a frothy stream of anti-Semitism had begun to flow into the village like s— from the leaking sewer, except that there wasn’t a sewer to get leaks in yet.” 

Perhaps no sewers existed at the time in the small Austrian village in which our young narrator’s life unfolds, but in the Aryan Führer’s rotten mind, a malodorous sewer has been frothing for years, leaking a stream of fecal conspiracies aimed at annihilating the Jewish race.

The frightening developments of Hitler’s plan, from 1939 until his defeat at the end of World War II, is narrated by the son of the Jewish Gabi, who has converted to Christianity, and her husband, Lutheran minister Willibald Brinkmann, who is proud of his Aryan heritage. At age “five and three-quarters,” the youngest of four Brinkmann children breathes life into the story with a wonderfully ironic, humorous and heartbreaking voice, as he attempts to understand the constantly changing Nazi laws regarding his family. Who amongst them is Aryan? Who is a Jew that carries tainted blood, and who is half-Jewish? The answer, of course, is that Willibald is the pure Aryan, although he displays none of the courage the Jewish Gabi displays, and their children, then, are considered “privileged” half-Jews. 

While, one by one, the most basic of rights are snatched away, first from Jews, then from half-Jews, the Brinkmann children — Martin, Ilse, Sara and, eventually, our narrator — are barred from attending school, but not from receiving private education, although that restriction will come, too. So Gabi embarks on selling her jewelry, furniture and anything that would bring in some money for her children’s education. No matter her conversion to Christianity, Gabi remains Jewish at heart, and her children will receive an education, even if the family has to suffer cold and hunger and illness in exchange for private lessons from Frau Kaminsky. And it is Frau Kaminsky, who in an effort to protect Gabi from herself, suggests the “Kaminsky Cure” of the title. She advises Gabi to hold water in her mouth so as to stifle her dangerous tendency to blurt out what she really thinks about the Nazis, who are tightening their claws around her family’s throat.

As the story progresses and Hitler boasts of one triumph after another, the once privileged half-Jews are no longer immune from Nazi atrocities. Laws are in constant flux, as are loyalties of friends and family. The situation becomes unbearable, and mouthfuls of water prove inadequate in curbing Gabi’s rage from spilling out, so she gets into the habit of stuffing a balled handkerchief in her mouth or swallowing scalding coffee. 

Yet, despite all the inflicted horrors, not only by the Nazis but also by Gabi’s self-serving husband and his theatrical outbursts, Gabi manages to retain her humanity. She is naïve, optimistic and hopeful to the extent of declaring that “they do things by the book in Germany, so her name is not on the list yet, no one’s going to touch her,” and, as such, there is no danger in her accompanying the Jewish Frau Professor Goldberg to the train station, which is, of course, destined for the camps. This, when it is dangerous to be seen with a Jew and constant disappearances remain unexplained, adding terror to her son’s fertile mind, as does the “imploring voice” of Great-Aunt Hegwig before her disappearance, “Remember us!” And always that most terrifying of all childhood fears: What if mother disappears like the rest?  A logical fear that adds tension to an already tense situation.

The war ends, cartons labeled CARE arrive at the Brinkmann home from America, once full-fledged Nazis suddenly deny any affiliation with the party, friends turned enemies spin like Chanukah dreidels and become supposed friends again. They smile, bow to the Brinkmann family, have the audacity to look them in the eye and declare, “How pleased they are that everything turned all right.” The truth, as we all know it, is that nothing is the same and, “what was there is gone and cannot be replaced.”  

Toward the end of this gripping and intelligent novel, I found myself slowing the pace of my reading, savoring the artistry of New’s narrative and meditating on the internal journey of the characters rendered on the page with such admirable insight. This is a novel well worth reading, not only because of the fresh, poignant manner through which it brings to life the struggles of a family during the reign of the Third Reich, or because it reminds us that no matter how long ago Hitler’s atrocities might have occurred, if they fail to illicit horror and disbelief, then we have ceased to be human. “The Kaminsky Cure” is also admirable for its attempt to answer the often-asked question of why millions of Jews followed orders without resisting, even when they knew the trains they boarded were speeding toward crematoriums. 

The answer, according to New, at least for the half-Jews, is that they believed that any resistance on their part would endanger the lives of the rest of their loved ones, whose names were not yet on the Gestapo’s list. 

DORA LEVY MOSSANEN is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest book is “Scent of Butterflies.”

Ivanka Trump publishing book for professional women


Ivanka Trump will be publishing a book next spring to help professional women.

