Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

An interview with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman about confronting the Occupation


half-century ago, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I attended a rally in support of Israel at the Hollywood Bowl. At that moment, Israel was fighting for its life, and the anxious crowd did not yet know the war would be over in only six days. We could not even imagine that victory on the battlefield would change not only the shape of Israel but its identity and destiny, too.

Best-selling authors, and husband and wife, Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Ayelet Waldman (“A Really Good Day,” “Love and Treasure”) — perhaps the most accomplished literary couple in contemporary American letters — have chosen the anniversary of the Six-Day War to call our attention to the darker aspects of Israel’s historic victory in “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” (HarperPerennial).

The book is a project of Breaking the Silence, which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

The authors will participate in a public conversation about “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence at 8 p.m. on June 5 at the Pico Union Project on Valencia Street. The event is co-sponsored by IKAR, the New Israel Fund and HarperPerennial. (Information and tickets for the event are available at olivesandashtour.nif.org.)

When Waldman attended the Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival in 2014, members of Breaking the Silence took her on a tour of Hebron.  The experience inspired her and Chabon to recruit some two dozen writers to visit the West Bank and Gaza and report on what they saw for what would become “Kingdom of Olives and Ash.” The contributors include Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron; publishing powerhouse Dave Eggers; Chabon’s fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Lorraine Adams and Geraldine Brooks; and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. In their essays, all of them serve as eyewitnesses to life on the ground in the territories that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War, and their testimony shines a light on aspects of the daily conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that are mostly invisible in media coverage.

“Storytelling itself — bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered — has the power to engage the attention of people, like us, who had long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up,” Waldman and Chabon explain in their introduction to the anthology.

In advance of their upcoming appearance, I spoke with the authors by phone.

Jonathan Kirsch: You write about yourselves that “we didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.”  What caused you to shun the subject for so long, and what attracted your attention now?

Ayelet Waldman: What caused us to shun the subject was the incessant cycle of oppression and violence, the refusal of Israel in particular to acquiesce to any meaningful peace process, the round after round of failed endeavors, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. We decided that, as people who believe in equal rights and the principles embodied in the United States Constitution, we couldn’t rationalize our moral values with the Israeli governmental policies. But it also seemed like we couldn’t do anything or change anything. And so we just turned our back so we wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. The change happened when I went to Hebron and saw the reality on the ground, which was infinitely worse than my worst imaginings. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I realized that I couldn’t turn my back on the injustices that were taking place an hour’s drive away.

JK: The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is the occasion for celebration in most Jewish circles. What has been the reaction to your book, which is decidedly not celebratory?

AW: Where you see the real rage is in the idea that, “This is my goddamn holiday — how dare you not let me celebrate it?” The Six-Day War was a moment when, yes, the Israeli army was victorious over other armies that sought to end the country, but it was also the beginning of this brutal occupation that has now lasted for 50 years. If there were no occupation, there would be no book. If there were no occupation, I might be dancing a horah in the streets of Tel Aviv.

JK: American Jews who hold dissenting opinions about Israeli policy sometimes feel awkward about expressing them out loud and especially in public on the grounds that our children are not the ones at risk. What makes you feel empowered and even obliged to speak out?

AW: It’s a convenient tool of oppressors to say: It’s not your business. On the most basic level, we are all taxpayers. Israel is the single largest beneficiary of American foreign aid. As long as $4 billion go to a government that is oppressing millions of people, we have the right to say no. On a higher level, we are humans, and as humans we have a right and a duty to speak up against oppression. And if Israel calls itself the homeland of the Jews, and we are Jews, we have the right to say: Not in my name.

JK: In your introduction to the book, you chose to refer to “Palestine-Israel” rather than Israel and Palestine. Did you discuss that choice of language?

AY: Endlessly, back and forth, back and forth. But we didn’t have a rule for the other writers who contributed to the book. Even the simplest thing — the word you use to identify a place — is such a fraught decision that we told the writers: You’re just going to have to figure it out for yourself.

Michael Chabon: Maybe we should just call it “Semite Land.”

JK: Do you see a constituency for a two-state solution?

AY: It has become very convenient for the government of Israel to pretend to support a two-state solution in order to prevent a full-scale international boycott. If Israel admitted that they have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state, there would be no more travel to Europe for people with Israeli passports, no more diplomatic relations, and Israel would be cut off as a pariah state. The pretense is that Israel is willing to accept a two-state solution but the Palestinians are not.

MC: And while the Israel government is saying it, they are making it absolutely impossible.

JK: You quote an Israeli Defense Ministry official as saying, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” The thought will occur to more than a few of your readers that the Palestinians don’t Gandhi very well, either. Do you see a solution to the problem that is created when Palestinians turn to violence as an act of protest and Israel responds with violence?

MC: Those who hurt other people are simultaneously hurting themselves, but that’s equally true of Israel. The attempt to combat the perceived or actual violence coming from Palestine is doing great harm to Israelis.

AW: I do think that the best way to combat a violent oppressor is controlled nonviolence. Suicide bombers give the Israeli government the cover it needs to continue to oppress. On the other hand, when people are traumatized and hopeless, the trauma and hopelessness leads to violent behavior.

JK: Michael, you write about how every experience in the West Bank is freighted with political meaning, even flushing a toilet, since water is scarce for the Palestinians and plentiful for Israelis. And you make the point that privation is as much a part of the occupation as checkpoints and barbed wire. Are you concerned that there is much talk about sovereignty but much less talk about poverty and scarcity when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians?

MC: That was my primary takeaway from my brief encounter with the occupation — the realization that what’s happening right now has ultimately nothing to do with the one-state solution, the two-state solution, the right of return and all of those other issues that everyone gets themselves entangled in. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is irrelevant whose fault it is. What’s relevant is how to put a stop to it immediately so the suffering comes to an end. The vast majority of people — children, families, ordinary people — are not terrorists; they are just trying to survive. It’s a burning house. When a house is on fire and people are trapped inside, you don’t stand around outside and argue about who started it. You put it out.

JK: Are you concerned that some politicians in Israel have called for the exclusion of writers and activists who criticize the policies of the current Israeli government?

MC: Ayelet actually tweeted an open challenge to [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu to try and keep her out.

AW: I gave him our flight number and arrival date to make it easy for them. We will wait and see. 


JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language


kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Photo via Facebook/Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

What Amy Krouse Rosenthal taught me


I first connected with Amy Krouse Rosenthal when I sent her an email in the late summer of 2009 to tell her how much I had enjoyed one of her books.

You may have heard Amy’s name lately. She was the Chicago writer whose essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” became a sensation after it appeared in The New York Times in early March. Nearing the end of her journey with ovarian cancer, she composed what amounted to a dating profile for the man to whom she had been happily married for 26 years.

By the time Amy died on Monday at 51, millions of people had read the column, which, like all of Amy’s writing, celebrated the world’s small delights (taster spoons, pancake breakfasts) and the preciousness of love and life.

On Amy’s website, she called herself “a person who likes to make things.” By any measure, she made a lot of things. She wrote 28 children’s books — whimsical, creative, clever — and two idiosyncratic and inventive memoirs. She created uplifting, homemade videos (in one, she had bystanders cheer for commuters exiting a train at day’s end as if they were marathoners), delivered TED talks and loved visiting kids at schools.

All of her work inspired two reactions: (a) it made you start noticing little things and moments and  appreciating them in new ways, and (b) it made you want to be friends with Amy.

Both of those explain why I felt compelled to email Amy to tell her how, while reading a library copy of her memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” I had noticed a smudge at the bottom of a page. Looking more closely, I saw that a previous borrower, after accidentally smearing mascara there, had penciled a note to future readers because she “thought it was in line with this book to write about it.”

Amy didn’t respond immediately, but a few days later, at a shivah, I ran into my friend Julie, who had relocated from Los Angeles to Chicago. Knowing that I was a writer, she immediately asked if I had heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Had I heard of her? I had just written to her!

Julie told me she was helping Amy with a movie project, a sort of crowd-sourced create-a-thon called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”

When Amy finally replied to my email, she had learned through Julie that I had once been a writer at People magazine. In her note, Amy expressed — in the gentlest and least self-promoting manner possible — how wonderful it would be if People ran a story about her film project.

It was less a pitch than a prayer. “That’s my little note,” she wrote, “scribbled down in earnest, placed in a small metal tin, and buried in the ground that is cyberspace. Thanks for listening.”

I politely explained that I didn’t work at the magazine anymore, and since the movie was in its early stages, it probably wasn’t ripe for a People story just yet.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning of a lengthy exchange of emails, one writer to another.

Amy asked what I’d been working on lately. I told her I had just sent out a proposal for my own memoir, about my son Ezra, who has autism. Amy kindly offered to introduce me to her literary agent. I told her that what I could really use was help with an idea Ezra himself had, for a children’s book.

She asked if I was comfortable sharing the idea. I did, and she wrote back almost immediately: “i love this idea. and i love the serendipity that just happened 10 minutes ago at lunch. i have to talk to you.”

I phoned, and Amy told me she had just come from a fruitless brainstorming session with Tom Lichtenheld, the illustrator who was her creative partner on many books. Ezra’s idea was just the kind of thing he was looking for. So she connected me with Tom.

That conversation led to a collaboration. Soon Tom was at work on a children’s picture book based on an animated video called “Alphabet House” that Ezra had created at age 12.

Two years later, my memoir about Ezra was published. And a month after that, Tom and Ezra’s book, “E-mergency!,” came out. Ezra was just 15.

On my book tour, I was about to start a reading at a suburban-Chicago bookstore when a petite woman with red hair approached me to introduce herself. It was Amy. I can still picture her, standing in the back through the whole event, a big, supportive smile on her face.

I learned later that Amy’s life was full of the kinds of coincidences I had experienced. Another mutual friend first met her when they struck up a conversation in a Miami bookstore. It turned out they were both Jewish writers who lived in the same neighborhood and belonged to the same synagogue a thousand miles away, in Chicago.

I’m not sure that these things happened to Amy more than to the average person. She was just more open to them. And more open in general: to people, to connection, to inspiration, to whimsy.

Still, it was difficult to fathom how a person could bring so many ideas to fruition. I often show my writing students a TEDx talk in which Amy explains how she utilized what she called the crevices of life, “those 20, 30, 40 minute interstices that dangle in the space between the real thing I just finished and the real thing I have to do next.”

Watching that lecture now, I am struck by one sentence Amy says: “It seems that tight parameters and small windows of time can yield the biggest results.”

They certainly did for her. In the last weeks of her life, facing, as she put it, “a deadline, in this case, a pressing one,” she penned the piece about her husband. Those 1,320 words generated far more attention than anything she had created in her five decades, making newscasts and headlines across the globe.

I couldn’t help but notice one small thing: an article under the headline, “A Wife’s Final Gift.” It appeared on page 53 of People magazine. If you scribble a note to the universe, your prayer might be answered. You just have to be open to it.

Tom Fields-Meyer, a Los Angeles writer, is author of “Following Ezra” and co-author of “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.” He teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and assists individuals in writing memoirs.

Fun Purim books for children arrive for the holiday


Purim, which begins this year on the evening of March 11, usually isn’t a holiday that inspires many new children’s books, but this year we have three that directly relate to the holiday and two others, both humorous, that reflect a bit of Purim spirit.

“Talia and the Haman-tushies” by Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illustrated by Francesco Assirelli (Kar-Ben Publishing).

Young Talia, along with her perennial food malapropisms, returns for the Purim holiday after her previous forays into “rude vegetable soup” for Rosh Hashanah and “yum” Kippur breakfast. When she’s certain she hears that Grandma wants to bake “Haman-tushies,” she emphatically decides she will never eat one. As they bake together, Grandma tells her the story of Queen Esther. The large illustrations and simplified Purim story are perfect for the toddler set.

“Purim Chicken” by Margery Cuyler. Illustrated by Puy Pintillos (Albert Whitman & Co.).

Farmyard animals with names such as Cluck, Quack, Moo and Neigh put on a yearly Purim play, with Quack always starring as Queen Esther. But this year, a hungry fox is preparing Quack to be the star of his dinner instead. Cluck, who covets the Queen Esther role, manages to save the day. Not much information about the holiday, but silly and fun nevertheless.

“Is It Purim Yet?” by Chris Barash. Illustrated by Alessandra Psacharopulo (Albert Whitman & Co.).

This sweet introduction to Purim is part of a series that introduces very young children to some of the Jewish holiday traditions. (Previous titles covered Chanukah and Sukkot.) The lyrical text opens with spring waking up from “deep winter sleep” and continues with chronicling the activities of children as they make hamantashen, pack up gift baskets, wave noisemakers and dress up for a joyful Megillah reading at synagogue.

“Maddie the Mitzvah Clown” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrated by Christine Grove (Apples & Honey Press).

Clowns and Purim often go together, but becoming a “mitzvah clown” is a new thing. Some national Jewish youth-oriented organizations are encouraging teens to clown around (in costume) at adult senior homes and children’s hospitals instead of engaging in typical mitzvah-themed activities such as visiting soup kitchens. They say that entertaining others in this way also helps shy teens become more comfortable in social situations in general. This picture book expands on that idea through the story of Maddie, a shy mouse who loses
her inhibitions after learning the art of clowning when she performs the mitzvah
of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) at a senior convalescent home.

“The Silly World of Chelm: Everyone’s Favorite Tales of the Wise Men of Chelm” by Shepsel (Howard Spielman) and Avraham (Arnold Fine) (Two Lights Publishing).

More than 150 funny and logic-challenged folktales regarding the town of Chelm have been gathered together in an appealing compendium that the publisher called the “World’s First Definitive Encyclopedia of Chelm Stories.” The editor has collected the stories from those originally published weekly over decades in The Jewish Press newspaper. The original line-drawn comic-style illustrations also have been included. Each story is two or three pages in length and certain to provide much amusement for any family. The book is a delightful gift for kids who can’t get enough of those unforgettable and noodle-head residents of the mixed-up village of Chelm.


