‘Of Kings and Prophets’: A new spin on the Old Testament

Religion, politics, and a good measure of sex and violence combine in the ABC series “Of Kings and Prophets,” which debuted March 8 and chronicles the Old Testament story of David’s rise from shepherd to king of Israel, along with his complicated relationship with his predecessor, King Saul.

“I don’t think there’s a better story in the Bible than the story of King David. He was, in many ways, the first rock star. Three thousand years later, we’re still singing his songs,” executive producer Reza Aslan said. “He was very complicated, vain, vengeful. He had many wives, most of whom he betrayed. He betrayed his friends. But he was also deeply pious. He loved God, he was constantly asking for forgiveness. His story is full of twists and turns, violence and sexuality, and that makes for a good television drama.”

The latter two elements made it a tough sell. Aslan, who is also a best-selling author, and Mahyad Tousi, his partner at BoomGen Studios, first developed the idea for the series back in 2010 but potential buyers were scandalized by it, Aslan said. 

“They thought religious people would be offended. But all of it is in the Bible.”

The books of the prophet Samuel were the primary source, supplemented by historical accounts and scholarly texts. 

“It’s fairly loyal to the scripture,” Aslan said. “But often motivations are left out [of the source material]. Rarely is there any discussion of what drives people’s actions, what they’re thinking, what their relationships are. We had to fill in a lot of that empty space, create motivations and dialogue. Certain things happen in the scripture without explanation and that doesn’t work on screen.”

The first of nine weekly episodes launched with King Saul (Ray Winstone) battling to unify the Twelve Tribes of Israel and David (Olly Rix) tending his sheep. 

David is anointed by Samuel (Mohammad Bakri) in Episode 2 and has his famous slingshot showdown with Goliath in the third episode. Aslan said he has “at least four seasons already mapped out.”

“This story lends itself to a gradual telling,” Aslan said. 

Shot in Cape Town, South Africa, for its verisimilitude to the lush landscape of ancient Israel, the production was an enormous undertaking. “We built entire cities. We have many hundreds of extras. We’re talking about an epic project on a massive scale,” Aslan said, likening it to “Game of Thrones” —  “with fewer dragons.”

To achieve historical authenticity in the settings, props and costumes, the production had scholars and experts on call. Aslan recalled rejecting early sketches that portrayed Saul’s palace as too grand and ornate. 

“This was a tiny, impoverished, irrelevant, insignificant sect in a tiny backwater, surrounded by mighty empires that wanted them gone. Three thousand years later, of course, there are no Hittites, Edomites, Philistines or Egyptian empire, and Israel is still here.”

Efforts were made to cast “Of Kings and Prophets” with diversity in mind. There are Palestinian-Israeli, Lebanese, Maori, Cuban, African-American and multiple mixed-race actors in regular roles, as well as several strong female characters. Aslan and Tousi are Iranian Muslims; and co-creators Adam Cooper and Bill Collage are Jewish and Christian, respectively.

“We’ve got Muslims, a Christian and a Jew. It’s not like we tried to do that, but it happened that way and it was fortuitous,” Aslan said. “David is an incredibly important part of the Tanakh but he’s hugely important to Christians and Muslims, too.”

Aslan, who was 7 when his family fled Iran during the revolution of 1979, said he saw firsthand the power that religion has to transform societies for better or for worse.

“That’s always left a deep impression upon me,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion and how it creates identity, the power that it has over society and the role of religion in politics because I’ve been deeply impacted in a very personal way.”

Aslan holds a bachelor of arts in religious studies from Santa Clara University, a master of theological studies from Harvard, a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC Santa Barbara and a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa. He’s a best-selling author (“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”) and interviews writers on his weekly Ovation talk show, “Rough Draft With Reza Aslan.” 

“I’ve had the opportunity for the last decade to bring some measure of reason and logic and calm conversation to the public debate about the role of religion in society, and I take that very seriously,” he said.

Aslan believes that the story told in “Of Kings and Prophets” remains relevant to the modern world. “In David’s time, a tribe and God were one and the same. When David talks about Elohim, he’s talking about his own identity and his tribe’s identity. Faith is a part of who you are and how you see the world, how you make your decisions, how you interpret your actions and everyone else’s actions,” he said. “It’s as true today as it was 3,000 years ago.” 

Of Kings and Prophets” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Ferreting out the truth about a complicated King David

King David is like no other figure in the Hebrew Bible. “We know David as majestic king and lowly shepherd, as valiant warrior and soothing singer, as ruthless killer and passionate lover, as enraptured dancer and pious saint,” observes Jacob Wright in “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory” (Cambridge University Press). “No wonder it has been said that Israel revered Moses but loved David.” This is one of two books on David to appear in recent months. The other is by Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, “David: The Divided Heart,” previously reviewed in these pages (“Portrait of a Very Human King David,” Sept. 11).