Titled “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules of Success,” the book by the daughter of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will help professional women “create the lives they want to live,” according to Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin Random House that announced the book June 6.

For Trump, a convert to Orthodox Judaism and a working mother of three, it will be her second book. Her first, a memoir and self-help book published in 2009, is called “The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life.”

In addition to writing about being a working mom, Trump is the executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization and owner of Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry and the Ivanka Trump Collection. She also has been campaigning for her father, a billionaire real estate magnate.

The book announcement comes on the heels of more bad press for her father concerning women’s issues. In a 1994 interview that resurfaced last week, Donald Trump told ABC News that “putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing,” and that while he “didn’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist,” he tended to go “through the roof” if dinner wasn’t ready on time.

In April, he said presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was “playing the woman card” and, a month earlier, quickly revoked his assertion in March that women should be punished for having illegal abortions. 

Last summer, Donald Trump insinuated Fox News host Megyn Kelly was having her period when she asked him a question during a debate regarding his remarks about women. 

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem”: A tale of love and war in pre-state Israel


Every now and then, a multi-generational novel such as  “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunn Books/St. Martin’s Press) comes along, so rich with potent curses, outlandish customs, eccentric characters, and forbidden loves, readers might find the story somewhat incredible and hard to connect to.  But to this reader, who happens to be part of a community with similar mores, every detail rings true and immensely pleasurable to relive on the page.

Luna Ermosa, the “beauty queen” of the title, is the most sought-after woman in Jerusalem.  But she is unlucky in love.  As are the Ermoza men, who are doomed to marry women they do not love and never forget the ones they do.  But this is Jerusalem before the independence of Israel, when marriage between the Sephardic Ermozas, immigrants from Toledo, to Ashkenazim is unacceptable and shameful—forget about dating a despised Turk or “Engelish … tfu on them.” It is a time when the word of a parent is sacrosanct and children are expected to marry whomever their parents choose for them.  As is the case with Gabriel, Luna’s beloved father, and grandfather of the rebellious Gabriela, who is unable to open her heart to her mother, Luna, even when she is on her deathbed.  

Decades rush by unmarked and it is often left to the reader to connect dates with historical details woven into the story of the Ermoza family.  In this, her first novel, Yishai-Levi, an award winning journalist, expertly depicts the harrowing hardships of life during the British Mandate—the bombings, shootings, curfews, fights between Arabs and Jews.  And the endless struggles of different underground factions, the Haganah, Lehi and Etzel, to drive the British out of Palestine and create a Jewish state.

In the process, Gabriela, aided by her grandmother and aunts, Rachelika and Becky, tries to snap pieces of her family’s puzzle together in an attempt to discover why her handsome grandfather was forced to marry an unattractive orphan he does not love.  Why her obstinate great grandmother, Mercada, cursed her son before moving to Tel Aviv and refusing to visit him in Jerusalem.  Unless it is to drive away his demons, which she successfully does, despite her failure to forgive him.

Most significantly, perhaps, is Gabriela’s need to uncover her mother’s secret.  What sin has Luna committed in her lifetime that even Rachelika, the saint of the family, refuses to share with her beloved niece, Gabriela?  And will the discovery free Gabriela from the abusive relationship she is embroiled in and allow her to open her heart to love?

Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will find much to love in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.”  The narrative is lush and rife with scandalous secrets of a passionately opinionated family that might find it easier to free themselves from the clutches of war, than from the Ermoza curse inflicted upon them.

Dora Levy Mossanen is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest novel is “Scent of Butterflies.” 

Jews could laugh everywhere, even in the Holocaust


Chaya Ostrower, “It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust,” Translated by Sandy Bloom. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2014) pp. 439.

A personal confession: some 30 years ago, as I was lying on my living room couch reading a Holocaust diary, every few minutes I would break out in laughter, belly laughter, that sent reverberations through the house. My daughter, or it could have been my son, asked me what I was reading that was so funny, and I was too embarrassed to say because one shouldn’t laugh in the middle of Holocaust books when the author is describing death and destruction, starvation, plagues and disease. So I said something innocuous – in truth I lied – and went back to my reading. But I asked myself a question, how could I, supposedly so sensitive to the subject, be laughing so heartedly at a Holocaust diary. Then it dawned on me that the author was using humor as a means of grappling with his horrific condition, and ever since I have noted on note cards humorous depictions of the Holocaust by those who lived through the event. I became fascinated by Holocaust humor, not by humor about the Holocaust, but humor within the Holocaust, and the way in which it empowered its creators to carry on with the daily struggle of survival. Yet I was hesitant to write on the subject for fear of being criticized for writing a Holocaust “joke book,”  as I had once been criticized after we published “In Memories Kitchen,” a collection of recipes complied by women in Theresienstadt determined to preserve the material culture of the world that they had lost, for writing a “Holocaust cookbook.”