LISA SILVERMAN is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Eclectic array of books a holiday gift for readers


The good news in the publishing industry is that books, whether the old-fashioned or the new-fangled kind, are continuing to attract the attention of readers, which explains why there are always so many gift-giving opportunities for the holidays. As Chanukah approaches, here is a book for every taste:

Michael Chabon, a New York Times best-selling author with a Pulitzer Prize, has just published his latest novel, “Moonglow” (Harper), a family chronicle set amid the tensions and turmoil of America in the 1950s. Styled as the deathbed confession of a grandfather to his grandson, Chabon tantalizes the reader with the assertion that he has “stuck to the facts except when facts refused to confirm with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” To put it another way, the author relies on poetic license, and his own powerful imagination, to conjure a surprising life — a “patrimony of secrets,” as the author puts it — for a man who grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood of South Philly, played a stealthy role in the invasion of Nazi Germany and lands in prison, among other unlikely adventures. 

Above all, the book reminds us of the unique role of rocketry in the American imagination, ranging from model-makers to the greatest exertions of the United States space program. “Moonglow” is another literary tour de force by one of America’s great writers, extraordinarily rich and poignant.

Another one of our leading novelists, Jonathan Safran Foer, has reappeared after a long interval with “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Like his earlier novels, “Here I Am” is funny, highly literate and intentionally shocking, even if the plot focuses on a marriage that is slumping toward failure. At the same time, Foer invents a natural disaster with geopolitical repercussions — a mega-quake whose epicenter is under the Dead Sea. The cataclysm promises to draw Arab refugees into Israel in search of food, shelter and medical treatment, and a regional war yet again threatens Israel’s survival.
The marital crisis in the Bloch family and
the existential threat to the Jewish state collide in “Here I Am,” and the Blochs are compelled to choose between their private lives and their place in history, a choice that
was denied to so many Jews in previous
generations. 

That’s what “Here I Am” is really all about. Indeed, the story that Foer tells reaches a moment of stirring moral grandeur, but it ends on a sorrowful and deeply poignant scene. Still, the moments of pain and loss do not diminish the vital spirit, so authentically Jewish, that is the real glory of “Here I Am.” “Life is precious,” goes the mantra of principal character Jacob Bloch, “and I live in the world.” 

The real heroes in the war against terrorism often go unnoticed and unpraised, but their story is revealed in Samuel M. Katz’s “The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism” (Berkley Caliber), a work of investigative reporting that often reads like an international thriller. Katz introduces us to the “alpha-type” men of the Ya’mas, an undercover unit of the Israeli border guard that consists of
Arab-speaking Jewish, Druze and Bedouin citizens who seek to prevent or punish acts of terrorism. 

These courageous officers go where no other Israeli fighters are willing or able to go: “Breaking up violent riots by infiltrating the demonstration was … the classic mission of the undercover units,” Katz explains. “Ya’mas operatives injected themselves deep inside the rage-filled cauldron to apprehend the ringleaders who were directing the violence.” And Katz credits the exploits of these secret soldiers with results that exceed their small numbers: “[T]here are never any “happily-ever-after endings in the Middle East,” he writes. “For Israel, there are only prolonged periods of cherished quiet that are secured by those who operate in the darkness, strike from the shadows, and rush inside
the danger.”

Fans of novelist Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, will find something different in “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press). Drawing on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and literature, as well as a sly sense of humor, Anton invites us to study “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” 

The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the Talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?” 

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. And Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. 

The single most sumptuous book available for gift giving is “The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel” (Chronicle Books). It consists of a “treasure box” that contains four books, four DVDs, a portfolio of photographs, a map, a flash drive encased in a beautifully carved wooden case that contains animated vignettes, and even a limited-edition scarf from Frau Blau in
Tel Aviv. 

The story of a Jewish enclave in the Soviet Union


Who can tell the things that befell us in Birobidzhan?

Now only a footnote in history, Birobidzhan was a godforsaken stretch of Russian swampland between the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, not far from the Manchurian frontier, where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed the establishment of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in 1928. The story is told with wit, discernment and not a little heartbreak by Masha Gessen in “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russian’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” the latest title in the distinguished Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook and Schocken.

Gessen, author of the best-selling “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” is a Jewish émigré from Russia. When her family considered its options in 1978, it considered Israel, the United States, Australia and Canada, all places where Soviet Jews were granted asylum. “Just two generations earlier — indeed, even a generation earlier, just after the second World War — this conversation would have included one more option, one that had now receded to something between fantasy and a joke,” she recalls. “Time was, it was spoken of with the same breathless hope with which my friends and I now spoke about Israel or Paris. … The place was called Birobidzhan.”

Indeed, we cannot really understand the history of Zionism without understanding Birobidzhan.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the dream of a Jewish state was not necessarily grounded in the Holy Land. Uganda was seriously proposed as a place of refuge, and so was Madagascar. So it was not farfetched when Joseph Stalin created “facts on the land” in the Soviet Far East by making a place in the wilderness for the Jews to settle. Nor was Zionism necessarily linked with Jewish religious observance, as Gessen points out. Martyred historian Simon Dubnow’s notion of “a secular Judaism as the basis for national identity” provided the ideological rationale for a place like Birobidzhan and, as Gessen confides, “the foundation of my own Jewishness.”

Then, too, Birobidzhan was conceived as a refuge not only for the Jews but also their mama loshen, the Yiddish language. The Bolshevik regime was hostile to Hebrew, the ritual language of the Jewish faith, and the commissars were actively “pulling the Yiddishists into the fold,” as Gessen explains. Indeed, Gessen focuses on the life’s work of the celebrated Yiddish author and playwright David Bergelson, a man who felt at home in the literary coffee houses of Berlin, who arrived on a visit to Birobidzhan in 1932, where he was welcomed by the Jewish settlers “as if he were a long-lost descendant of a royal Yiddish tribe.” 

By 1936, Birobidzhan was elevated to the status of a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” the first step toward becoming a “national republic.” The Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow issued its own fact-challenged version of the Balfour Declaration: “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achieving of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled.” When Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few Jews among Stalin’s inner circle of commissars, visited the place, he attended a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s “Di Goldgreber” (The Gold Diggers) and praised the “traditional Jewish cooking” he was served.

The hard-pressed Jewish pioneers barely scratched out a living in Birobidzhan, but they had plenty to read. Six Yiddish-language schools were in operation, a Yiddish newspaper and a Yiddish publishing house, whose first publication was a 62-page book by an 18-year-old author “who, to Bergelson, may have been the single most important argument in favor of Birobidzhan.” The courts, police and municipal government conducted their business in Yiddish. Bergelson penned a manifesto titled “Why I Am in Favor of Birobidzhan,” in which he declares: “I want to work in and on behalf of Birobidzhan, because I wish to partake of those fascinating, delectable juices of life that our Soviet regime bestows upon me.” 

Alas, those “juices of life,” if Bergelson was earnest when he used the phrase, dried up quickly.  The thousands of Jews who were expected never arrived, and the Jewish population stagnated at 18 percent of the Soviet total. Although it was nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan was well within the grasp of Soviet terror. By 1939, when Stalin acquired half of Poland under his nonaggression pact with Hitler, he exiled many of his newly acquired Jewish citizens to Siberia, rather than sheltering them in Birobidzhan. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union two years later, and the mass murder of Jews was escalated to an industrial scale, the Jewish Autonomous Region was far beyond reach. 

Once Germany was defeated, Stalin was faced with the challenge of finding a place for the Jewish survivors to live. Sending them back to Belarus and Ukraine, where most of them lived before the war, was regarded as “a disaster” by all concerned. Crimea was considered briefly as a place for Jewish resettlement, but Birobidzhan no longer exerted any appeal: “You are trying to create a new ghetto!” wrote Soviet-Jewish journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. Only a few Jewish survivors managed to find their way to Birobidzhan, “alone or in pairs, shards of families killed by the Nazis, lone remnants of communities that had been destroyed.” Even so, the local officials protested: “These were the poor, the maimed, weakened and hungry Jews who no longer had any home anywhere, and they were not welcome here.”

The once-noble idea of a Jewish homeland within the Soviet Union was dead by the time Stalin turned on the Jews of the Soviet Union in the last few years of his life. “The Jews were becoming the main enemy within,” Gessen explains. Bergelson and other famous Yiddish writers were denounced, arrested, tortured and condemned to death by firing squad for their supposed efforts to “inflame nationalist sentiment among the Jewish population.” Back in Birobidzhan, “[a] policy of Russification was applied … much as it had been to places like Chechnya, from which the indigenous Muslim population had been deported by Stalin.” When Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009, only a couple of thousand Jews remained there — and only one of them spoke Yiddish.

The tale of Birobidzhan ends up like a Jewish joke: “[A] place with a Yiddish language newspaper and no Yiddish-speaking residents,” as Gessen puts it, “one of the world’s two Jewish states — the one where the Jews did not live.” But, like any good Jewish joke, it is dense with meaning and memory, tinged with sadness and fatalism, and yet redeemed by its insistent truth-telling. All of these qualities apply equally to Gessen’s beautiful and important book. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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.  

Musings and insight on the afterlife


There’s nothing surprising about a man or woman who muses about death in the later years of life. For Hillel Halkin, however, the fear of dying began at the age of 11 or 12, when he read an article about leprosy in Reader’s Digest and promptly convinced himself that he suffered from the disease.

“In the years to come, I contracted one fatal disease after another,” he recalls in “After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition” (Princeton University Press), a work of both scholarship and confessional memoir. He concedes that the wholly imaginary afflictions of his youth and adolescence seem funny in retrospect. “No one could have guessed that I lay in bed at night praying for another year of the life I desperately craved.”

Born in New York in 1939, Halkin made aliyah in 1970 and has since achieved international stature as a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish fiction into English, and as a biographer, critic, novelist and journalist. His book “Yehuda Halevi” won the National Jewish Book Award in 2010. Now, at the age of 77, the subject is no joke.

“For most of us, the years up to seventy, give or take a few, are ones we retain our strength in,” he writes. “We’re not the same at sixty as we were at fifty, but with a bit of luck, our decline isn’t painfully obvious. It only becomes that a decade or so later. By then, we’re all on death row.”

All of these musings prompted Halkin to accept an invitation from the Library of Jewish Ideas, a publishing project co-sponsored by the Tikvah Fund, to survey and comment upon the Jewish beliefs and traditions that touch on death and dying. He discloses that he is not a religiously observant Jew, but he reminds us that “you can’t have lived in Israel for over forty years as I have without encountering death in its Jewish forms: Jewish jokes, Jewish prayers, Jewish funerals, Jewish mourning, Jewish memorial rites.”

The starting point for his journey of exploration through the textual landscape, of course, is the Hebrew Bible. As Halkin points out, the Torah and the other early books of the Bible — unlike other religious writings of the ancient world — do not have much to say about what happens when we die. “Although I would have been prepared when I died for a descent to an underworld,” Halkin writes in the first person about a hypothetical Bible-reader in antiquity, “I would have had no notion of how to reach it, of what awaited me there, or if anything much awaited me at all.”

The later prophets were more explicit: “For behold, the day is coming that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, all the wicked, shall be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up … ” Here the Messianic idea of judgment, punishment and redemption enters in the Jewish tradition, but it is writ large only in Daniel, a work of the second century B.C.E. “The dead, or at least some of them, will rise bodily!” Halkin explains.

The most important source of Jewish teachings about death, Halkin emphasizes, is the Talmud, in which rabbis and sages prescribe the rituals that observant Jews still embrace during the period of mourning. The underlying rationale of these practices, he writes, is to “allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded.” Too much grief, in other words, is not permitted: “Gradually, mourners are expected to return to ordinary life,” Halkin writes.

Similarly, the writings that compose the Talmud are sometimes “frustratingly ambiguous” and even openly contradictory when it comes to “the world to come” (olam ha-ba), the Hebrew phrase used to describe the afterlife, and just as “unforthcoming” in distinguishing between heaven and hell. Halkin sees a psychological advantage in the lack of clarity and unanimity: “In itself, there is no more to be gained from the contemplation of never-ending torment than there is from the contemplation of never-ending bliss.”

One of Halkin’s great and enduring gifts is his ability to translate the abstruse and difficult passages of the ancient and medieval texts into accessible English, a gift that is much used in “After One-Hundred-and-Twenty.” But the passages that I appreciate most are the asides to the reader in which we hear Halkin’s own voice. He wonders aloud about whether sex in the afterlife will be monogamous, for example, and whether “my celestial body will be a more perfect replica of my terrestrial one, complete with skin and nerves?” Against all the pious speculation of the wise men who have come before him, however, Halkin seems to embody the fatalism of Kohelet.

“I pace and think: what is this thought that I am thinking? It is about bodies and souls, but it is also about the scrape of my scandals on the wooden floor, the pain in the tendon of the heel that I sprained a week ago, the ache in my back from sitting too long at the desk, the August light pouring through the northeast window, the old sheet I hang there every April to keep out the morning sun … and take down again in September,” he writes. “Each time I reach the stairs and turn back, I see this sheet. Its shabbiness annoys me and I think: for years I’ve been promising myself to replace it with a Venetian blind and I’ve never done it.  Soon I’ll be dead and there’ll be no need to do anything.” 

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

Murder and the nuance of language


A lawyerly question provides the starting point for a wholly remarkable new book by

7 Elie Wiesel books that show the range of his influence


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

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

Here’s the Wiesel reading list everyone should know.