Wright, who teaches Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Emory University, acknowledges that David has been much written about already, both in the pages of the Bible and over the centuries thereafter. He wonders aloud how the biblical biography of David in the Book of Samuel, which is brutally and even scandalously frank, could have come into existence if David was the revered figure we imagine him to be. His new book offers an answer to that question, and it offers a fascinating and surprising key to one of the most enduring mysteries of the Bible.

The key is Caleb, who may be an obscure biblical character nowadays, but who plays a crucial role in the account of the conquest of Canaan as we find it in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. It was Caleb who brought a “good report” back to Moses after he sent 12 spies into Canaan in advance of the Israelite invasion, and who “is remembered for his exceptional valor in conquering the city of Hebron.” Wright teases out the clues that show us how the biblical authors recalled and used the exploits of Caleb “to send a message to the larger society that a minority group” — that is, the descendants of Caleb, known as Calebites — “deserves honor and respect.”

Wright, who is among the brightest young scholars in the academy, seeks to place his arguments and discoveries in a context that the modern lay reader can understand. He starts by pointing out the thoroughly human impulse to engage in “war commemoration” in statuary and literature, and then he shows us “how biblical writers used war commemoration to make Caleb into the first and greatest hero in the Judahite collective memory,” a hero so commanding that he “rivals David in the halls of biblical history.”

At the same time, the celebration of Caleb in the biography of David suggests that Judah was not a tribe in itself but rather a “patchwork kingdom with regions, cities, and clans, each with their own identity and agendas,” one of which was the Calebites. Even the “united kingdom” that David is credited with creating is based on “raw force rather than appeal to the nation’s interests,” as Wright explains. “Perhaps Israel (once) loved David, and perhaps such extraordinarily violent actions were needed to prevent the disunion of Israel and Judah. But David is no Abraham Lincoln.”

David and Caleb, then, were rivals in the same sense that the tribe of Judah and the Calebites were rivals, and the Bible preserves their rivalry like a fly in amber. “Armed with memories of Caleb’s valor,” Wright explains, “Calebite groups could position their ancestor against the revered figure of the Judahite court, King David.” 

These sharp edges in the history of ancient Israel strike sparks in the biblical account of David’s encounter with a “churlish” Calebite landowner named Nabal, who “refuses to pay for the ‘protection’ afforded by David and his warriors.” Wright points out that other passages in the Bible seem to affirm the claim of the Calebites to Hebron and its environs, and the story of Nabal represents a counter-claim by Judahite authors in what he calls a “memory war.” Wright explains: “By constructing memories of cities and groups that betrayed David in times of war or that aided and abetted his enemies, the Judahite court could target cities and clans that threatened to obstruct its agendas.” 

Wright’s remarkable book exists in two versions. The print version, which is reviewed here, is published by Cambridge University Press. A multimedia digital version, titled “King David and His Reign Revisited,” is available as an iBook at the Apple iTunes store.  The scope of each book is slightly different — the iBook is more narrowly focused on King David, and yet it includes a rich collection of audio clips, videos and imagery, and the print version explores the linkages that Wright has detected between David and Caleb.

Wright’s book is a superb example of how biblical scholarship at its best can reframe the Bible itself and reveal pathways into history for the open-eyed and open-minded reader. At the same time, I could not help but see how the book sheds light on the heartbreaking conflicts and divisions in the State of Israel and the modern Jewish world — Israel was a diverse and pluralistic place even in antiquity, and the real challenge, then and now, is to find a way for Judahites and Calebites, and many others besides, to coexist on the same soil.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, will appear with Wright and Wolpe on a panel titled “Tales of Power and Passion: King David Then and Now,” moderated by professor T. C. Eskenazi, on Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
For free reservations, click

Holiday season brings authors to SoCal

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

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

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

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NBC’s ‘Kings’ Revamps David, Goliath and Saul

Michael Green was walking down a street in Jerusalem in late 2006 when the concept of the new television series “Kings” came into focus.

“The idea had been roiling my brain for a while,” Green said, so he sat down to write the pilot for “Kings,” while working as writer and co-executive producer for “Heroes.”

NBC’s “Kings” starts its regular Sunday evening run at 8 p.m. on March 22, after a special two-hour premiere this Sunday, March 15. The show takes the biblical drama of young David, Goliath, King Saul and the prophet Samuel and transports it to a contemporary city that looks a lot like a gleaming New York after a thorough scrubbing.