So I read Chaya Ostrower’s important work “It Kept Us Alive” with growing anger, not because it is a bad book but precisely because it is such a damned good book that uses humor as a means for taking us inside the lives of those who were condemned to live through the Holocaust.

Ostrower has written not one book, but four, each one could have stood on its own, but their collective presentation draws added power from the sections that preceded it.

She begins with a general theory of humor, an exploration of the psychology and sociology of humor, Freud and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl , Durkheim and Weber, the use of humor as a tool of the oppressed and the way it enables them to live with and even to overcome psychologically their own oppression.

The oppressed have always made the best comedians. It is easy to laugh with them. To the contrary, consider what makes us so uncomfortable when we laugh at Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is that he is a man of privilege who has the rage of the oppressed and is seemingly oblivious to the power of his own position. We – at least my wife and I — are embarrassed by our desire to laugh.

Ostrower then devotes a chapter to Jewish humor and the way in which Jews have shaped their own tradition of humor. Example:

Four Jews walked into a restaurant in Leipzig and sat down at a table. After being silent for a few minutes, the Jews became articulate. “Oy,” groaned the first.

“Oy vey” murmured the second.

“Nu, nu” echoed the third.

The fourth jumped up in his chair and said in a low but emphatic voice, “if you folks don’t stop talking politics, I shall leave immediately.”

Only then does she consider Holocaust humor.  A few examples, some early, some from the ghetto and the last from the concentration camps:

Moshe Greenspan read an advertisement that a certain publishing house needed a proofreader, and he applied for the job.

”We don’t employ Jews here” said the foreman. “However, if you agree to be baptized I may make an exception in your case.

“Oh, no” replied Greenspan. I could never do that.”

“Then get out” snapped the foreman. “As long as I am alive I will never employ a Jew in this firm.”

 “I’ll wait,” said Greenspan.

Emanuel Ringelblum, who paid attention to humor in the ghetto, recounted with pride the story of a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto who was asked”

“What would you like most of all if you were Hitler’s son?

He answered: “to be orphaned.”

Another:

A Jew alternately laughs and yells in his sleep. His wife wakes him up and he is mad at her. “I was dreaming that someone scribbled on the wall. “Beat the Jews’ Down with Ritual Slaughter!”

“So what were you happy about?”

“Don’t you understand? That means the good old days are back again. The Poles are running things.”

And gallows humor:

Moshe and Chaim are being taken to be shot.

The Executioner asks them, “Do you have a final wish?”

Chaim answered, “No!”

Moshe: I am not sure I can face the firing squad, would you give me a blindfold.”

Chaim turned to Moshe in stern rebuke: “What are you making trouble for?”

Ostrower relates the jokes and then analyzes them presenting humor as a defense mechanism but also as a tool of contained aggression. She even breaches a boundary that scholars of the Holocaust have approached only with trepidation, and that is the sexual function of humor, before analyzing its social and intellectual functions. To demonstrate her scholarly prowess, she even details the use of humor within the interviews she conducted that may force my colleagues at the Shoah Foundation to offer new categories in their herculean efforts to catalogue the survival testimony they have amassed. Throughout, she listens attentively to survivors speak of humor and laughter throughout their experience.

The last half of the book is far more historical and less saturated with humor, but equally impressive, as Ostower examines humor and satire in Holocaust songs and the role that cabaret and comedy performance played within the ghettos, in the imperiled Jewish communities of Europe, but even in Auschwitz during the Shoah and then some of the unique characters that developed in the ghetto Jesters and other famous ghetto characters such as Rubinstein in Warsaw and satirists.

To each subject she brings a mastery of her multiple fields, psychology and sociology, history and humor, a precise attention to detail and an ability to make her subjects come to life. When you read this book, you will laugh and cry, you will raise your fist in defiance. Your rage at the oppressors will find new means of expression, and your admiration for the life forces that enabled some of the victims to survive will intensify.

I read this work with envy for that range of her mastery, for her keen insights and for the raw courage she showed in tackling what is surely a most sensitive topic.