Night (1960)

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

Dawn and Day (1961, 1962)

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

The Jews of Silence (1967)

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

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

A Beggar in Jerusalem (1970)

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

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

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

The Trial of God (1979)

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

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

A friend recalls Wiesel a caring mentor, moral guide


Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor, who died July 2 at the age of 87, served as an emissary for survivors to the world’s leaders. But to those who knew him, he was most of all a caring mentor and friend who eschewed the label of public figure.

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” he told the Journal in 2013 shortly before his 85th birthday. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher.”

Wiesel turned the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust into volume after volume of path-breaking memoirs, fiction and treatises. He may be best remembered for “Night,” a personal history of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The scion of a Chasidic family, Wiesel wielded a storyteller’s wit and was sought out by many as a spiritual guide.

In an interview from Poland as the news spread Saturday of Wiesel’s passing, Holocaust scholar and Wiesel’s friend of four decades, Michael Berenbaum, suggested Wiesel could be remembered as “a secular Chasidic rebbe” to the “many followers and people who sought moral guidance from him.”

When people came to Wiesel looking for guidance, Berenbaum said, “he didn't say no easily, which sometimes got him into trouble.”

Berenbaum remembered his friend as a man who traded in Yiddish stories and humor and who “sang with intensity and laughed with intensity.”

But when the occasion called for it, “he was fully capable of being angry.”

For instance, Berenbaum recalled a time when Wiesel dressed down President Ronald Reagan for planning to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, where Nazi storm troopers were interred.

Though Reagan visited Bitburg nevertheless, he did so “”humbled and diminished,” Berenbaum said.

Throughout his life Wiesel carried with him the weight of his wartime years, yet, Berenbaum said, “Wiesel dealt with his trauma by turning it into a moral weapon.

“More than any human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission, not only to remember the past but to transform the future,” he said.

Despite the great influence he wielded, Wiesel never attached himself to any one organization or group.

Though he chaired the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and led the establishment of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Berenbaum as a deputy, “he never made the museum the base of his operations,” Berenbaum said.

“He was the only Jewish leader I know who had no institutional base,” he said. “Wiesel had the charisma of his own self.”

Berenbaum recalled that Wiesel accomplished much of his writing on an IBM Selectric typewriter, even after “many of us were walking around with laptop computers,” making his “enormous productivity” all the more impressive.

Wiesel’s writings remain crucial for both Jews and non-Jews in grappling with the implications of genocide on God and human nature.

“He used the Holocaust as a means of humanizing the world and spurring its moral conscience and moral decency,” he said.

Paraphrasing a Chasidic saying, Berenbaum said of his friend: “Sometimes you shout at the world to change the world, and sometimes you shout at the world to make sure the world doesn't change you. Wiesel did both.”

Adopting a new view of faith and family


Let’s get one thing out of the way — yes, Susan Silverman is the sister of actors and comedians Sarah Silverman and Laura Silverman. Perhaps more significant, however, are Silverman’s other achievements and credentials. She is a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, where she is a highly visible leader of the egalitarian Judaism in Israel. She is the author (along with her husband, Yosef) of “Jewish Family & Life.” And she is the founder of JustAdopt, a nonprofit that is dedicated to finding homes for “unparented” children from around the world.

That’s the theme of her latest book, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (Da Capo), an endearing and inspiring account of her own efforts to adopt a child from Ethiopia and raise him as a Jew in Israel. As we quickly learn, the first task turned out to be rather more daunting than the second. Indeed, Silverman’s book reveals some important truths about the choices one is compelled to make to be a parent, a Jew and a resident of Israel.

Silverman, as it happens, is a natural storyteller, and “Casting Lots” is a memoir rather than a manifesto. She harks back to the formative years of her childhood and allows us to witness a childhood tragedy that cast an ineradicable shadow over the generations. She introduces us to her sisters in intimate and surprising ways: Susan and Laura bestowed the nickname “Skunky” on younger sister Sarah because they regarded her as “poopy” and made fun of Sarah’s abundant body hair. “We took to petting Sarah’s legs, repeating, affirming, ‘Your fur is so beautiful.’ ”

And so we begin to understand the toughness and resilience that can be found in Silverman’s big, noisy, sometimes contentious but ultimately loving family. She explains, for example, that the divorce and remarriages of her parents opened the door for other kinds of blended families. “My family doesn’t make distinctions among ‘step,’ ‘half,’ or, to some extent, ‘ex,’ ” she writes. “ ‘Adopted’ was certainly not going to be a defining category.”

When Susan flew to Addis Ababa in 1999 to bring home her adopted son, Adar, it was yet another sister, Jody, who accompanied her. “My whole life had led to this place,” Silverman writes of their arrival at the African Cradle Children’s Center. Yet the baby who was handed to her was dressed in pink. “I looked at him face-to-face and said, baby-voiced, ‘We’re gonna make sure YOU have a penis.’ ” And Jody cracked: “Your first words to your son. Should I write them in his baby book?” Susan said: “This is the first uncircumcised penis I’ve ever seen. Well, sober.”

Susan Silverman, like her sister Sarah, may be blessed with an ironic and ribald sense of humor, but she is also given to theological musings that are no less edgy. “[F]or the first time in my whole life, no voice in my head negotiated with God,” she recalls. “[N]ow, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing — the shattered and the whole — the promise of Sinai. And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.”

The adoption was only the first obstacle. Silverman, a Reform rabbi, sought an Orthodox conversion for her Ethiopian-born son, a culture clash of epic proportions. “I thought about calling the Unitarians,” she cracks. But she was willing to cope with rabbis who refused to recognize her own ordination “as an insurance policy against the schmucks who would question Adar’s Jewish identity.” Even so, it took six years to complete the conversion. But the long ordeal only deepened Silverman’s understanding of Jewish identity.

“Adar held within him a world of disparity and contradiction — gratitude and blame and hope and fear — that could be cracked open like an egg, exposing its spiritual and physical contours,” she muses. “Appreciating mystery is the only way I could honestly approach Adar’s origins. It was the only way I could fathom God. In this way, Adar was a portal to kedusha – holiness.”

“Casting Lots” is, among other things, an act of courage. Silverman is brutally honest about herself, her family and her faith. She wants to inspire her readers, but she never fails to remind them that parenting requires not only love but, perhaps even more importantly, patience, strength, compassion and determination, all qualities that’s she possesses and seeks to share. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

How one publisher revolutionized American Judaism


When the news came, it was like learning of the death of an old, trusted friend. 

Last week, it was announced that Turner Publishing Company would be acquiring Jewish Lights Publishing, as well as the other imprints associated with its parent company, LongHill Partners — SkyLight Paths, Christian Journeys and Gemstone Press. (Full disclosure: Almost all of this author’s books have been published by Jewish Lights.)

Jewish Lights was not simply a Jewish publishing company. Such companies have come and gone. Some have disappeared because of the vicissitudes of Jewish history; gone are the Jewish publishing houses of Amsterdam, Livorno, Warsaw and Vilna. Others disappeared because of the vagaries of the publishing industry itself — Jason Aronson, the URJ Press and the venerable Schocken house is no longer independent. 

Stuart Matlins started Jewish Lights at a challenging time in American-Jewish cultural history. It was the early 1990s. Fewer mainstream publishers were publishing Jewish books. University presses were charging hefty prices for their offerings.

While many of Jewish Lights’ books were of significant intellectual heft, that was almost beside the point. Matlins wanted to demonstrate that the intellectual world of Judaism could actually help the reader have a richer and deeper life. Jewish Lights essentially invented the genre of modern Jewish spiritual literature — and as such, revolutionized contemporary Judaism. 

More than that: In a Jewish world that hardly needed another denomination, Matlins created a new one — “Jewish Lights Judaism.” A Judaism of intellectual depth. A Judaism of playful engagement with Jewish sources. A Judaism that takes itself seriously, though not solemnly. A Judaism that was willing to be creative. A Judaism that used Jewish sources to make the world better. A Judaism that would teach Jews that their similarities were richer than their differences — even though those differences were also holy.

Consider: Jewish Lights was not the first Jewish publishing house to publish books on Jewish mysticism. But it was the first Jewish publishing house to show why such a literature should even matter in the first place. By publishing books by such writers as Lawrence Kushner, Art Green and Daniel Matt, Jewish Lights redeemed Jewish mysticism from what could have been its fate — pure obscurantism or, even worse, New Age pap. 

Jewish Lights was the first Jewish publishing house to recognize the spiritual longings of Jews who were confronting addiction. This gave way to an entire “cottage industry” of books on recovery — most notably by Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Mark Borovitz. 

Jewish Lights was the first Jewish publishing house to realize that the current state of bar and bat mitzvahs posed a deep spiritual challenge and opportunity to today’s Jews. I am eternally grateful, therefore, that Jewish Lights published my own books on how to retrieve and transform the meaning of bar and bat mitzvah in America. 

Jewish Lights was the first Jewish publishing house to realize that many contemporary Jews were simply clueless about worship. And so, it pioneered the art of worship transformation by publishing the first modern prayer book commentary series and commentaries on the High Holy Day literature, edited by Lawrence Hoffman. In addition, Jewish Lights published numerous resources on congregational life and transformation, realizing that Jewish life could not be lived merely in the realm of letters, but in boardrooms, classrooms and sanctuaries. 

And, finally, Jewish Lights understood that children and their parents had spiritual needs and questions, and therefore embarked on the ambitious project of presenting intelligent and sensitive Jewish children’s books. 

That Jewish Lights produced so many titles — dayenu. But it did so beautifully. Each volume was visually appealing. Those books grabbed the potential reader by his or her lapels. They were books that you wanted lying around your living room. 

Ultimately, it all goes back to Stuart and Antoinette Matlins. Stuart proved that a publisher did not have to be located in New York or Los Angeles; he was more than content doing his thing from the pristine, almost Eden-like environment of Woodstock, Vt. 

More than this: Matlins didn’t just live in the world of words. He knew that those words would be meaningless, and ultimately empty, without action. Matlins was a leader in American-Jewish life. He served on the board of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was the driving force behind his synagogue, Congregation Shir Shalom, the Woodstock Area Jewish Community. 

And, even more than this: Matlins was not only my publisher; he was and remains my close adviser, mentor, teacher and friend. You would not be reading this if it weren’t for him. Stuart Matlins helped me find my true rabbinic and literary voice. 

As Ecclesiastes wrote, millennia ago: “Of making books there is no end.” 

But, as for the future of Jewish books, and of all books: yes, I worry. 

I worry, because bookstores — certainly smaller, independent bookstores — are going out of business. 

I worry, because I often visit homes that have empty shelves where books used to be. 

I worry, because prayer leaders are abandoning printed texts and relying on visual prayer, televised on the walls. Yes, it is efficient and often attractive, but it no longer allows the worshipper to pray at his or her own pace, and perhaps even get lost within the words on the pages themselves. 

I worry, because I sense that synagogue libraries are shrinking, with fewer people using them. 

I worry, because a Twitter-dominated world of communication means that wisdom will be locked into a prison of 140 characters, which will mean the death of depth. 

When the Romans tortured and killed the sage Hananiah ben Teradion, they tied him to a stake, bound by a Torah scroll. They set the scroll on fire. 

As Hananiah was dying, his students asked him: “Our teacher, what do you see?”

His reply: “The parchment is burning, but the letters are returning to heaven.”

One modern faith centers itself on the story of a man being resurrected; our faith knows something different — that the words themselves are eternal.

May there always be a place for those words, and may those words always find their places on our shelves, and in our hearts and souls. 

 

JEFFREY K. SALKIN is the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. A noted writer and commentator, his books on Jewish life have been published by Jewish Lights Publishing and the Jewish Publication Society.

Is Judaism kids’ stuff?


I exited the library last week with a tall pile of books, many of them classics I had read as a child.

As my own children become seasoned readers I want to encourage them to read the writings that had touched me; that I read over and over again.

This led to me myself revisiting these beloved worlds.

And I marveled at all of the new dimensions that jumped out at me; perhaps because it's been so long…I think it might be more because we ourselves change over the years.

Chanting the repetitive words of Good Night Moon now with my three-year-old, I see the appeal of the repetition- pleasurable, predictable, comforting.

Looking at the familiar pictures in The King's Stilts now in my 30’s, I notice the skill in the nuanced drawings.

Reading about Fantine's plight in Les Miserables now as a mother makes me understand more the pain in the depths of her soul.

The nostalgia…and the newness of these old books got me thinking about all the different aspects of our childhoods- places, people, friends, foods, music, scents, anecdotes…spirituality…that we might experience years later in a whole different way.

For a lot of Jews, being Jewish growing up meant enjoying the rich cultural aspects of the holiday seasons- sizzling latkes and menorahs on Chanukah, family Seders with crispy matzah and horseradish on Passover, crunchy apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, creamy cheesecake and synagogue on Shavuot.

If reading a children’s book as an adult can give an increased appreciation, let’s surely make a commitment to re-examine Judaism, a deep, spiritual way of life that has worked in sustaining our people for 2,000 years.

There is paramount importance of studying the know-how's of the traditions, because for any mitzvah/value to be sustained, it must be bound to an action:

How do we testify and stay present in G-d's protection of the Jewish people? We build a sukkah on Sukkot.

How do we bring spiritual and physical light to the world? We light Shabbat candles.

How do we remember what our mission is for ourselves, our family, and the wider world? We read the Ten Commandments, which encompasses all of the mitzvot, on Shavuot.

The actions feed the soul, and then the deeper dimensions satisfy the mind; we want and need to explore the why's, too:

Why is a sukkah relevant today?

Why was the mitzvah of lighting candles given to the women?

Why eat the Kabbalistic, mystical hand-made matzah and not the machine-made?

Are we capable of the fiery faith the women projected in Egypt 2,000 years ago?

What does freedom mean to a Jewish woman in today's world?