Don’t look for a 21st century swords-and-sandals, however. The political intrigues and corporate power plays have a distinctly Washingtonian ring, and part of the fun is to look for parallels to the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, Middle East conflicts and even the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Green, who attended a yeshiva in New York, is a bit coy about drawing direct biblical-contemporary comparisons.

“It’s not for me to say what the parallels are,” he commented. “That’s up to each viewer.”

However, any Jewish or Christian viewer who stayed awake in Sunday school should have no trouble identifying the TV protagonists with their biblical counterparts.

We meet King Silas Benjamin (King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, first king of Israel), David Shepherd (David, the shepherd), the king’s son Jack (Jonathan), his daughter Michelle (Michal), and the Rev. Ephraim Samuels (the Prophet Samuel).

Actors in the two key roles are Ian McShane (“Heroes”) as the king and Australian actor Chris Egan as David.

In the premiere episode, we find the king, in an expensive power suit ruling over the prosperous Kingdom of Gilboa and ensconced with his queen in a mansion in the capital of Shiloh.

He is also at war with neighboring Gath, and when his son is kidnapped during a military skirmish, it is David, a fellow soldier, who frees Jack and earns the gratitude of the king.

To free the hostage, David has to do battle with Goliath, who appears in a rather unexpected form. At home, David becomes an instant media favorite.

Peace is made but soon broken, followed by new negotiations with prickly Gath officers, who look suspiciously like Russian generals, with square faces and jackets full of medals. On a softer touch, David and Michelle (the beautiful Allison Miller) begin to fall in love.

As creator and executive producer of “Kings,” Green makes it even tougher to define the precise genre of the series by introducing touches of sci-fi and fantasy. For instance, the emblem of Gilboa is the orange monarch butterfly, and when a successor to the king is anointed, a swarm of butterflies form a crown around the chosen one’s head.

By contrast, the flag of Gath sports a star, through Green denies that it is modeled on the five-pointed Soviet star.

“King’s” crew has shot 14 episodes —a season’s worth, and the premiere contains two of them—in and around New York, at studios in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and in a Nassau County mansion.

With a large cast, opulent palace scenes and shooting in New York, this is an expensive production.

Green begged off giving an exact budget figure, but he put the cost of an average prime-time TV episode at between $2 million and $4.5 million, with “Kings” definitely on the high end.

Green, 36, is a native New Yorker, with close ties to Israel. His mother was born in Tel Aviv and came to the United States after finishing her army service, met Green’s father, and “has visited ever since,” Green said, adding, “most of my extended family lives in Israel.

He is optimistic that “Kings” will eventually be seen on Israeli and British television, which usually happens after a new series’ second or third season in the United States.

Green reinforced his boyhood yeshiva studies with a more academic perspective when he took a double major in human biology and religious studies at Stanford University.

After college, his interest turned to story writing, rather than religion or biology.

He noted, “I once created the character of a doctor in one of my shows, but never became one myself – to the disappointment of my parents.”

Film about interfaith lovers takes Shakespearian turn

“Who here believes it’s acceptable to marry outside of your faith?”

The question was posed before a screening of the latest Romeo and Juliet takeoff, “David and Fatima,” at the Laemmle on July 16. About 50 hands went up—a combination of some that shot up like rockets and those of a more timid crowd who, after looking around, decided to put their hands halfway up in the air.

The man behind the question, Jordan Elgrably, had—like any good emcee—ulterior motives. Elgrably is also the director of the Levantine Cultural Center, the local organization that calls itself a “nexus for Middle Eastern/North African and Mediterranean cultures.” After seeing the response, Elgrably joked that the “good half” of the crowd who support interfaith couples should band together, and the others who don’t should sit together, shunned.

In “David and Fatima,” the Montague and the Capulet clans become the Aziz and the Isaacs, setting the stage for a battle of the two faiths. So, as would be expected, by the end of the film, both actors lay lifeless on the screen. But the cast and crew came back to life for a Q-and-A session.

The movie got its backbone from director Alain Zaloum, who got the gig by responding to an ad on Craigslist seeking a director. Zaloum, who later rewrote the script to his liking, joked that since he was director number seven, the cast and crew was for the most part already attached to the project.

“It was a very angry script at first,” he said of the original. He wanted something that he could put love into, but also something where everyone “felt a sense of tragedy at the end.”

Although the movie has undertones of Muslim-Jewish conflicts, almost everyone involved in the film’s making agreed that it is a love story. And for the critics who felt that the movie plays into the stereotypes of Jews and Arabs, those who made it had a strong message:

“As long as [these conflicts regarding interfaith marriages] happen, films like this can be made and should be made” said Cameron Van Hoy, who plays David.
Martin Landau, who plays a crazed rabbi, echoed Van Hoy’s sentiment by reminding the audience that stereotypes persist because they are repeated by society.