There are few Holocaust books of which one can say, “read it and laugh.” But you will understand your laughter and the need to laugh in a new way.

Probing the minds of Nazi war criminals


Dr. Joel E. Dimsdale is a psychiatrist who has long specialized in the “coping behavior” of concentration camp survivors. One day, a man knocked on his office door and introduced himself as the official hangman who carried out the death sentences of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. “I was the Nuremberg executioner,” the stranger said. “They were scum, Dimsdale, and you need to be studying them, not the survivors.”

Thus begins “Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals” (Yale University Press), an extraordinary book that seeks to understand and explain the perpetrators of the Holocaust by revisiting the clinical notes of two doctors, psychiatrist Douglas Kelley and psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who examined the Nazi defendants in order to assess their competency to stand trial.

“Were they criminally insane, delusional, psychopaths, sadists?” Dimsdale wonders aloud. “The Nuremberg doctors left cryptic and contradictory notes about their observations of the Nazi leaders. I have tried to decipher their records and to examine them anew from the vantage point for the 21st century.”

Dimsdale selected four of the Nuremberg defendants for psychiatric study: Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s designated successor until very near the end of the Third Reich; Rudolf Hess, a confidant of Hitler who forfeited the trust of his boss by stealing a fighter plane and flying to England in a demented attempt to broker a separate peace; Julius Streicher, Nazi propagandist and “Jew Baiter Number One”; and Robert Ley, who started as a Nazi street hooligan and rose to serve as chief of the so-called German Labor Front.

The book is full of fascinating lore. Göring, for example, surrendered himself in the expectation that he would be treated as a head of state, showing up at the prison gate with 16 pieces of matched and monogrammed luggage, a red hatbox, a valet and 20,000 paracodeine pills to feed his lifelong drug habit. Ley was an alcoholic whose excesses disgusted even his fellow defendants. Streicher boasted of his sexual prowess and told his jailers that “if [they] wanted to see how strong he was, they should make a woman available to him in prison.” Hess was convinced that a kitchen worker, “acting for international Jewry,” was trying to poison him, and he sometimes insisted on swapping plates with his guards or demanded that “the psychiatrist tasted his food first.”

Dimsdale is plainly uncomfortable with the conflicted role the doctors played. They administered intelligence tests — Streicher ranked the lowest — and Rorschach tests, which “enchanted” several of the defendants, including Göring. But they also reported on their conversations with the defendants to the prison authorities and the prosecution, and Kelley was suspected of leaking information to the reporters covering the trial. Some of the advice they dispensed to the defendants raises a question about what they were really trying to accomplish; Göring weighed 280 pounds when he was arrested and dropped 80 pounds before trial, and Kelley “claimed that he had helped Göring lose weight by appealing to his narcissism, telling him that he ‘would make a better appearance in court should he lose some weight.’ ”

Dimsdale, above all, seeks to revisit and revise the diagnoses the doctors reached at the time of the Nuremberg trial. He points out that the tools, techniques and even the vocabulary of psychiatry and psychology have changed fundamentally since then, and he is mindful of the dangers of trying to psychoanalyze a dead man across the distance of seven decades. Still, he holds Gilbert and Kelley to account, as when he describes how Gilbert interpreted a gesture that Göring made during the Rorschach test: Göring, according to Gilbert, thought a red spot on one of the cards was blood and tried to wipe it away. “Lady Macbeth’s night was hardly more obvious in betraying her anxiety to rub out the ‘damned spot,’ ” Gilbert insisted.

“This was quite an interpretation, but I think it reveals Gilbert’s difficulties in navigating his various roles at the trial,” Dimsdale argues. “Gilbert, no longer the interpreter nor the prison psychologist, could now be come the avenger.” Yet Dimsdale seems to approve of Gilbert’s final diagnosis of Göring as an “aggressive psychopath with an insatiable lust for power, titles, wealth, food and ostentatious display, ready to murder, steal or stage frame-ups to gain his ends.”

The subtext of “Anatomy of Malice” is a basic but consequential question — were these four Nazi war criminals suffering from some kind of mental illness, or were they merely evil?  Dimsdale concludes that Ley and Göring were not “demons, but very complicated amalgams of vision and malice.” Of the sex-obsessed Streicher, he concludes: “Repugnant beliefs and actions reflect moral failings but not necessarily psychiatric disorders.” Hess, whom Göring himself dismissed as “completely crazy,” baffled the psychiatric experts who examined him, and Dimsdale concludes that “I’m not so sure that today’s clinicians and researchers would do much better at diagnosing Hess than our colleagues who saw him from 1941 to 1946.”