Is the traditional Torah still relevant in contemporary times?

For many of us, our Jewish education ended at bar/bat mitzvah and we were not exposed to these deeper messages and ideas behind the practices, behind the very holidays themselves.

Messages and ideas that are directly relevant to the way we think and feel and act…to day-to-day life.

Without the inner meanings as an adult, we might perceive much of Judaism as “kids' stuff” or solely as a way to stay connected to our families and our past.

Especially today- we know a sophisticated amount about nutrition, psychology and exercise- why should Judaism be any different?

In the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, “Being that we live in a more sophisticated world,” we need a more “sophisticated Judaism.”

A Judaism that draws on Chassidic and Kabbalistic, mystical traditional texts that are deeply satisfying and comforting and a powerful, unchanging prism through which to see our ever-changing world.

I invite you to revisit the holidays and traditions- with the wisdom of our sages, and the wisdom of our personal experiences and years behind us- and take a deeper look at the Judaism that has held billions of Jews in times of happiness and sorrow.

Perhaps through the wealth of learning sites online, or better yet a Torah class with a live teacher.

So we revisit and learn more…then comes the often challenging part: Acting more.

This is why when G-d offered His Torah to the Jewish people, the mystical commentaries tell us that each Jew was gifted with two crowns, for their proclamations in unison: One crown for “We will do,” and another for “We will hear [learn].”

“We will do,” they said first, to establish their commitment to do Judaism; keep its mitzvot even when it’s hard, even when it hurts; and on that firm foundation of action, then, “We will learn,” we will spend a lifetime learning, going deeper and deeper into the teachings and mitzvot, which ripen in the mind with age and further understanding.

(I remember learning this as a child, comprehending it on a purely factual level. As I get older, I increasingly see the importance of this idea of committing to doing before completely understanding. We accept that planes get us safely to our destination without knowing exactly how their huge engines work, and we eat blueberries without verifying under a microscope that they are laden with antioxidants.

Because if we did, we’d spend more time trying to understand than traveling or eating blueberries. And Judaism is no different- if we wait until all of Judaism makes perfect sense and all of our questions are answered, we will delay the urgency of action. Of making Judaism- a proven system- a reality in our lives and in the lives of our children).

So Judaism is ultimately adult stuff.

But it’s kids’ stuff too!

In fact, when G-d asked the Jewish people to find guarantors that the Torah will be kept, they immediately offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but G-d rejected this idea.

The Jews’ second choice was the prophets…G-d nixed that.

Finally they offered the children, and G-d was satisfied.

As with so many stories of the Torah, this one reflects the story of today.

Our children are still our guarantors.

Untainted and unjaded from decades of challenges and struggles, the sparkle in their eyes as they kiss a mezuzah, and the unbridled enthusiasm as they sing the Shema reflect their wide-open hearts and promise a vibrant future as they embrace the Judaism of their parents and grandparents, enhanced by their individual personality and flavor.

So if you have children, bring them with you to shul on Shavuot for the time-honored tradition of reading the story of how we gathered at Mt. Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments– so that they- and we- can affirm how we can have a relationship with our Creator through His Torah; how we can feel close to one another.

And who knows what new revelation and understanding might jump out at you?

In a favorite song from my childhood, “The Place Where I Belong,” by Abie Rotenberg, a Torah that was discovered in a Poland basement after the Holocaust “sings” of its haunting and beautiful memories, bearing witness to centuries of love and dedication. The Torah talks of its feelings on now being displayed in a sterile case of glass in a museum, and beseeches us to bring it back to its true home, to a shul, where it is actually cherished and read and lived by.

To never let it go.

In its final lyrics:

“No matter if you're very young or even very old
Live by the words you'll find inside my scroll.”

Dust off your summer reading glasses


Politics is dominating not only headlines, but bookstores, as well, and some of the most intriguing author events in early summer will provide yet more opportunity to agonize over Trump, Sanders and Clinton. Even Sebastian Junger’s new book about why tribalism can be a good thing, and the latest novel from Brad Meltzer, a master of the political thriller, have something to say about how power is wielded in America nowadays. On a different note, thankfully, a bit of escapism can still be found in a charming memoir about the iconic Moulin Rouge in Paris by one of its starring dancers. But best of all, you can meet all of the authors in person at Southern California venues in the days and weeks ahead.

Amid the rancor of American politics, Ronald Reagan looms large for his optimism, kindness and sheer likeability. After all, he created the “commandment” that Donald Trump is determined to break at every opportunity: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” No one is better equipped to tell us about the real Ronald Reagan than his son Michael Reagan, whose latest book about his father (co-written with Jim Denney) is “Lessons My Father Taught Me: The Strength, Integrity, and Faith of Ronald Reagan” (Humanix Books). Reagan tells us he visits his father’s grave on the anniversary of his death and reads the inscription on the headstone: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” He uses his book “to show you how my father’s values and wisdom impacted my life — and changed the world.” I hope someone sends a copy to The Donald.

Reagan will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. June 4 at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmer’s Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. 

An unforgettable book that introduced a new phrase into the American lexicon  — “The Perfect Storm” — marked Sebastian Junger’s debut as a best-selling author. Since then, he has written about such elemental topics as “War” and “Fire,” and has distinguished himself as a documentary filmmaker, too, with “Restrepo” and “Korengal.” Now he captures yet another aspect of the zeitgeist with “Tribes: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Twelve).  An Amazon best-seller before it was even published, the book is an impressive enterprise that draws on anthropology, psychology and sociology, as well as the author’s considerable adventures, and seeks to find out what binds together the members of a tribe. Nowadays, “tribalism” is used mostly as a term of disparagement, but Junger argues that tribal connections can be found not only in what we call primitive societies, but in every human community. What’s more, he insists that tribal bonds, like the ones that develop in combat units, are the strongest of all human connections. For Junger, tribalism can be a corrective to the loneliness and lack of meaning in modern American life.

Junger will present and sign copies of his provocative new book at 11 a.m. June 5 at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

A look at the fragmented history of Zionism


“Zionism” is a word that has come to mean many different things to different people, which is why veteran foreign correspondent Milton Viorst decided to take a fresh look at the origins and the destiny of the Zionist project in “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). The conclusion he reaches is deeply unsettling, and it can be ignored only at our peril.

“The Zionism we know today is not a unified idea, but a composite of bitter rivalries between stubborn men and their visions of Jewish statehood,” Viorst writes. “Zionism has created a successful country, but it has not made the Jews more secure. The absence of peace, in my judgment, keeps the Zionist achievement in jeopardy.”

Viorst served as a Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker and has contributed to publications ranging from the New York Times Magazine to Haaretz.  He has written six previous books on the Middle East, most recently “In the Shadow of the Prophet.”  He is a critic of certain strains of Zionism — engaged and compassionate, but a critic nonetheless. For that reason alone, I suspect that his point of view (and his book along with it) will be dismissed by some Jews in both America and Israel. But anyone who regards him- or herself as a Zionist ought to be able to answer the hard questions that his book poses.

“Zionism” looks back at eight foundational figures in Zionism, not only Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, but also Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook, father and son, both of whom played a leading role in Religious Zionism. Each of these men, in his own way, shaped an aspect of the diverse movement that we call by a single name.

Indeed, Viorst’s book is a useful and important reminder that Zionism has not always been a shared value among Jews; indeed, Herzl started out as a highly assimilated Jew of Vienna who was capable of expressing contempt toward many of his fellow Jews. It’s also important to recall that Zionism started out as a solution to a European problem, the so-called “Jewish question.”   The answer, of course, was national sovereignty. “A flag, what is that?” Herzl wrote in one especially stirring letter.  “A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir. A flag is more than that. With a flag one can lead men wherever one wants, even into the Promised Land.  For a flag men live and die.”

The problem of European Jews was to be solved on Palestinian soil, and when the map of the Middle East was redrawn after World War I — an act of imperial hubris that ultimately resulted in the invention of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — the future site of a Jewish homeland was planted among them. Yet the earliest Jewish pioneers, Viorst notes, “scarcely took note of their settling on land for which they had no legal title. They were not hostile to Arabs; some even emulated the Arab style of life.  Rather, their ideals contained no room for contemplating Arab possession. They deeply believed Palestine was their land.”

Significantly, it was a dissenting faction of Zionists who spoke out loud what the Labor Zionists preferred not to talk about. “Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claims to priority in Palestine,” Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist faction, wrote in 1923. “We may water down and sweeten our aims with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, just as we know what they do not want.”

Jabotinsky, according to Viorst, was a crucial figure in the making of modern Zionism. “His huge impact lay in the ideology that he created, which produced a tougher, more rigid, heavily militaristic and deeply divided Zionism,” Viorst writes. So we should not be surprised by the new generation of maximalists like Avigdor Lieberman, who flank Likud on the far right. “Revisionism thrives today with an ideology that has changed little since Jabotinsky’s time,” Viorst warns.

But he does not spare the Labor Zionists from some of the same criticism. When the British first began to consider the formal partition of Palestine among Jews and Arabs in the 1930s, the Labor Zionist leader Ben-Gurion publicly embraced the idea of partition, but privately explained why he saw it as only a tactical concession: “By the time we complete the settlement of our state … we shall break through these frontiers,” he wrote at the time. “All our aspiration is built on the assumption … that there is enough room for ourselves and the Arabs … but I regard this scheme as … an unequaled lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine.”

Ironically, it was Ben-Gurion’s great adversary, Begin, who started a process that ultimately supplanted the Labor Zionist leadership that had long dominated the politics of the Jewish state. “His Revisionism succeeded largely because Labor Zionism failed,” Viorst writes. “Over time, he won the approval of the black-hatted haredim and the post-Communist Russian immigrants, who took their place alongside Jabotinsky’s Revisionists and Rav Kook’s Religious Zionists.”

By the end of the book, we are not surprised to learn that Viorst refuses to blame the current generation of Israeli leaders for the stalemate in what we used to call, in more optimistic days, “the peace process.”  Indeed, he insists that it “derives from competing visions of Zionism, dating back to the bitter struggles between Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion.” And, intriguingly, he expresses hope rather than despair about the fact that the Middle Eastern frontiers that the Western powers dreamed up in 1920 are now collapsing. 

“No one can say how the pieces will come back together, or how long it will take,” Viorst concludes. “But it is reasonable to say that in the interstices between the fragments, there is probably room to maneuver on behalf of a new Israeli-Palestinian relationship.” Exactly here is the best evidence that Viorst sees the whole sad and frustrating picture through authentically Jewish eyes. 

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

A true Jewish star is born in Gabler’s ‘Streisand’


It is telling that the chapter titles in Neal Gabler’s “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power,” the latest book in the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press, are given in transliterated Yiddish (and sometimes Yinglish) — “Shaynkeit,” “Mieskeit,” “Chutzpah,” “Tsezingen Zikh,” and so on. Gabler wants us to see Streisand not only as an American performer of sublime achievement and iconic stature, but at the same time “the most Jewish of Jewish actresses.” 

“[N]o one who looked like Streisand or had Streisand’s obvious ethnicity, that double whammy of Judaism and Brooklyn … had ever become an American movie star, certainly not a dramatic star, and Streisand would become the biggest,” he writes. “She wasn’t Hollywood. She was Brooklyn. She wasn’t them. She was us.”

No one is better equipped to ponder the Jewish origins of Streisand than Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” a benchmark history of the role that Jews and Jewishness played in the American film industry. “Of course, there had been other Jewish stars before Streisand,” he writes in “Streisand,” but Jewish entertainers were typically comedians who played their Jewishness for laughs, or they were actors who camouflaged their Jewishness.” Then Streisand came along, the Flatbush girl called “Big Beak” by her classmates yet who refused to prepare for her career by first visiting a plastic surgeon. Indeed, she embraced the characteristics that set her apart: “She was the entertainer of the marginal, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the disaffected, the put-upon, and, not least of all, the different.”

Streisand started out with a gift that turned out to be far more valuable than a bobbed nose. According to film critic Pauline Kael, Streisand proved that “talent is beauty,” and she moved playwright Tennessee Williams to affirm, “She makes me believe in my talent because she so passionately believes in and shares her own.”  Gabler himself compares the rare quality of her performances on stage and screen to “Marlon Brando’s brooding iconoclasm, Sinatra’s cool, the Beatles’ irreverence,” but he goes even further in his praise, declaring her to be “arguably the most important entertainer of her time.”

Gabler reprises Streisand’s life story, but he announces that his real goal was to write as much “a biography of the metaphor that we have come to know as ‘Streisand’ as of the woman herself,” if only because “Streisand is so much more than Streisand.” Thus, for example, he describes the death of her father at an early age and the remarriage of her mother to a verbally abusive stepfather not merely as biographical facts, but as way to understand “the feeling of Dickensian anguish into which young Barbra was thrust” and a clue to her remarkable drive to remake her world. “What all the abuse, ridicule, and hostility also fueled was a growing hunger, almost a desperation, for recognition,” Gabler writes.

She may have been desperate for fame and success, but she wanted it only on her own terms. Here, too, Gabler sees in her origins the explanation for the diva she would become. “Streisand had contempt for nearly everyone — a contempt born of the contempt she had had to endure and that she gave back, no doubt, simply to prove that she could,” he writes. “Streisand was supposed to be grateful, humble, a poor girl anointed.  She was none of these things.” 

Gabler points that out many of Streisand’s “mentors and acolytes” were Jewish, and for them she became “the Jews’ Jew, the woman whose lack of shame over being Jewish, whose flagrant display of her Jewishness, was empowering.” The fateful decision to leave her nose alone was both “an act of professional bravery” and “her greatest assertion … of her Jewishness,” according to Gabler, who frequently comments on the role of that famous proboscis in the Streisand saga. So it is ironic that she stumbled badly in “Yentl,” a movie based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who later trashed her acting and directing efforts in The New York Times. The most explicitly Jewish of her movies was dismissed by one critic as “Tootsie on the Roof.” 