“The ultimate message in this film is that love prevails, and love is number one. Love is God,” said Danielle Pollack, who plays Fatima.

The trailer

Song of the Sons

The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

Magen David Adom and the Case for Diplomacy

GENEVA — After 75 years, humanitarianism prevailed over rejectionism. Last Thursday, in the early morning hours, delegates to the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, assembled in Geneva from 192 states and 183 relief societies, voted by overwhelming majority to recognize the Magen David emblem and admit Israel’s relief society. In marking an end to one of the most notorious international restrictions against the Jewish state — reminiscent of the United Nation’s 1991 repeal of its “Zionism is Racism” indictment — the historic achievement refutes a fatalistic approach toward Israel’s isolation and underscores the potential of determined diplomacy to eliminate the demonization of Israel within key institutions of international law.

Success last week was hardly assured. The two-day conference was marred by acrimony as Muslim delegations from more than 50 countries attempted, first, to force the conference to adjourn, asserting that it was “procedurally illegal.” When that failed, the Islamic bloc, rejecting compromise, demanded last-minute amendments to the conference’s carefully negotiated resolution, seeking to wrest unrelated political concessions from Israel. When those, too, failed — thanks to the resolve and determination of Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and conference chairman Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid (a Jordanian) — the Muslim group filibustered with one point of order after another, forcing the delegates to stay until 3 a.m. before the final vote and conclusion of the conference.

There were sharp words. The Syrian delegate accused Kellenberger of “lacking neutrality and objectivity.” The Palestinian ambassador said the conference was “an Israeli ploy,” and that Israel is the world’s “most flagrant violator of international law.” The Saudi representative said Israel’s relief society violates international humanitarian law “every day.” Iran’s delegate said the Magen David Adom (MDA) “insists on racial discrimination” and that its admission would be a “threat for the unity of the movement.”

It was precisely this sort of vehement opposition — part of a decades-long campaign to cast Israel as a pariah within the international arena — that hitherto prevented the Israeli society from joining the movement.

Few causes in recent years have galvanized supporters of international equality for Israel as much as the exclusion of the MDA. Mobilizing the principal actors — the U.S. government, the American Red Cross, the ICRC and the Swiss government — were not only Israeli démarches, but also the appeals of thousands around the world together with sustained diplomatic campaigns by several groups.

The MDA victory is two-fold. First, Israel’s humanitarian society will now be able to count on the support of the international movement as it fulfills its mission to serve those in need, and to fully cooperate with all societies, including the Palestinian Red Crescent that was admitted simultaneously.

Equally as important, there is a monumental achievement on the level of symbol. The Star of David is the emblem of Israel’s relief society, but it is much more. It is the flag of the State of Israel and the historic symbol of the Jewish people. Until last week — at a major world body that literally defines itself by symbols — the Star of David was rejected. Thanks to the activism of so many around the world, today it is accepted.

With the alarming rise of anti-Israel boycotts and selective divestment, some would surrender to the notion that Israel is fated to dwell alone, relying on the rabbinic dictum of “Esau hates Jacob” as a rule of nature. Hope is not a strategy, but neither is defeatism. The fact is that by working with allies and sympathizers the world over, determined diplomacy repealed an invidious U.N. resolution in 1991, won Israel’s admission to one of the United Nations’ five regional groups (albeit in New York only) in 2000, and, in 2006, has gained international recognition of the Magen David.

Will the U.N. General Assembly ever eliminate its annual ritual of condemning Israel in 19 one-sided resolutions? Will the world body’s human rights apparatus ever abandon special agenda items for the singling-out of Israel? We do not have to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch and editor of its news and comment Web site,

David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?

“The Life of David” by Robert Pinsky (Schocken Books, $19.95).

Every morning, pious Jews pray to God that “the offspring of Your servant David may speedily flourish … for we hope for your salvation all day long.”

The hope of future redemption and a return to ancient glory has long been a staple of Jewish life, based upon God’s promise to David that “your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.”

Through exile and persecution, Jews have held fast to that promise, waiting and praying for the Messiah, who will descend directly from the house of David. Not just a figure of hope for the future, though, David himself has played a role in our collective imagination as a great king, a giant-killer, a musician and poet. Legend says that David himself authored most of the Psalms.

But David’s story is far more complex, and far more interesting. He was, though various rabbis have tried to deny it over the centuries, a deeply flawed — and so fully human — character.