Which leaves us with the most perplexing question of all. “Kelley and Gilbert agreed that the defendants, perhaps with the exception of Hess, were neither legally insane, nor psychotic,” Dimsdale writes. “If the defendants weren’t psychotic, what were they?”

His answer is deeply well informed, drawing expertly on both science and the arts, but it is neither simple nor assured. Dimsdale aspires only to reach “the general vicinity of historical truth,” and he embraces a kind of moral and psychiatric uncertainty principle. “Kelley found some darkness in every person. Gilbert found a unique darkness in some. They were both right.”


JONATHAN KIRSCH, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is an author whose most recent book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”

Culturally rich history of Jerusalem is literally in the woodwork


When it comes to the Middle East, and especially the city of Jerusalem, everything in the built environment has a significant historical subtext, as we are eloquently reminded in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City” by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a superb and sharp-eyed account of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps,” as Hoffman puts it.

“As I stroll the main street of the city I’ve called home for most of my adult life — a city that has held me in its grip, delighting, infuriating, bewildering, surprising me since I first encountered it — I’m considering both what meets the eye and what doesn’t,” Hoffman explains. “Captured and recaptured some forty-four times by different powers throughout its long history, the city is as renowned for the structures razed there as for those it has retained.”

To make her point, Hoffman focuses on three architects, each different from the others in origin, ambition, style and achievement.  Erich Mendelsohn, an influential Jewish architect in Weimar Germany, despaired of the imported European architecture he found in Jerusalem when he settled there in 1934, seeking instead “to learn from the local Arabs who’d come to understand over centuries how best to shelter themselves from the glare, how to build with thick, cooling walls, and small, carefully placed windows.” Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “essentially, even implacably, British,” was the chief architect in the Public Works Department of Palestine in the early years of the British Mandate. And Spyro Houris was an enigmatic figure with a Greek first name and an Arabic last name, whose signed buildings from the 1920s remain but whose biography is so obscure that Hoffman wonders if he is just a figment of someone’s imagination.

The book serves as a short biography of each man, as well as an architectural history of Jerusalem in the first half of the 20th century. Not incidentally, it is also a work of richly detailed cultural and social criticism by an author with a deep command of history. All of these many facets reflect the light of Hoffman’s own experience in Jerusalem as she finds herself “walk[ing] the streets of Jerusalem compulsively, as I thought I could track down a ghost’s footprint.” Wherever her eye falls on the architectural landscape of modern Jerusalem, she detects not only the footprints, but also the tool marks of its builders.

For example, when Harrison designed the official residence of the British High Commissioner of Palestine, which was completed in 1931, he wanted to “sidestep the politics that surrounded his every choice of carpet and candelabra” in order to create a structure of “sublime timelessness.” Even so, one architecture critic at the time praised the finished building as a “Crusaders’ Castle of To-Day.” For Hoffman, the design was an ironic failure of the architect’s imagination in a place that was both “antiquity-obsessed” and yet vividly aware of the day-to-day conflict between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, Jerusalem had been rocked by an earthquake in 1927 and riots in 1929, both of which served as reminders that nothing is timeless in Jerusalem: “Deliberately or not, Harrison had built a citadel on a far-off hill, a citadel worthy of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem — which as he of all people knew had lasted almost two hundred whole years,” she concludes.

By contrast, when Houris used elaborate tiles to ornament the houses he designed and built, according to Hoffman, he was drawing on the extraordinary richness and diversity of Jerusalem, a quality that can be easily overshadowed by the blood in the streets, then and now. Hoffman writes: “To fathom how those tiles landed on the walls of [an] Arab Catholic family’s elegant home — and ultimately on the doorposts of so many of the city’s twenty-first-century Jewish residents — it’s crucial to grasp how this now almost-forgotten Greek architect took inspiration for the arrival on the scene of an Armenian refugee ceramicist, brought from afar by a group of aesthetically alert British officials intent on repairing the façade of the most iconic building in the entire city, and a structure sacred to Muslims everywhere.”