The ending note of Gabler’s superb book is not without a certain pathos. He points out that when Streisand returned to the screen after a long absence, in “Meet the Fockers,” a low comedy in which she plays “an oversexed Jewish mother,” the film was denounced as “a flagrant defamation of Judaism” by the same Orthodox rabbi who had served as her adviser on “Yentl.” After persuasively celebrating her gifts and achievements at length and in detail, perhaps the saddest fact Gabler reports is that “Meet the Fockers” turned out to be the highest-grossing movie in Streisand’s otherwise distinguished half-century career. 

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

Joel Grey: More than just a master of ‘Cabaret’


In “Master of Ceremonies” (Flatiron Books), Joel Grey has written an unexpectedly exquisite memoir about the life he has led as a closeted gay man growing up during a time when being gay was fraught with excessive difficulties and danger.  He has spent decades forging an identity based on pretense and only last year finally conceded to the press that he was gay.  Grey always found solace on the stage where pretending allowed him to escape into a world of his own making, but he often felt shame-ridden and inauthentic offstage when he was forced to contend with powerful feelings and urges he didn’t fully understand.  He was always able to perform sexually with women, but found intimacy with them something of an afterthought or an obligation instead of a genuine longing.  He sought counseling for many years as a young man when therapists primarily focused their attention on ‘fixing’ gay men instead of encouraging them to embrace their sexuality, which did not really solve Grey’s dilemma.  Grey also was driven to conceal his identity by his intense desire to have a wife and children, something that simply was not done at that time with another man.  When he met his future wife of 24 years, actress Jo Wilder, he felt a kinship with her that was so special he thought it might just work out.  They raised two children together; his daughter who is the actress Jennifer Grey and her brother.  But their marriage imploded when he finally confessed to his wife about his homosexual inclinations when his children were already almost grown.  She simply walked out and their relationship ended.  By this time, the world had changed enough for Grey, ever the eternal optimist, to imagine he might find genuine love out in the open with another man.  There were brief attempts but they all soon fizzled and he is now well into his eighties and lives alone in New York City. 

Grey has struggled with many hurdles but there is a survival instinct within him that prevents him from falling into despair.  His story makes you feel for him, but also allows you to take pleasure in the joy and happiness and creative fulfillment he has often found.  Even now as an old man, he has found new excitement taking pictures, often with an old fashioned cell phone camera which has produced some startling images.   He likes the way the cell phone picture never quite captures what he thinks he has snapped as if it has a mind of its own.  His pictures have been shown in several galleries and reveal surprising images of small intimacies between lovers that often go unnoticed or empty landscapes that speak to a perennial aloneness.  Grey’s pictures transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Some readers will remember how he accomplished this on Broadway while playing the Emcee in Cabaret.  The role on paper looked dismal; just a few short musical numbers that were to be inserted between dramatic scenes, but Grey managed to convert his role into something spectacular.  He explains to us how he was able to pull this off.  He knew his character needed to be both seductive and beguiling but also menacing; a man who represented the grotesque perversions taking place inside the German psyche as Hitler rose to power.  But he struggled at first while trying to figure out how to achieve that balance.  Then he remembered the comedy clubs his father would take him to as a boy in Cleveland and his initial reaction to the stand-up comics who both scared and intrigued him.  Grey writes: “The nightclub comedian mopped his sweaty forehead with a breast-pocket hanky one too many times-the linen as yellowed as his teeth in his desperate smile.  Everything about the man-the sweat glistening through the pancake makeup, his thinning, dyed-red hair; the tasteless jokes that feel just short of dropping his pants-was proof for the audience of how hard he was working for them.”    It was this childhood memory that allowed Grey to create the Emcee who intrigued and horrified the world with his groping hands and leering face and scary over the top mannerisms.  When director Hal Prince saw his creation, he smiled and told him he nailed it.  Grey had found a way to mimic the disturbing insanity that had overtaken the German people.  The role would change his life. 

Grey grew up in a Jewish family in Cleveland that was filled with familial tensions running through it.  His grandparents on both sides emigrated from Russia and struggled in America to find their way.  His mother was one of five daughters, attractive and petite, but narcissistic and controlling and prone to darkness and nastiness that would scare Grey when he was a young child.  But his father’s gentleness was therapeutic for him.  His name was Mickey Katz and he was a saxophone player who played in Cleveland’s biggest nightclubs.  Grey would sometimes accompany his father in the evenings transfixed by his father’s natural charisma.  Grey describes his father ‘s magic by explaining to us how his father   always “made it his business to listen to and collect stories during the week.  He’d regale the other musicians with them while they were changing into his tuxes in the dressing room or were tuning up in the pit.  My father’s repertoire—which came from comedy acts, the music store where he bought his reeds, or even our family—fit perfectly into the scene.  Everyone crowded around him, laughing at his jokes and praising his musicianship.  My father’s stories were hilarious but never vulgar or mean; that just wasn’t his style…”

He would come to rely on his father for emotional sustenance as his relationship with his mother withered.  He remembers that when he was a young child she would brashly summon him to say hello to her friends expecting him to entertain them with his young charm.  He also remembers how she ignored his brother who would remain on the couch as Joel took center stage.  He can still recall how much he wanted and needed his mother’s love and how afraid he was to disappoint her.  He understands now that “as a young child we don’t have the emotional strength to choose between our parents, we need them both, we need them to need each other, we need all of it…”  But back then he was vulnerable to the family storms encircling him.  This would all lead to an explosive catharsis years later when he told his parents about a homosexual relationship he was having with the cantor at their synagogue which caused his mother to lash out at him with a ferocity that still stings.  His father was present to glue him back together and tried to convince him that she didn’t mean what she said; but from then on their relationship was pretty much ruptured.

Grey found the greatest solace of his young life with the Cleveland Play House where he had roles in many productions beginning at age nine.  Theatre was his sanctuary; the place where no one could hurt him.  As he put it, it was a world without “fat jokes, crude sex jokes, fag jokes, take-my-wife jokes….”  He eventually managed to get the attention of Eddie Cantor who put him on television.  He found representation with the William Morris Agency, which was representing clients like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Laurence Olivier.  The William Morris Agency envisioned him as a song and dance man and booked him into the Copacabana where he was a big hit, but Grey really felt grounded on the Broadway stage.  He would go on to win a Tony, Golden Globe and an Oscar and act in more than a dozen Broadway shows, as well as perform in over twenty films.  Grey embraced each of his characters by envisioning them as fully fleshed out flawed people who are forced to overcome their traumas by relying on their own inner resources.  Much as Grey has his entire life.

Grey’s memoir has an unusually authentic feel to it; the sound of a man unburdening himself after decades of silence and a life lived professing half-truths to those closest to him.  We feel his ease as old age finally releases him from the burdens he has lived with.  He doesn’t present himself as a saint or a sinner, but simply a man who did the best he could with the options available to him during his lifetime.  His choices reflected his desire to survive and thrive, and protect himself from the wrath that would have befallen him if he had come out as a young man which was a term and concept that didn’t even exist back then.  He is still moved by the power of the life force and feels comforted by the changes he has witnessed in recent years.  He writes movingly “I am heartened by the irrepressible nature of desire, and that the fear of aloneness is greatly diminished by the inner quest that is now my companion.  I know first-hand the power of transformation, that things can, and things do change.  A doting mother turns into an antagonist; a wife becomes a stranger; children grow into adults; a husband of a woman finds he loves men; and the horror of a crass vaudevillian becomes the beautiful part of a lifetime.”  He comes to the end of his life by fully opening his heart and we get to witness his reckoning.

Elaine Margolin contributes book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Passover ‘On One Foot’: Books for kids


The newest Passover picture books for children include colorful depictions of holiday rituals, such as opening the door for Elijah, properly preparing for a family seder and the true meaning of “Dayenu.” One book is intended for older children who enjoy reading nonfiction, and one newly published springtime addition is a delightful retelling of a famous talmudic tale about the great Rabbi Hillel. 

“A Place for Elijah” by Kelly Easton Ruben. Illustrated by Joanne Friar. Kar-Ben, 2016.

Sarah sets the table for her family’s Passover seder and makes sure to leave an empty seat for Elijah. Although she wants to leave the door ajar for his visit, it’s simply too cold and windy outside. The illustrations, though a bit static, depict Sarah’s multicultural neighborhood of apartment buildings and small businesses below, such as a bagel shop, music store and flower shop. When the wind causes the lights across the street to go out, Sarah’s neighbors begin to appear at the door — including Mrs. Faaiz (the flower shop owner who wears a headscarf), Bagel Ben, Doughnut Dan and Music Man Miguel, who enters the house with his pet monkey on his shoulder. As the family makes room for each guest, Sarah worries that there is no longer a chair left for Elijah. Finally, when a hungry young neighborhood boy enters, he is invited in and Sarah asks his name. It is “Elijah,” he says, and the text continues: “Sarah smiles at the boy. You never know how Elijah comes; only that he does.” 

This is a welcome addition to Passover picture books for young children, primarily because of its focus on Elijah the Prophet. The multicultural characters add to the book’s appeal. The book also can serve as an educational guide, because the author effectively weaves into the story most of the traditional Passover teachings.

“Kayla and Kugel’s Almost-Perfect Passover” written and illustrated by Ann D. Koffsky. Apples & Honey Press, 2016.

Kayla and her dog, Kugel, make their second picture-book appearance in this simple Passover tale about a young girl preparing for her family’s seder. Kugel tries to help, in clumsy doggie fashion, but almost knocks over the grape juice, makes a crumbly matzo mess and generally gets in the way. He even steals the afikomen, but Kayla eventually finds it under his dog bowl. 

The modest story is aimed at introducing toddlers to the terms used for Passover. The expressive and amusing illustrations will keep the little ones entertained.

“More Than Enough” by April Halprin Wayland. Illustrated by Katie Kath. Dial, 2016.

“Dayenu is a reminder to be aware of and grateful for the blessings in each moment,” states the dedication page in this bright and beautifully illustrated Passover book for very young children (ages 3-5). Spring has arrived, and two children and their mom are at a farmers market shopping for ingredients for their seder. They purchase apples, walnuts, lilacs and honey — and also end up unexpectedly adopting a kitten. Upon arriving home, Dad helps them make charoset and dress for dinner. They attend a cheery seder at Nana’s house, ask the Four Questions, search for the afikomen, open the door for Elijah, and finally get to sleep over at Nana’s with their happily purring new pet. 

The title of the book is the translation of the word “dayenu” and mimics the famous seder song as it focuses the reader on the meaning of thankfulness that the holiday brings. After each event of the children’s day, they say “Dayenu,” and the reality of the blessings of each moment brings home the spirit of the holiday.

“Passover: Festival of Freedom” by Monique Polak. Photo-illustrated. Orca Books, 2016.

Realizing that there’s more to Passover than prayers and matzo, Canadian young-adult author Monique Polak spins her personal take on the holiday in this attractive nonfiction, photo-illustrated book for children in grades 4 and older. Although the first of the four chapters includes basic information about the holiday, the other chapters are quite unusual, particularly Chapter 2, which relates poignant memories of “Passover Before and After the Holocaust,” told by survivors now living in Montreal. The third and fourth chapters highlight the ways kids can perform social action work, and describe how seders are celebrated in various countries, including Israel, the Netherlands, China, Nepal, Italy, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Iraq and Morocco. A glossary as well as an excellent reference and resource guide round out the book.

“On One Foot” by Linda Glaser. Illustrated by Nuria Balaguer. Kar-Ben, 2016. 

The seder isn’t complete without eating a Hillel sandwich or two. But do kids really know anything about this revered rabbi other than the mixture of maror and charoset named after him? This new picture book is a satisfying retelling of an oft-told talmudic story regarding this first-century sage. It begins “long ago,” when a “somewhat foolish young man traveled to the ancient city of Jerusalem to study.” He decides he will find a “truly great teacher” to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. He approaches several great rabbis who either fall on the ground laughing or glare at him with disdain, and his mood becomes sour. Then he behaves gruffly to a group of children before they lead him to Rabbi Hillel, “the wisest rabbi in all of Jerusalem.” Rabbi Hillel treats him kindly, and calmly says, “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” The young man thinks for a while and says, “I don’t like to be insulted or scowled at. So I shouldn’t do that to other people?” Hillel responds, “I think that would be a good way to live,” and he invites the now “not-so-foolish” young man to become his student. 

Although this affecting story is well-known, this is perhaps its first picture-book treatment. The book is creatively illustrated with cut paper and fabric designs that cleverly incorporate photos and textured elements. Teachers and parents alike will appreciate the great message and fun illustrations in this book suitable for ages 5 and older.

Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Sex in the Talmud uncovered in different ‘Shades’


According to a pious tradition, the unmarried men in a yeshivah were asked to leave the study hall whenever the rabbi began to teach one of the passages of the Talmud that frankly address the subject of sex, an act known in talmudic usage as “the mitzvah act.” Now, thanks to a rollicking but also illuminating new book by novelist Maggie Anton, we can all find out what the bachelors were missing. 

In “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press), Anton draws on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and writing, as well as her sly sense of humor, to open our eyes to “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?”

Of course, this is hardly the first time that Anton has pushed the envelope on matters of gender in Jewish tradition. She is beloved by her many readers for the award-winning novels in the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and, more recently, the “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, both of which extract the mostly hidden female offspring of ancient Jewish sages from obscurity and bring them fully and dramatically to life on the printed page.