It is the complexity of the character that Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, examines in his new book, “The Life of David.” Brought up on a cheder education, Pinsky has been familiar with the figure of David his whole life, and has been drawn to him, because, as he put it in a phone interview (followed up briefly via e-mail), “This is one of the most manifold and interesting lives ever lived. Great writer, great leader, great killer. His family life, his sex life, his political life, his life in art. All richly complicated and enigmatic.”

Indeed, most people know details of the legend of David — the young shepherd who killed Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot; the young king who spied Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop and committed adultery with her.

As Pinsky writes, “It is an essential part of David’s meaning that he is visible at so many stages of life. Not for David to die young like Achilles, nor to endure old age offstage and out of our sight like Odysseus, nor to go down as a grizzled warrior like Beowulf charging into the cold twilight a final time to kill and die for his people … David’s drama is that of a life entire.”

Pinsky bases his treatment of David in the firm belief that he had to have existed, if only because no people would have created a hero so damaged. As the author intended, the book is “not a traditional biography nor an historical novel,” with the result that the telling dips liberally and idiosyncratically into the realms of biblical scholarship, literary criticism and midrashic exegesis to build its vision of a man who emerges as fascinating and very, very dangerous.

Pinsky writes as a poet, which may be difficult for some readers to follow. The later chapters are more solidly chronological, but generally speaking, the text is not organized sequentially, but associatively, looping back and forth, returning to potent images in a sort of refrain. Ultimately, though, the somewhat elevated style parallels the larger-than-life quality of the story it tells.

And what a story it is. David is by turns pious, loving, brutal, coldly calculating. In Pinsky’s hands, the world in which David flourished is revealed as full of “violence and swagger,” with David the master of that world. Although Pinsky never tries to whitewash David’s character — on the contrary, he revels in the contradictions that David presents — the king remains exemplary. Despite dealing with a character who could be thuggish in his dealings with friends and foes alike, Pinsky accepts the Bible’s attitude toward him, resulting in the outline of a man to be admired more than condemned.

David is the great biblical hero, toward whom the text of the Bible inexorably builds and after whom it never quite recovers. So few of us actually read David’s story from start to finish. We have grown accustomed to viewing the Bible through a veil of sacredness, which often obscures the insights it reveals into psychology and politics. As Pinsky noted, “We think we know these figures and their stories, then we understand how we do not, and then in that strangeness, we find something like ourselves in a new way.”

The “Life of David” returns David to where he belongs, not merely in prayer, but to life.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m., Robert Pinsky will read from “The Life of David” as part of ALOUD at the Central Library. For more information, call (213) 228-7025 or visit

Your Letters

David Lehrer

As a former colleague of David Lehrer, I am shocked and saddened by his firing by Abe Foxman (“Lehrer to Leave,” Dec. 28). Lehrer’s dedication to the protection of the Jewish community was always tantamount, and he was ever the consummate professional.

However, I am even more disappointed by the local ADL lay leadership’s response to the firing — except for Zev Yaroslavsky and John Rosove, who have clearly and plainly labeled the firing the outrage that it is. The local officers have publicly said and done little.

Whether out of loyalty for all that Lehrer has done to develop ADL as the leading Jewish defense agency in Los Angeles or simply a matter of being taken seriously by New York, it seems to me that any self-respecting local board should only have one response to this fiasco: the regional board president, officers and board members should all have their resignations on Foxman’s desk come first thing Monday morning. That would truly prove that we in the L.A. Jewish community take care of those who dedicate their lives to taking care of us.

Robert Smith, Los Angeles

As former employees of ADL’s Los Angeles office, we felt compelled to respond to the recent dismissal of Regional Director David Lehrer. Not only was David an eloquent and effective spokesman for the ADL, he was also a real mensch to work for. We wish him every success, and we are certain that ADL’s misguided decision will surely be another organization’s very fortunate gain. Thank you, David, for 27 years of singular devotion to the L.A. Jewish community and, on a more personal note, for making it a pleasure to come to work.

Cheryl Cutler Azair, Los Angeles; Barbara Bergen, Los Angeles; Jerry Shapiro, Beverly Hills; Roberta Venger Zelkha, Henderson, NV. JCCs

The Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) was created in the biblical logic of Joseph and his Egyptian Pharaoh, as a storehouse for the lean years. The JCF has collected and fattened its corpus by disbursing the legal minimum 5 percent a year during the fat years (“Resolutions,” Jan. 11). The JCC fiscal crisis has created a very lean year.

It’s unfortunate that the majority of the JCCs’ services will sink because of a $2 million-$6 million debt. This JCC debt could be retired in one or two years by increasing the JCF’s unrestricted disbursement from 5 percent to a modest 10 percent. As donors we are often called and told to dig deeper because it’s been a bad year for one of our agencies and its clients. It is now time that the JCF be called upon to dig deeper, because it’s been a bad year for the JCC community, and the rainy day is here.