Countless books have been written about Jerusalem, and I lost count long ago of the number I have read for pleasure or reviewed for publication. For me, the most memorable among them is a thick tome given to me as a gift by the public relations director of the King David Hotel, but only because it prompted a vigilant security officer at Ben Gurion Airport to pull my suitcase out of the X-ray machine for closer scrutiny.  But I am confident that none of the many books about Jerusalem is quite as charming and engaging, nor as surprising and satisfying, as Hoffman’s marvelous examination of the Jerusalem streetscape through the eyes of three men who helped to build it.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘The Yid’ embarks on a hero’s journey


Moscow-born author and journalist Paul Goldberg first learned about the so-called blood libel — the hateful lie alleging Jews use Christian blood in their rituals — in a place where slander against the Jews is deeply rooted. After immigrating to the United States in 1973, Goldberg began to report and write about the Soviet human rights movement (“The Final Act” and “The Thaw Generation”) as well as the business and politics of cancer, but he did not forget the stories that he’d brought with him from the Soviet Union, the literature of the blood libel. Now, at last, he has unpacked those stories and put them to use in “The Yid” (Picador), a brilliant novel that is at once surreally comic, suspenseful — if slightly cracked — and punctuated with eruptions of violence, but with a poignant ending.

The book begins in 1953, during the last week of Joseph Stalin’s life, when a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution was already beginning to build. Among the targeted victims is Solomon Levinson, an actor who once performed in the long-suppressed State Jewish Theater and now faces the same oppression Stalin has decreed for all Jews of the Soviet Union. As the story plays out in “The Yid,” however, Levinson shows himself capable of both audacity and courage, even if, as the author suggests, he is starring in “a madman’s play.” Whether it is earnest or wholly fanciful remains to be seen

The characters, the settings and the suspenseful storyline all come alive in the author’s expert telling of his tale. He has a sure command of his characters, sometimes zany and sometimes poignant, a sense for the telling detail and a flair for the fascinating aside. Thus, for example, when he describes the arrest of Levinson, he puts us on the darkened landing of Levinson’s apartment, where three young policemen have announced their presence not with the stereotypical knock on the door but with “a light kick of a military boot.”

“Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight,” Goldberg pauses to note. “They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.”

The aged Levinson, as we soon learn, is made of sterner stuff than his tormentors anticipate. We see him as a younger man whose visceral response to the German invasion of Russia in 1941 was “to kill and survive, and kill again, as directly as possible, preferably silently, in the darkness.” As it happens, he was able only to serve in a Red Army acting troupe that brought “the Bard to the trenches, mostly in Russian, sometimes in Ukrainian, and sometimes in Yiddish.” In one of many scenes that ought not to be revealed in a review, Levinson draws on his theatrical exploits from the second world war to wreak vengeance on his young persecutors.

So begins an extraordinary, rich and surprising tale of intrigue that quickly focuses on a mad plan by Levinson and his memorable little band of fellow eccentrics to stand up against Stalin and his reign of terror. “You are a crazy, stubborn old Yid,” says one of Levinson’s comrades, an African-American man whose employer sent him to the Soviet Union in the ’30s and who never went back. But the fact that Levinson is meshugge is almost beside the point. “One should never underestimate the power of a stubborn son of a bitch,” Goldberg writes, and “The Yid” is his case in point.

“The Yid” is a novel, to be sure, but Goldberg draws on a rich vein of real history. One of Stalin’s real-life victims was a star of the Yiddish theater named Solomon Mikhoels, an actor who was famous even in far-off America. In Goldberg’s novel, the real-life Solomon Mikhoels is imagined to have been the rival and nemesis of the fictional Solomon Levinson. But Goldberg also reports a fact of history — the celebrated Mikhoels was supposedly killed in a traffic accident, but he was actually among the earliest victims of Stalin’s final purge. “No phantom truck,” the author insists. “A bullet in the head. An execution in a Lubyanka cellar.” Goldberg imagines a final reckoning for Stalin himself in unsettling detail — a scene that conjures up King Lear, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marc Chagall and Paul Robeson — and the historical underpinnings of “The Yid” make it all the more plausible, even if it begins to resemble a fever dream. “The accused, Stalin, I., is sentenced to the highest measure of punishment: the extraction of all blood, drop by drop.”

Paul Goldberg has been aptly compared to a whole constellation of Jewish literary geniuses — Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon and even the Coen brothers. (I would hasten to add Mordecai Richler to the list.) And “The Yid” is proof that he surely belongs in their lofty ranks. But it is also true that Goldberg possesses a voice and vision that are entirely and uniquely his own. Indeed, the words that best describe his achievement in “The Yid” can be excerpted from the book itself, where the author uses them in a different context to describe his hero’s exploits: “[A]wash in fresh blood … comedy, tragedy, and history abruptly join into one mighty stream.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Tribal – Episode 1: Jon Birger, author of ‘Date-onomics’