Anton, following the advice of Rashi to always begin a lesson with a joke, “because students will learn better when they are laughing,” opens “Fifty Shades of Talmud” with what happens to be my single favorite Jewish joke of all time. (The punchline of the joke, at least as I tell it, is: “It might lead to dancing.”) And, she explains, not without another moment of humor, that the Talmud, which began in distant antiquity, remains the foundational document of Rabbinic Judaism to this day: “Even those Jews who don’t do Judaism,” she cracks, “it’s Rabbinic Judaism they don’t do.”

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. The divine commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” she points out, was understood by the Talmudic sages as an obligation imposed on men only. “[T]he Sages not only let the woman off the hook, but they also recommended ways for her to avoid pregnancy (some of which probably worked).” At the same time, she quotes a saying that honors the woman’s experience of sex: “Why does the Talmud call marital relations the holy deed? Because if done well, the wife cries ‘Oh God’ many times.”

She also points out that the Talmud can be almost prudish when it comes to sex. No word exists in the Talmud for “penis,” she writes, and the rabbis instead euphemistically used names of other body parts. “As you can imagine, this can lead to passages that actually denote limbs, feet, or legs sounding quite salacious.” When it comes to female genitalia, however, they confined themselves to the Hebrew phrase “Ha makom,” which literally means “that place.” Here, too, Anton is quick to point that “since Ha Makom is one of many names for God, this can lend an unholy connotation to some holiday texts.” 

Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. And Sheppard both captures and enhances the spirit and the substance of Anton’s text: “Better stand back,” Adam tells Eve in the caption to one drawing at a moment before they have realized their nakedness, “I’m not sure how big this thing gets.”

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”

Talmud after dark: Maggie Anton finds the ribald in Rashi


Like many seeds for a book, the thought of writing about rabbinic discussions of sex came from an offhand comment made by a stranger. Talmudic scholar and novelist Maggie Anton was speaking to a Hadassah chapter in New Jersey last fall. The audience was entirely women, and she decided to impart some of the funnier commandments and prohibitions related to sex that she had encountered in her studies. The women in the audience were laughing and having a good time, she said, and one stood up and suggested she write “50 Shades of Talmud.”

“In the car, on the way back to where I was staying, I thought, ‘You know, actually, I could do that,’ ” she said.

Anton is the author of the popular series “Rashi’s Daughters,” based on the great medieval talmudic scholar who had three daughters and no sons. Little is known about the girls save for their names (Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel) and that they married their father’s finest students, but it’s believed that they were scholars of Torah and Talmud at a time when women were forbidden to study the sacred texts. Anton’s trilogy imagines what their lives might have been like. 

Anton continued her research into the lives of women in Jewish history by focusing on fourth-century Babylonia, where the Talmud was being created, and the prevalence of sorcery and the occult among rabbinic families. That led to her books “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1: Apprentice” and “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter.”

Anton was raised in a secular, socialist household in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in North Hollywood. Her parents didn’t belong to a synagogue, but they spoke Yiddish and enrolled her in one of the kinderschule in the San Fernando Valley run by the Workmen’s Circle.

“I certainly had a Jewish education. I just did not have any kind of religious education,” she said with a laugh.

Her family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, but she never learned why. She learned about Jewish religion by reading the fictional “All-of-a-Kind Family” series of children’s books by Sydney Taylor, about an early 20th-century immigrant Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Those books inspired Anton’s series about Rashi’s daughters. Anton wanted “to do for Rashi’s family what Sydney Taylor had done for the immigrant family, where you’re embedded with the family, and you eat with them, and go to services with them, and you celebrate all the lifecycle events and you celebrate the holidays with them.”

Anton was a voracious reader as a child. One book that changed the direction of her life was Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Growing up in the 1950s, she rarely heard adults discuss the Holocaust. “Exodus,” which follows Ari Ben Canaan as he helps Jewish refugees escape a British detention camp in Cyprus and arrive in Palestine, celebrated the birth of the new Jewish state and helped Anton develop a newfound pride in being Jewish.

“Reading ‘Exodus’ is when I realized that if I had lived in Europe, my whole family would be dead. That people wanted to kill me just because I was Jewish,” she said. “Being Jewish was suddenly more important to me, even though I wasn’t doing anything about it. It seems silly now, but I vowed, ‘My first son is going to be named Ari,’ after the hero in ‘Exodus.’ I actually told that to guys I was dating. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Years later, she met her husband, David Parkhurst. They married at Temple Akiba in Culver City and had a son together. And true to the vow, they named him Ari. The family moved to Glendale, and for the first time in her life, Anton didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood.

“We realized that Jews aren’t all over the place. If we want to be part of a Jewish community, I guess we’re going to have to find a synagogue,” she said. The couple befriended Rabbi Ken Weiss and joined a chavurah he had formed. (Weiss died in 2014.) They attended a beginning Hebrew class. Her husband learned to chant Torah and served as a president of Temple Sinai of Glendale.

“I sort of got dragged along a little bit on this, and he was getting much more ahead of me in terms of Jewish education and learning. So in 1992, when I heard about a woman’s Talmud class being taught by Rachel Adler, I signed up for it, partly because I heard she was a great teacher,” she said. “Mostly I was interested because I knew women weren’t supposed to study Talmud. All you have to do is forbid something and it immediately becomes more attractive.”

Anton fell in love with Talmud. Her discovery of Rashi’s daughters and the lives of 11th-century French talmudic scholars led her to write her best-selling trilogy. She spent four years writing the first draft, and didn’t tell her husband or children that she was writing a book until it was finished. Penguin Books published the first book in 2005, which happened to mark Rashi’s 900th yahrzeit.

Talmud continues to be her passion to this day. She retired from her job as a clinical chemist at Kaiser Permanente in 2006 to write full time. “50 Shades of Talmud” is Anton’s first attempt at nonfiction. Mixed in with centuries of rabbinic teachings, Anton finds philosophical treatises, permissions and prohibitions related to marriage, intimacy and sex. Compared to her previous works of fiction, “Fifty Shades of Talmud” is far shorter — just shy of 120 pages — and filled with illustrations, pithy quotations and proverbs. It’s written in a breezy, irreverent tone, without academic jargon. In fact, the introductory section about the origins of the Talmud comes with a warning: “This section contains historical details that may cause boredom, listlessness, or lethargy.”

“My stealth goal in writing all these books is to get more women and more liberal Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, to study Talmud. I mean, Talmud has been the monopoly of Orthodox men for so long,” she said. “But now we have really good English translations. There’s no excuse why a whole lot more Jews shouldn’t be studying Talmud.”

“50 Shades of Talmud” will be released on March 24 (Purim).

For God’s Sake…


There is a bookshelf in my study that I have nicknamed “Amsterdam.”

On that shelf, you can find the following books: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late Christopher Hitchens; The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins; Letter To a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris; and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett.

“Amsterdam” refers, of course, to the hometown of the quintessential Jewish freethinker, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. Those authors have earned a place on the “Amsterdam” shelf because they fall under the rubric of “popular atheism,” which was, for several years, a minor literary cottage industry.

I mention these authors because they provide some of the intellectual backdrop to “>http://www.religionnews.com

Honing Hebrew hilariously


Even the most ardent supporters of Israel might wish at times that its inhabitants had chosen an easier language … like, say, English.

However, because the linguistic choice of our common ancestors appears irreversible, two Israeli expats have come up with the idea of applying English phrases as memory cues to make Hebrew words stick in their minds. The result is a slim, richly illustrated and frequently funny pocket book by Yael Breuer and Eyal Shavit titled “Hilarious Hebrew” and billed as “the fun and fast way to learn the language.”

For instance, a cartoon shows a mountain climber and his unhappy dog getting soaked in the rain, with the man exclaiming, “OH, HELL. We forgot the TENT.” Below is the linguistic link: “The Hebrew word for ‘TENT’ is … OHEL.” The final word is spelled out in both English and Hebrew letters.

Another example is a freezing driver in an icicle-encrusted car, who notes, “It’s COLD in my CAR.” This is followed by, “The Hebrew word for ‘COLD’ is … KAR.”

Sometimes, the authors have to stretch for a connection: “The fastest car in the world belongs to BARACK Obama. It goes like lightning,” accompanied by a drawing of the smiling president clutching the wheel of a car. Beneath is the explanation, “The Hebrew word for ‘LIGHTNING’ is BAH’RAK.”

The originator of “Hilarious Hebrew” is Breuer, born in the Israeli university town of Rehovot and a former tank instructor in the country’s army. She now lives in Brighton, the popular seaside resort on the English Channel, and teaches modern Hebrew, coordinates events for youth programs and freelances as a journalist.

She soon shared her bilingual wordplay ideas with her friend Shavit, a pop-rock singer and guitarist, as well as a fellow Brighton-based Israeli, originally from Kibbutz Kfar Szold.

Although Brighton is hardly a major center of Israeli expats, there are about 100 of them, according to Breuer. They meet monthly in a Brighton pub for “Hebrew-only” get-togethers.

Breuer and Shavit started exchanging ideas and sentences and, in a few months, accumulated several hundred examples. They decided to turn their hobby into a book, and enlisted Aubrey Smith (also of Brighton) to do the illustrations, formed their own publishing company and, after two years, put the book on the market.

Describing the authors’ collaborative process, Breuer said, “Both of us come up with ideas, but I think Eyal’s are funnier than mine. Mine tend to be straight and simple, whereas his are quirkier.”

The first to test the efficacy of the authors’ teaching method was Smith, a gentile Brit, who absorbed many Hebrew words while doing the illustrations for the book.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is divided into sections under such rubrics as “Holidays,” “Family & Friends,” “On the Job,” “How Are You Feeling” and so forth. Also included is a listing of Hebrew letters and vowels and their English equivalents.

Breuer said she is perhaps proudest of the comment from a student she had tutored 22 years earlier and had recently met again. “She recited the English phrases I had given her two decades earlier to link them to Hebrew words, and she said they were still completely ingrained in her brain,” Breuer said.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is distributed in the United States by Gefen Publishing House.

The book is available through ” target=”_blank”>www.hilarioushebrew.com

Chanukah books: Curl up with a good read


It’s time for a top-10 list of a few of the best recently published Jewish books for this Chanukah season. All make wonderful gifts and span different age and interest levels.

FOR KIDS

“Oskar and the Eight Blessings” by Tanya and Richard Simon. Illustrated by Mark Siegel. Roaring Brook Press, 2015

With a map of the island of Manhattan as a guide, readers of this remarkably touching picture book accompany young Oskar, a European refugee who arrives in New York City by ship on Christmas Eve, 1938. It is also the last, snowy night of Chanukah, and Oskar navigates 100 chilly blocks of the city to reach his aunt’s house before sunset. He encounters the lights of Broadway, a twinkling Macy’s store window, the just-released Superman comic at a magazine kiosk, Count Basie whistling a jazz tune outside Carnegie Hall, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt leaving a high-rise apartment building. Each encounter draws Oskar closer to the people, images and sounds of the great city, and he experiences small acts of kindness that buoy his spirits and encourage him to find blessings in this new world. This is truly a special book, with wonderfully poignant illustrations that would be particularly meaningful for those who love the great city of New York and its unique place in American-Jewish history and culture.

Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and Rabbi Ron Isaacs. Illustrated by CB Decker. Apples & Honey Press, 2015

Farmer Kobi lives happily with his friendly farm animals on an Israeli moshav, but he is looking for his perfect match. When Polly comes over for a Chanukah date, the animals do all they can to help  the evening go smoothly. The puns come fast and furious: The goats pick out Kobi’s “blaaack” pants to wear, and the sheep serve “baa-baa ghanoush,” but to their disappointment, Polly turns out to be less than an animal lover, snapping, “I didn’t come here to light the menorah with animals. Shoo, shoo!” A humorous surprise ending can be a discussion starter for the Jewish values of “tza’ar ba’alei chayim” (compassion for animals) and “hachnasat orchim” (welcoming guests). This charming and funny picture book begs to be read aloud and is certain to be a favorite at Chanukah time.

“Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed” by Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Candlewick, 2015

This new picture book from a popular author of other Jewish-themed titles relates the unlikely but true story of a cat named Ketzel, who walked across the piano keys of his musician-owner one day, and created a 21-second “composition” that the owner entered into a contest in 1998. The composition received special mention and was played at concerts in the United States and in Europe, resulting in the cat actually receiving a royalty check! The charming story has been embellished by the author to give Ketzel just a bit more kavanah (intention) than she probably had in creating her musical piece, but the details of the real event are included in a long author’s note at the end. An engaging read that could be enjoyed by children of all ages.

“The Mountain Jews and the Mirror” by Ruchama King Feuerman. Illustrated by Polena Kosec and Marcela Calderon. Kar-Ben, 2105

It’s rare to read a children’s book about Sephardic Jewry. This one is even rarer: It is a humorous story of the Mountain Jews of Morocco, who lived in the Atlas Mountains. It reads like a centuries-old folk tale, but it was conceived from the imagination of its author — an adult novelist. The tale relates the story of Yosef and Estrella, young newlyweds who leave their mountain home for jobs in the city of Casablanca and become overwhelmed by the unfamiliar sights and sounds of city life. Kids will enjoy the Chelm-like humor when the unsophisticated couple mistakes their images in a mirror for something else entirely. A fun read-aloud.

FOR TEENS

“The Safest Lie” by Angela Cerrito. Holiday House, 2015

This new historical novel for kids from fifth through eighth grades is the sensitive and suspenseful story of a 9-year-old girl named Anna Bauman, who escapes from the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of an unnamed rescuer, who turns out to be the famed Irena Sendler. She is sent to a convent with a new identity and later to a Polish farm, where she lives with a family of underground Polish resisters. The text is historically accurate, and the scenes are appropriate for pre-teen and teen readers. What is particularly moving is the way the author imbues young Anna with the intense desire not to forget her Jewish heritage along her way. Get this one for those who liked the award-winning novel “Number the Stars.”