Pini Herman, Los Angeles

Carin Davis

I am a new reader of The Jewish Journal. I periodically peruse it online and though I don’t normally write these kind of letters, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for your new columnist Carin Davis. I think she’s funny, charming and manages to capture a strong point of view that’s easy to relate to. Bravo to you guys, and keep up the good work. I hope to read more of her in upcoming issues.

Gregory Goldin, Brentwood

For The Kids

Someone familiar with the Bible should be assigned to verify the facts presented in the For The Kids page. It asserted that the Tower of Babel occurred before the flood, a reversal of biblical chronology (Oct. 19). The ultimate error was on Dec. 28, which contained the incredible statement, “In fact, King David was from the tribe of Ephraim.” David was from the tribe of Judah, as even a cursory reading of Ruth, Samuel, Kings or Chronicles will quickly reveal.

It is terrible to give misinformation to children, since they will believe and retain it, especially if it seems to come from an authoritative source.

Solomon Golomb, Los Angeles


In the Jan. 11 article “Tall Torah Tales,” B’nai Jeshrun in Manhattan is a Conservative synagogue.

Suspect Indicted in Murder of JDL’s Krugel

Almost nine months after the brutal prison-yard slaying of Earl Krugel, the longtime No. 2 man in the Jewish Defense League (JDL), federal authorities have indicted an inmate with no apparent ties to Krugel.

The suspect, David Frank Jennings, 30, allegedly attacked Krugel from behind with a piece of concrete hidden in a bag while Krugel was using an exercise machine at a federal prison in Phoenix.

The indictment, issued by a federal grand jury on July 19, offers neither details nor motive, asserting that Jennings “with premeditation and malice aforethought willfully kill and murder Earl Leslie Krugel.”

Jennings is the only person charged in the killing that took place in plain view. Authorities contend that Jennings acted alone.

“He was the only one charged. There was no conspiracy,” said Ann Harwood, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix, Authorities would say little else, including anything about the motive of the alleged killer, a small-time repeat offender with nothing in his rap sheet to suggest either this level of violence or any particular animosity toward the 62-year-old Krugel.

Krugel had been transferred to the Federal Corrections Institute (FCI) Phoenix, a medium security prison, just three days before the assault. To date, there is no indication that Krugel and Jennings knew each other. “My husband was brutally murdered just a few days after he was sent to that prison,” Lola Krugel said. “He wasn’t there long enough to make any deadly enemies.”

At the time of Krugel’s attack, Jennings was serving a 70-month sentence at FCI Phoenix for a 2003 bank robbery in Las Vegas, which netted him $1,040. Because Jennings had threatened the teller during the robbery, authorities eventually extended his plea bargain sentence from 63 months to 70 months.

Jennings, who lived in Oregon before moving to Nevada, has multiple convictions, but court records reviewed by The Journal did not indicate any association with racist or anti-Semitic groups in or out of prison.

In 1993,Jennings was convicted in Oregon on an Assault III charge; a “class C” state felony, which resulted in an 18-month state prison sentence. In 1994 he was arrested and convicted for unauthorized use of a vehicle and sentenced to six months in jail. In 1995, a probation violation cost him another six months.

He had apparently moved to Nevada by 1996. That same year he was arrested and pleaded guilty to state charges of grand larceny and unlawful possession of a credit card, for which he received a sentence of 16 to 72 months in state prison.

Krugel was transferred to the Phoenix facility to serve out the balance of a 20-year sentence, following his negotiated guilty plea to conspiracy, weapons and explosives charges. The high-profile case against Krugel and the JDL involved an abortive bombing plot against possible targets that included a Culver City mosque and the field office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), an Arab-American of Lebanese descent.

A fitness fanatic, Krugel was using exercise equipment when he was blind-sided between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Nov. 4, 2005. Details of the assault did not emerge in previous reports; a review of the autopsy depicts a vicious attack.

His main injury was the initial blow to the back of his head, which crushed the left side of his skull and severely damaged his brain and brain stem. But his attacker also delivered multiple blows to Krugel’s skull, face and neck, according to the autopsy, which was performed by the Maricopa County medical examiner and obtained by The Journal. Krugel suffered multiple skull fractures, internal bleeding and multiple lacerations to his head, face and brain. The beating knocked out teeth and also fractured one of his eye sockets. Krugel was pronounced dead at the scene.