“The Hired Girl” by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 2015.

It’s “Downton Abbey” … with Jews. Or it’s “Anne of Green Gables” … in 1911 Baltimore. Lofty comparisons are being made regarding this wonderful new novel for young teens, and for good reason. The author, a two-time Newbery Award winner, has taken on the difficult themes of religion (Jewish and Christian), anti-Semitism, income inequality and the American Dream and wrapped them all up in a romantic coming-of-age historical saga narrated by Joan, a plucky and loveable 14-year-old heroine. Joan comes straight off a Pennsylvania farm to work as a hired girl for an upper-class German-Jewish family. She is smart, eager, naïve and endearing, and she becomes our friend and confidante as we peek into the daily entries of her summer diary. The author has done astonishing research into the period and particularly into the rituals of Jewish life of the time. The details bring alive the era for readers and will particularly enlighten non-Jews who may be hearing about Jewish practices for the first time. There’s so much buzz about this book and its courageous author; she deserves a yashar koach for her fine ability to tackle questions of faith and how young people from different religions may question what is presented to them by adults. An instant classic for historical fiction readers who want a touch of romance, too.

FOR ADULTS

“Celebrate the Jewish Holidays” by Racheli Morris, 2015

Racheli Morris is a local event planner and hospitality guru who lives in Trabuco Canyon and stages fabulous parties for her varied clientele. Her inspired recipes and décor ideas are finally available in this beautiful hardcover cookbook that combines ways to enrich your holiday celebration along with interesting introductions regarding the history and significance of various holidays. The beautiful photography featuring unique, elegant table settings and foods for year-round Jewish holidays would entice any reader to elevate their current holiday parties toward high style. From the “Blooming Chanukiah” (a tall, blue vase with white flowers surrounded by smaller ones) and the matzah-themed table runner for Pesach (with frog cupcakes!), to the splendid table settings and foods for Tu b’Shevat inspired by “first fruits,” this labor of love from a creative and knowledgeable hostess is a fine example of what a person can achieve when they truly love what they do. 

“Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA” by Roberta Kaplan with Lisa Dickey. W. W. Norton & Co., 2015

Prominent litigator Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued the groundbreaking case before the Supreme Court that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, inspires readers with a gripping account of what was going on behind the scenes leading to the legal victory earlier this year. Front and center is the inspiring story of Jewish widow Edie Windsor’s 40-year relationship with her late wife, but apart from the fascinating legal strategy, we learn how Kaplan herself was transformed by her fight for spousal rights for others and how she struggled with her own story of coming out, earning acceptance from her Jewish community and eventually creating a loving Jewish family. A real page-turner with an inspirational message.

“Safekeeping” by Jessymyn Hope. Fig Tree Books, 2015

It’s the summer of 1994 on Kibbutz Sadot Hadar near the city of Haifa, a small but proud agricultural community in the midst of profound change. Three strangers arrive as summertime kibbutz volunteers: Ulya, a beauty from the former Soviet Union with big dreams; Adam, a Jewish New Yorker and recovering drug addict on a mission; and Claudette, a young Catholic woman from Quebec with an agonizing past. None are aware of how the summer will not only change them forever, but affect the once-comfortable life of Ziva, the aged kibbutz matriarch who embodies the essence of the Zionist dream. In this well-written debut novel by a promising new author, readers will be fully absorbed by these convincing characters as they search for the redemption they desperately seek.

“Honeydew: Stories” by Edith Pearlman. Back Bay Books, 2015 

This new collection of short stories by the multiple award-winning author of “Binocular Vision” validates Pearlman’s reputation as a singular talent. Bursting from her accomplished format and insightful vision are tales of love, hope, pain, age and youth.  With a light touch and her signature wit, this heralded master of the short story breathes life into realistic characters; often Jewish, usually flawed, but always fascinating.


Lisa Silverman is the library director at Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

For Chanukah, books that bind us


Giving a book as a Chanukah gift is a fine, old Jewish tradition, although nowadays books often take the form of a Kindle download or a digital gift certificate from Amazon rather than a festively wrapped hardcover. Still, the tactile pleasures of what publishers now refer to as a “physical book” are undeniable, and for those who are shopping for book lovers, the season brings some exceptional choices.

For eye-dazzle, theological mind-play and sheer chutzpah, “The 613” by painter and muralist Archie Rand (Blue Rider Press) is unique. The text consists of nothing more than one-line summaries of the 613 mitzvot that are regarded as divine commandments in observant Judaism. For each one, Rand provides a painting that depicts the commandment in ways that are sometimes literal, sometimes oblique and sometimes just baffling, but always provocative. The 241st commandment (“To leave gleanings”), for example, is illustrated by an image depicting a distraught figure running away from a biplane as it strafes the ground around him.

Rand himself contributes a resonant introduction: “Judaism and art don’t mix well,” he explains. “ ‘The 613’ houses an unwilling Judaism, invited to sit on view in this fun house.” It’s significant that the enthusiastic blurbs for the book come from luminaries ranging from essayist Cynthia Ozick to director Ang Lee, from Rabbi Laura Geller to Playboy artist LeRoy Neiman, but the one that says it best is from Art Spiegelman, creator of “Maus.” “Archie Rand’s ‘The 613’ is all the religion one can use in a lifetime,” Spiegelman enthuses. “… In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow’!”

The books and movies that we call “noir” were often created by Jews but seldom featured Jewish characters or settings, and prize-winning mystery writer Kenneth Wishnia insists there is something deeply Jewish about the fatalism that is a hallmark of the genre. “In Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get screwed,” he explains in “Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds” (PM Press). “That’s noir.” There are rarities and delights throughout Wishnia’s collection, ranging from a 1912 story that first appeared in Yiddish in the pages of the Forverts, to a resurrected little masterpiece by the immortal Harlan Ellison, “Final Shtick.” One contributor, Adam Fisher, is a rabbi, although his story, “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah,” contains some ribaldries that have never been heard coming from a pulpit. Heywood Gould’s “Everything Is Bashert” conflates a hard-boiled tale of murder and mayhem with pious (and ironic) quotations from the Shulchan Arukh. And a story by film historian Eddie Muller, the celebrated “Czar of Noir,” is ornamented with an irresistible opening line: “The mishegas really started with the cat, but my version begins with Daphne’s boobs.”

Now that we all know the Bible is Donald Trump’s favorite book, we have new reasons to delve into the Scripture, if only to find out what unspecified message he finds so compelling. To assist us in our own Bible reading, Oxford University Press has issued an elegant and authoritative new edition of the Tanakh under the title “The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition,” edited by Hebrew Bible scholars Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Starting with a refreshed and revised version of the venerable 1917 translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), they have enhanced the received word with introductory essays as well as maps, charts, tables and diagrams, all of them contributed by a roster of fellow scholars. 

The core text is presented in a page design that resembles the Talmud, with the JPS translation surrounded on all sides by lavish explanatory notes and commentaries that enable us to enter the text in fresh and illuminating ways. The goal, as the editors explain, is “to convey the best of modern academic scholarship on the Bible,” but always with “a strong conviction that this approach does not undermine Judaism, as leading figures of a previous generation had argued, but can add significant depth to Jewish belief and values.” 

For exactly that reason, I suspect that some readers will, as I did, spend even more time in the footnotes than in the Scripture.

Gloria Steinem is so iconic that even the sound of her voice over the radio is instantly recognizable, a fact that surely results from her tireless activism. “My Life on the Road” (Random House) is a chronicle of what she has heard and what she has learned over the decades she has spent as an advocate for women’s rights and women’s causes, a mission that necessarily required her to address audiences of both genders and every point of view. 

As a young woman, she was determined not to follow in the footsteps of her restless father, whose absences were painful for young Gloria, but her life’s work turned her into a kind of latter-day Joe Hill, wandering from place to place and showing up wherever the action is. “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy,” she explains. “It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories — in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.” Whether chatting up a taxicab driver or delivering a formal address at Harvard, Steinem always seeks to connect with those she wants to influence and inspire. “If you want people to listen to you,” she writes, “you have to listen to them.”

Journalist Dan Ephron succeeds in elevating the hard facts of history into an epic and a tragedy in the pages of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel” (Norton), a work of investigation and analysis that often reads like a police procedural or a political thriller. Yet Ephron — who reported from Israel for Newsweek — is just as interested in showing us the precarious state of politics and diplomacy that prevailed at the moment of the assassination in 1995. The parallel accounts of a visionary and courageous Israeli leader and his relentless assassin are ultimately heartbreaking, but they also help us understand the slough of despair into which Israel and the Middle East slumped in the aftermath of Rabin’s murder. “A twenty-something law student, smart and exceedingly radical …, set out to alter the slope of history,” Ephron writes, “and succeeded.”

Everyone has an opinion on the Middle East, but when Dennis Ross speaks, people listen. As a participant in American policy-making under several presidents, Ross was the voice of America in peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and he sums up what he saw in “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a book that takes on a special relevance in light of recent tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Such tension is nothing new, he reports. The realities of American politics, for example, cautioned Truman during the birth pangs of the Jewish state: “He faced constraints, and the actual support he provided was limited.” Even in those early days, Ross reports, Truman was unhappy over the reluctance of Israel “to allow at least some Arab refugees to return after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” 

Ross accepts that American and Israeli interests may diverge: “Perhaps the best approach is one that tries to distinguish with the Israelis between those issues that actually do pose existential threats and those that do not.” And Ross issues a warning: “While humility should be the order of the day in predicting what will unfold in the Middle East, one thing is clear: The U.S.-Israel relationship is going to be buffeted by the transformation that is taking place.”

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

After more than 70 thrillers, the writing Kellermans go on tour


Jonathan and Faye Kellerman are happily married, have four talented children, live in a spacious Beverly Hills home and have a joint family business that probes the darkest crevices of the human psyche and soul.

The parents, together with son Jesse, are arguably the first family of crime fiction, with a combined output to gladden the heart of any bibliophile.

And now, in a rare break from their strict daily writing regime, parents and son are hitting the road — at least as far as Orange County. They will talk about the Jewish writer’s life and their new books on Oct. 29 and Nov. 3 at the Book Carnival in Orange, and on Nov. 8 at University Synagogue in Irvine.

Together, the Kellerman clan has written more than 70 crime novels, which have sold more than 100 million copies in this country and abroad. Jonathan leads in the family derby with 39 novels and six texts on psychology; followed by Faye, with 27 suspense novels; and Jesse, who has written or co-written nine novels and plays. These works have won more awards than can be listed in one article and are fixtures on The New York Times best-sellers lists.

Apparently, none of the Kellermans has ever encountered the bane of writer’s block, they testified during a nearly two-hour interview in the couple’s living room, joined via phone by Jesse in Berkeley.

 “We’re professionals,” Jonathan said, and he would no more use a writer’s block affliction to miss a publisher’s deadline “than a plumber would cancel a job because of plumber’s block.”

Yet, with all that success and experience, writing is still a demanding task for Jonathan, 67, and Faye, 63. “It doesn’t get any easier, though you reach a certain level of self-confidence,” Faye said.

The family is intensely Jewish and Zionist. Both parents define their religious Judaism as “traditional” and they worship at the Beverly Hills Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation.

In their writing, both draw on Jewish characters and experiences, most obviously Faye, whose Rina Lazarus is a Torah-observant lead protagonist. Jonathan’s Alex Delaware, a fixture in most of his novels as the author’s more glamorous alter ego, is a self-described “mutt,” likely with an admixture of Jewish genes.

Lazarus aids her husband, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Lt. Peter Decker, in solving crimes, and both reappear in Faye’s latest thriller, “The Theory of Death,” which the author will discuss during her Orange County tour. (She visits the Book Carnival on Oct. 29.)

The book starts with the discovery of a nude male body with a single gunshot through the head. The trail leads to “scheming academics, secret cyphers and hidden corruption, where even harmless nerds can morph into cold, calculating geniuses” who orchestrate a “dark, twisted tale created by depraved and evil masterminds,” according to the book jacket.

Jonathan, in turn, will introduce his new work, “The Golem of Paris,” his second collaboration with Jesse, 37. (The pair will appear Nov. 3 at the Book Carnival.)

At the center of the book is LAPD Detective Jacob Lev, who has been on a downward spiral but pulls himself together as the search to solve a gruesome murder takes him to the bright lights — and dark corners — of Paris.

A former yeshiva student, Jonathan was born in New York City; his wife is a St. Louis native raised in Sherman Oaks. They arrived at their craft from distinctly different backgrounds.

Jonathan worked his way through UCLA as an editorial cartoonist, writer and guitarist, and at 22 received the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for Fiction. Winners of this award usually turn to a screenwriting career, but Jonathan has resolutely stayed away from Hollywood. Like Alex Delaware, his fictional protagonist, Jonathan received a doctorate in psychology at 24, specializing in the treatment of children.

Indeed, his first published book was a medical text, “Psychological Aspects of Childhood Cancer,” followed by “Helping the Fearful Child.” Although no longer active as a psychotherapist, he is a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at the USC Keck School of Medicine.

While Jonathan has drawn heavily on his professional background for his suspense novels, Faye has found her UCLA doctoral degree in dentistry less applicable to her writing. Nevertheless, her first novel, which introduced Lazarus and Decker in “The Ritual Bath,” won a top writing award. The New York Times praised the two lead characters, noting that “this couple’s domestic affairs have the haimish warmth of reality, unlike the formulaic lives of so many other genre detectives.”

The Kellermans’ four adult children apparently share their parents’ professional interests.

Jesse studied at a yeshiva in Israel before earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Harvard and a master’s degree in playwriting from Brandeis University. He has written five mystery novels on his own and two in collaboration with his father, and was recognized as America’s most promising young playwright in 2003.