His death marked the violent end, in prison, for both local leaders of an organization that advocated the use of violence, as necessary, in defending the interests of Jews. JDL head Irv Rubin died in 2002, at 57, from injuries he suffered after jumping or falling from a railing inside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Authorities ruled Rubin’s death a suicide, though family members contested that finding. Krugel, a dental technician by trade, was Rubin’s longtime close friend and second-in-command.

Krugel and Rubin were arrested in late 2001. They were accused, in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, of plotting violent revenge against Muslims and Arabs. No attack was carried out. Krugel spent four years in federal lock-up in Los Angeles. It was the resolution of his case, with the guilty plea to reduced charges, that landed him in Phoenix.

Lola Krugel said she’s relieved that someone has finally been charged in her husband’s murder. But she and Krugel’s sister, Linda, both expressed frustration and anger over the time it took to make an arrest, as well as the FBI’s unwillingness to share information with the family.

“He did it right there in the open,” said Lola Krugel, referring to the attacker. “There had to be witnesses and cameras. So why did it take so long for them to charge this man?”

The delay was not foot-dragging but a desire to get it right, said Patrick Snyder, assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the criminal division in the Phoenix office: “Since the murder occurred in prison, we know the assailant is already in custody. So we’re not under the same kind of time pressure to make an arrest that we are when a killer is still at large.”

Lola Krugel filed a wrongful-death claim against the federal government in February, which has since been denied. The family says it’s now preparing to file a civil lawsuit. The rejected claim had asked for $10 million for personal injury and $10 million for Krugel’s wrongful death.

“It’s an ‘outrage figure,'” said family attorney Benjamin Schonbrun, a partner in the Venice-area firm of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris and Hoffman. “A figure to illustrate the outrage Lola Krugel feels over the murder of her husband, plus the anger she felt over her inability to get any information from the government.”

Bulgarian Rhapsody

The exterior of the 1909 Central Synagogue inSofia. Below, Robert Djerassi, a Bulgarian official of the “JewishJoint” agency on a stairway of the Jewish Community Center with astar of David as part of the rail design

Photos by Larry Gordon

When I was asked to teach at a Bulgarianuniversity, my only clear images of the Balkan nation included itsinfamous Communist-era spy system, its great Olympic weight lifters,and its national women’s choir, whose haunting harmonies were popularin the West.

Quickly, however, I learned something else as Iresearched whether to accept the Fulbright grant to lecture injournalism at the American University in Bulgaria. “You know,” therefrain came to me suddenly from various sources, “that Bulgariasaved its Jews.”

No, I didn’t know. And, of course, as with allthings in history, the reality of Bulgarian Jewry turned out to muchmore complicated than that simple declaration. But this wasindisputable: The number of Bulgarian Jews actually increased duringthe Holocaust, even though the country was an ally of Hitler. Andafter the war, the new socialist government allowed 45,000 — thevast majority of Bulgarian Jews — to emigrate en masse toIsrael.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Eastern Europeancountry even marginally friendly to Jews during and just after WorldWar II. Partly as a result of that (and, I admit, a midlife desirefor an adventure), I moved with my wife and our then-5-year-olddaughter from our Los Angeles home to spend six interesting andchallenging months in a mountainside city close to the Greek border.When I wasn’t teaching, we often traveled two hours north to Sofia,Bulgaria’s capital, cultural center and focus of Jewish life. Thatwas two years ago. I recently returned by myself to Bulgaria for afew weeks to do more research about, among other topics, its Jewishcommunity and the entire country’s troubled efforts to create amarket economy from its post-communist shambles. Clearly, my initialinterest has turned into a deep emotional attachment to thisadmittedly obscure and small country (population 8.5 million) on theBlack Sea, just south of Romania. I like the yogurt and red winethere too.

During our first visit to Sofia, we attended RoshHashanah services at the Central Synagogue, an imposing Moorish-stylebuilding located a few blocks from the Sheraton Hotel and Sofia’smain department store. At the time, the crumbling main sanctuary wasin early stages of a restoration that continues today, its archwaysand domes being replastered and painted in vibrant colors, and itslovely chandeliers being repaired.

Services were held in a small side chapel, withTurkish-style rugs lining the walls and two rows of wooden seatssurrounding the bimah on three sides. I had never attended aSephardic service before and was fascinated at the differentmelodies. My daughter, accustomed to American Reform style, had neversat separate from me in a synagogue and was not happy aboutit.

At the synagogue, we were able to communicate withsome Bulgarians through a mixture of my Russian, which is closeenough to Bulgarian, and my wife’s Spanish, which is close enough tothe traditional Ladino that Bulgarian Jewish senior citizens stillspeak. The Ladino is a reminder of how far Jews settled after their15th-century expulsion from Iberia. In fact, Sofia’s rabbi, anIsraeli who arrived in 1994 and the first rabbi in Bulgaria in 30years, also can converse in Spanish. And young Bulgariansincreasingly study English. We also met young American social workersfrom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who laterinvited us to holiday meals and helped us a lot.