Of the couple’s three daughters, Rachel and Ilana specialize in child psychology, while Aliza, after writing a book jointly with her mother, is now working on her own novel.

In their large home, crammed with books and decorated with posters and book jackets of their own works, husband and wife work in separate offices. In the beginning of their writing careers, Jonathan said, “We used to read each other’s drafts in progress, but now we are both confident enough that we just read the finished books.”

During our interview, Jonathan, Faye and Jesse shared some observations on their work and reflections on society in general.

Faye: I am a very rosy person who writes like a dark, cynical one.

Jonathan: The appeal of a crime book is that it ends with a 100 percent resolution.

Jesse: We crime novelists have a great pulpit. We write about justice and about correcting injustice.

Jonathan: I like to solve problems in my writing. It’s like dealing with a new patient.

Jonathan: We hear a lot about serial killers, but we’ve had those in the past. One difference is the speed with which information travels.

Jonathan: The most fearful experience for kids is to watch the nightly TV news. … The parents should always be with them to put the events in context.

Jesse: As a species we humans are getting a little bit better — but not a whole lot. In general, the human race is still a young organism.

Faye: All of us think we live in unusual times and the next generation is going to hell. But we’ve been through it all before.

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A Gehry biography with in-depth detail, but lacking in passion


I generally approach a new biography by attempting to shut out competing noise.  I focus on the biographer and his subject; in this case, Paul Goldberger’s masterful but frustrating new work, “Building Art: The Life and Work Of Frank Gehry” (Knopf).  But this time I didn’t start with the book.  I began by watching Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”  I confess I knew little about Gehry before approaching this project other than the fact that he was an 86-year-old world-renowned architect who had created some of the most striking structures of our time.  Among them the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the skyscraper on Spruce Street in Manhattan, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in  Paris, and so many others.  But Gehry disappointed me.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  He seemed distracted and self-centered and disinclined to engage with the filmmaker in any form of psychological discourse that might help us understand him better.  Pollack, genial as ever and a friend of Gehry, seemed amused by the architect’s distractedness; but I wasn’t and hoped that Paul Goldberger’s biography would fill in some of the blanks. 

The future Frank Gehry was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto.  Growing up, he had a turbulent relationship with his father, who was a violent man troubled by his repeated failures in business.  Gehry’s mother instilled in him a love of art and music.  His parent’s marriage was combustible, and Gehry’s best memories are quieter moments with his maternal grandmother, who would bring him wood carvings and play with him on the floor.  His father’s poor health prompted the family to move to California when Gehry was 18.  It was an instant love affair: Gehry saw California as his own promised land.   He studied architecture at the University of Southern California and opened his practice in 1962. 

Gehry’s personal life was often a messy affair.  Goldberger outlines for us his failed first marriage and his almost nonexistent relationship with the two daughters it produced.  Gehry married again later on; to a much younger woman who seemed to be able to telepathically sense his needs.  This union, still ongoing, has produced two sons, one of whom now works with his father.  Throughout his adult life, Gehry was in therapy with an unconventional therapist named Milton Wexler, who played a pivotal role in his development.  He encouraged Gehry to end his first marriage, and prompted him to go through with a second one years later, even though Gehry was resistant.  He worked with Gehry on dealing with clients and friends and relatives.  Gehry could often be shy and awkward while giving presentations to important clients, and Wexler worked with him on smoothing out some of his rough edges.    He also encouraged him to channel his persistent angst into his fabulous creations.  Wexler got him to participate in group therapy sessions, where Gehry admits he spent the first few years completely silent until others in the group finally confronted him on his ongoing passivity and judgmental demeanor.  But one senses that work and his creative life were always his main sustenance.  Gehry left a trail of broken friendships behind him seemingly oblivious to what he had done.  Goldberger presents this less attractive side of Gehry to us clearly and factually, but seems a bit starry-eyed about Frank and cuts him too much slack.  Gehry’s failings are often whitewashed away with explanations that are less than convincing. 

Goldberger had unprecedented access to Gehry for this biography.  He met with him for countless hours at Gehry’s home, and at his office, and even on Gehry’s beloved boat.   He tells us that Gehry often experienced periods of doubt and seems to still crave acceptance and fear rejection and wants and needs to feel loved.   But even Goldberger seems to sense that he didn’t get where he wanted to with Gehry.  He writes “Our conversations always had substance to them, although I am struck, looking back at the transcripts, by how rarely I succeeded in my intentions of having our interviews proceed in orderly fashion throughout his life.  Frank Gehry lives in the present, and talks most comfortably about what he is doing now-or, more to the point, what he hope to be doing next week, next month, and next year.  Looking back is not his favorite thing to do.” 

Goldberger spends many of the best chapters of his book outlining for us the challenges Gehry faced as he approached each of his projects.  He explains to us how Gehry’s work was greatly enhanced by the new computer software that allowed Gehry to take his scribbled pen and ink sketches which he drew on small sheets of paper and turn them into viable models.   The book is sprinkled with replicas of these drawings and the reader marvels at the raw and imaginative talent that drove Gehry throughout his career.  Before the software was available, Gehry would work by assembling simple wood blocks that represented the layout of his project’s components and then play incessantly with the forms that he would eventually place upon the existing structures.  It was often an excruciating and exhilarating process of adding things and taking them away until Gehry saw something that looked right to him.  But he admitted that even after his buildings went up, he would look at them disappointedly, seeing only the changes he would still like to make, and feel frustrated that he could no longer do so.

Gehry saw himself as a modernist but grew tired of the constraints of modernism.  He experimented with new materials like corrugated metal, chain links, titanium plates, and other industrial materials.  His buildings often have the feeling of the fluidity of movement moving through them.  Goldberger believes his work combines “modernist lightness and solid monumental weight without having these two things feel contradictory.”

In 1998, writing for the Los Angeles Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about Gehry, claiming that his “architecture is often a painful psychological struggle, a balance between the competing impulses of freedom and anger that define his life.  It is, ultimately, about control…One of the surprises of Gehry’s work is his violence.  Each of his famously euphoric and sensual designs-for the Guggenheim, for the Disney Hall-emerges not only from a sense of joyful chaos but also from a mind seemingly tearing apart both a fragile inner world and our shared culture history, and then carefully piecing them back together his way.”  Ourousssoff’s critique sheds some light on what is missing from Goldberger’s analysis.  Ouroussoff seems able to simultaneously analyze Gehry’s architectural work while integrating this analysis within a larger portrait of who Gehry is as a person and the competing forces that drove him.   Goldberger never gets this close and relies too heavily on generalities.   He never connects the dots.  One senses Gehry intimidates him. 

Even the late Herbert Muschamp, the former architecture critic of The New York Times, tapped into something about Gehry that Goldberger misses.  Muschamp was so overwhelmed after seeing the Guggenheim in Bilbao that he described it euphorically as “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe…What twins the actress and the building in my memory is that both of them stand for an American style of freedom.  That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive, and exhibitionist.  It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child.  It can’t resist doing a dance with all of the voice that say ‘No.’  It wants to take up a lot of space.  And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let it fly up in the air.”  Muschamp, like Ouroussoff, wrote about Gehry’s work in a way that allows us to view the complexity of his architecture and how it intersects with the complexity of the man.  We find ourselves wishing author Goldberger had allowed himself the same freedom to do so.

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

The Holocaust in a new and revelatory light


Scholars are notoriously critical and even cranky readers, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowicz (“The War Against the Jews 1933-1945”) was bitterly disparaged by Raul Hilberg (“The Destruction of the European Jews”), and Hilberg was faulted by Hugh Trevor-Roper for inspiring Hannah Arendt’s tendency to blame the victims in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” may have been a best-seller but he endured a dismissive backlash from his colleagues, ranging from Walter Laqueur to Yehuda Bauer to the inevitable Hilberg, who complained that Goldhagen was “totally wrong about everything.”

So it was not without risk that a young historian named Timothy Snyder ventured into these treacherous waters in 2010 when he published “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” a highly original study of mass murder during World War II that courageously compared the victims of both Nazi and Soviet terror and, intriguingly, reframed the history of the second world war by pointing out that a stretch of territory in Eastern Europe and Western Russia has been mostly overlooked as the ground zero of mass murder in the mid-20th century.

Now Snyder tightens his focus on the Holocaust itself in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (Tim Duggan Books), and so far he has elicited only the highest esteem of his colleagues. “Timothy Snyder is now our most distinguished historian of evil,” Leon Wieseltier declares. “As he did in ‘Bloodlands,’ ” Deborah Lipstadt adds, “Timothy Snyder makes us rethink those things we were sure we already knew.” To which I must add my own praise: No matter how many histories, biographies and memoirs you may have already read, “Black Earth” will compel you to see the Holocaust in a wholly new and revelatory light.

From the outset of “Black Earth,” Snyder characteristically challenges the whole body of conventional wisdom about the Holocaust. “Our intuitions fail us,” he writes. “We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one.” Above all, he insists that we have not yet fully understood the Holocaust, even after more than 75 years of effort. “The history of the Holocaust is not over,” Snyder writes. “Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

Hitler’s murderous intent toward the Jews has been no secret since 1925, when “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) was first published, but Snyder allows the modern reader to see Hitler’s Jew-hatred in a wholly new and unexpected context. “An instructive account of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe must be planetary, because Hitler’s thought was ecological,” Snyder writes. “As in Genesis, so in ‘My Struggle,’ nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races.” The brave new world that he envisioned would be not only Judenfrei, but also cleansed of all human beings whom he regarded as unworthy of life, and all in order to make room for the master race: “After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction.”

Such vaunting aspirations would have remained nothing more than the broodings of an eccentric if Hitler had not also been a master strategist, or so Snyder allows us to see. By 1939, Hitler had succeeded in placing Germany under his totalitarian rule, pushing its boundaries to the outermost limits short of war, and preparing for the war that the Western democracies were willing to do almost anything to avoid. It is no coincidence, Snyder suggests, that the first shots of World War II were fired in Poland, the home of
3 million Jews and the place where the machinery of the Holocaust would be built and operated.

Along the way, Snyder reveals little-known facts that cast a new light on what may seem like a familiar history. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of right-wing Zionism, argued that the mandate to govern Palestine should be given to Poland, which had a more urgent motive than Great Britain to permit the entry of Jews by the millions. And when Snyder considers the so-called Madagascar Plan, a fantasy of some European diplomats based on the transfer of the Jewish population of Europe to that island in the Indian Ocean, he decodes the phrase: “It was synonymous with a Final Solution; or, in Himmler’s words, ‘the complete extirpation of the concept of the Jews,’ ” he writes. “German leaders would later continue to speak of ‘Madagascar’ even after their men had killed the Jews who were supposed to emigrate there.”

Snyder is a disciplined historian whose stock in trade is the documentable fact, but he has an obvious appreciation for poetry and an appreciation of poetic justice. The book opens with fragments of evocative verse, and Snyder pauses here and there to observe, for example, that the invasion of Poland was “a bloody tragedy that was equal to the darkest poetic fantasy.” At the same time, he marks it as a momentous event in Hitler’s grand strategy, which was fixed on the conquest of the Soviet Union: “The Polish state was to be destroyed because in 1939 Hitler was angry and impatient and had no better way of approaching the Soviet border than by obliterating the country that lay between.” And, at the same time, the outbreak of war was a necessary precondition to the Holocaust: “In the zone of double darkness, where Nazi creativity met Soviet precision, the black hole was found.”

A toolmark of Snyder’s study of history is his insistence on reminding us that, when Germany invaded Poland from one side and the Soviet Union did the same from the other side, “[T]he Soviets were the senior partners in political violence.” And it is a measure of Snyder’s vigor as a writer that he memorably describes their policy of murdering the Polish intelligentsia and terrorizing the rest of the population as “the Soviet decapitation of society … accompanied by a zombification of the social body.” But he also concedes that the Nazis engaged in “unprecedented mass murder” when they convinced themselves, in 1941, that “all Jews under their control could be eliminated,” and set out to do so. “By the end of 1941, the Germans, with help from Soviet citizens, had killed some one million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union.”

Although “Black Earth” is an overview of the Holocaust, no telling detail escapes Snyder’s attention. He ponders (and explains) the fact that Estonia and Denmark have much in common and yet 99 percent of the Jews in Estonia were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, while 99 percent of the Jews who held Danish citizenship survived. He compares the fate of three important chroniclers of the Holocaust — Victor Klemperer, Anne Frank and Emanuel Ringelblum — and explains why only Klemperer survived. And he explains why some of Germany’s allies did not bother to send their Jews to the Bloodlands, but killed them in home-grown Holocausts of their own.

Perhaps the most emblematic moment in “Black Earth” — a moment that is reminiscent of “Bloodlands” — is when Snyder considers the irony of Auschwitz, which was both a death camp and a labor camp and, for that reason, a place where a few Jews could and did survive. “Almost literally no Jew who stood at the edge of a death pit survived, and almost literally no Jew who entered Treblinka or Belzec or Sobibor or Chelmno survived,” Snyder writes. “The word ‘Auschwitz’ has become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole. Yet the vast majority of Jews had already been murdered, further east, by the time that Auschwitz became a major killing facility. Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been largely forgotten.”

This, of course, is exactly what Snyder sets out to correct. “The Holocaust is not only history, but warning,” he writes, and it is a warning that we ignore at our own peril. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which is quoted and cited in “Black Earth.”

Words to amuse and amaze


Novelist Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections,” “Freedom”) is such a draw that his public appearances are more like rock concerts than bookstore readings. For example, his gig promoting his new book, “Purity” (Bond Street Books), requires advance tickets at $33 apiece — the ticket comes with a copy of the book. “Jonathan Franzen WILL NOT be posing for pictures,” warns the website of Skylight Books (” target=”_blank”>skylightbooks.com or