After services, a lively crowd gathered in thecobblestoned courtyard for the kiddush. That open-air plaza behind ahigh metal gate was most evocative to me. It was here that many ofSofia’s Jews had gathered in May 1943 to plan protests against whatalmost became their deportation to German death camps. And it washere that many learned the deportations were canceled. If stonescould speak.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Bulgaria had littletradition of anti-Semitism. That remained so during centuries ofOttoman rule and after Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. Forexample, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand even attended the dedication ofthe Central Synagogue in 1909, something unthinkable for the rulersof nearby nations at the time. Ferdinand’s son and successor, Boris,had Jewish friends but became an ally of Hitler in hopes of regainingterritory lost in previous Balkan wars. That bargain with the devilhad its price, to be paid in part with a policy against the Jews.Starting in late 1940, Bulgarian Jews were expelled from majorcities, put on work crews, and stripped of professional status andproperty as an appeasement to Hitler. Bulgarian occupying troopshanded over 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to the Germans. TheNazis kept pressing for the deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jews.However, many aristocrats, intellectuals and, perhaps most important,leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church publicly protested. The Jewsthemselves lobbied like mad. King Boris’ role in all this remains amatter of historians’ debate. Some think that he was crucial incanceling the deportations and should be considered among theRighteous Gentiles. Others maintain that the king decided to stallHitler only because the war had turned against the Germans and Borisdidn’t want Bulgaria to face even greater censure from the Allies.(The most complete source for this is Frederick B. Chary’s “TheBulgarian Jews and the Final Solution” [University of PittsburghPress].) Whatever the motives, the outcome was Jewishsurvival.

For the Bulgarian Jews who did not emigrate toIsrael by 1951, the next 40 years of Marxism brought religioussuppression and a high rate of intermarriage.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 remain, and they now arebenefiting from the new freedoms brought by the fall of communism.The old synagogue and the 1930s-era Jewish community center abouthalf a mile away are coming back to life. In fact, an entire newfloor is being added to the center for youth classrooms. Youngpeople, who come from highly assimilated families, gather to studyHebrew and Jewish customs that many of their parents never learned.The “Siddur” has been transliterated for the first time intoBulgarian. Pesach seders are big public affairs. And a new public dayschool, with government support, teaches Hebrew as part of itsrecognized curriculum, attracting many Jewish children.

Robert Djerassi, a 49-year-old Bulgarian who has beenworking for the Joint for several years, took me on a tour of thecommunity center. He showed me the new construction, the library, thewrought-iron Stars of David and the menorahs that have remained fornearly 70 years on stairway banisters.

Djerassi recalled the thrill of Jewish revivalstarting in 1989. Some of that emotion cooled as everyday life undercapitalism took hold, said the former engineer. “Still, Jewish lifeis very active, sometimes hyperactive,” he said. “Sometimes I jokethat we have almost too much in activities for the number of peoplehere. Sometimes I joke that we have to import Jews.”

All that is encouraging to an outsider from LosAngeles. But one can also see a very different side of BulgarianJewry in the community center. In the office of the Jewish Agency, anincreasing number of people have been applying for aliyah to Israel,often to escape the brutal economic troubles that have roiledBulgaria in the past few years. A corrupt government ruinedBulgaria’s banking system last year and caused hyper-inflation.Without outside Jewish aid for heating bills and food, some Bu
lgarianJewish elderly might not have made it through the winter. Finally,last spring, a reformist pro-Western government was elected, and theeconomic situation is improving.

Beyond economics, many of the young people whoseJewish consciousness is newly raised are torn between moving toIsrael and trying to keep things going in Sofia. With assimilationand emigration, some people wonder if there will be any Jewish lifeleft in Bulgaria in a generation.

“There is a tension. We develop young leaders,help make them become more and more interested, and they often makealiyah,” said Simone Shaltiel of Chicago, a 24-year-old Joint workerin Sofia. She spoke as she was getting ready to take a group ofJewish teens on a weekend retreat.

Joseph Levi, the 71-year-old president of theJewish community, has a philosophical view. I interviewed him in thedusty office of the synagogue, often interrupted as senior citizenspeppered him with all kinds of requests for help. I asked him: “Willthere be a Bulgarian Jewish community in 20 years?”

Levi chuckled a bit. “Look, 50 years ago, we werethinking this community would disappear in five or 10 years. And weare still here,” he said. “We hope in 50 years to still be here.”

Larry Gordon also writes for the Los AngelesTimes.

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