Authors Divided Over Identity, Issues


What do four Jewish American writers talk about when they
sit down together to discuss their craft? If the program, “The Next Generation
of Jewish American Writing,” held at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this
month is any indication, the answer is that they try as hard as they can to
talk past their differences but don’t quite manage to do so.

As soon as featured novelists Rebecca Goldstein (“Mazel”),
Thane Rosenbaum (“The Golems of Gotham”), Gary Shteyngart (“The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook”) and Dara Horn (“In the Image”), as well as the evening’s
moderator, David Ulin, himself a writer, took their seats onstage, the
limitations of the forum — presented by The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and
The University of California Humanities Research Institute — became clear.
These writers have very little in common outside of their Jewishness, and even
then they had diverging definitions of that identity, from cultural affiliation
to history to the importance of ritual observance.

The question that hovered over the discussion that followed
each author’s short presentation was as simple as it is hard to answer: Is
Jewishness enough to hold them together as a unit any more than linking them by
some other part of their identities?

For starters, their themes and concerns could not be more
different. In her six works of fiction, Goldstein has focused primarily on
dramas of the mind, plumbing philosophy and theoretical mathematics and
sometimes — 5/9ths of the time in her calculation — Jewish identity.

Rosenbaum, the child of survivors, has written a trilogy of
post-Holocaust books, the most recent a fable, complete with the ghosts of
writers past, set in 1990s Manhattan.

Shteyngart, who moved from Leningrad to New York as a child,
has written a novel that tells an immigrant’s story, updating a classic
American narrative for the 21st century.

Finally, Horn, who consciously draws on the long and rich
history of literature written in what she terms the “Jewish languages” of
Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, weaves the biblical tale of Job into the structure
of her debut work.

Even the Judaism that emerges in their works barely
overlaps. While Goldstein has repeatedly wrestled with the intersection of
traditional Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the rigors of rational
philosophy on the other, Rosenbaum’s fictive world has been shaped by that
20th-century Jewish preoccupation, the Shoah. Shteygart views himself, and his
protagonist, as more immigrant than Jew (although he wisely understands the
marketing strategy of labeling his novel “Jewish”) and Horn’s stated intention
in writing her book was to produce a work of fiction that is not “about
anti-Semitism” as so much Jewish American literature of the past century has
been.

Then there’s the problem of “generation.” Shteyngart and
Horn were both born in the 1970s. They were in grade school when Goldstein
first began publishing her novels. Even she acknowledged that the “young” label
(as in “young Jewish American writer”) doesn’t quite fit her any longer. But
the difference goes beyond chronology. Goldstein’s writing itself is of a
different generation. Her cultural influences — yes, philosophy, but also the
attitudes toward gender equality, religious affiliation and other social
questions — were shaped at the same time as they took form in the larger
American context. Her younger colleagues were born into a world that was
already grappling with these and other knotty dilemmas.

But all that is almost beside the point, because when
talking about Jewish American literature, any generation seems to be put into
relation with those luminaries who defined Jewish American fiction after World
War II: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick. They are held
up as the founding generation, as if nothing was put down on paper before them,
and no distinction is made among those who have followed.

This is a mistake. While programs such as the one at the
Skirball are wonderful arenas in which to showcase current and up-and-coming
talent, they often end up circling around the rather uncomfortable question of
defining what a “Jewish writer” actually is.

Not surprisingly, that happened on Sunday, when Horn herself
brought up what she called the “squirm factor.” Why, she asked “do we feel more
uncomfortable with the label ‘Jewish writer’ than any of the other labels that
can equally be applied to us?”

My guess is that the answer lies precisely in the balancing
act that these writers have to perform: Jews buy books. Jews read books. Jews
are a good audience for books, so any claim to Jewishness helps an author sell
books. The more books he or she sells, the more chances that writer will be
able to publish the next one.

But any author is so much more than just Jewish. She is a
woman, a philosopher, a mother, a sister, a convert from the closed world of
Beis Yaacov to the equally cloistered universe of academia, and that’s just
Goldstein. We, the public, seem to insist that writers pigeonhole themselves
for our benefit, and they — no fools — oblige us. We are, after all, their paths
to literary immortality.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

This weekend, it’s “Northward, ho!” as North Hollywood’s NoHo Theatre District hosts the NoHo Theatre and Arts Festival. The two-day theater, performing and visual-arts fest features theater performances at 20 NoHo venues, music and dance acts on outdoor stages, arts workshops for kids and outdoor gallery areas. Two of the many theater performances worth checking out are “Cyma’s Story,” a play about a Russian Jewish immigrant, and “Grandmothers of the Universe,” a solo piece by Miri Hunter Haruach, an African American convert to Judaism.

11 a.m.-8 p.m., May 17 and 18. Free (festival events anddaytime performances). Lankershim Boulevard, between Chandler and Magnoliaboulevards, North Hollywood. (818) 623-7171. www.nohoartsdistrict.com/festival2003/.

Miri Hunter Haruach performs “Grandmothers of the Universe.” Photo by Veronica Puleo

Sunday

Arrested artistic development was just one of the many ways Hitler’s totalitarian rule influenced German culture. Today, Dance Camera West/Los Angeles International Dance Film Festival focuses the lens more specifically with a screening of the documentary “Dance Under the Swastika.” The lives of prominent 20th century choreographers and dancers Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg and Rudolf von Laban are examined through interviews of some of their contemporaries and clips from historical dance films. A panel discussion with dance scholars Susan Manning and Jennifer Fisher follows.7:30 p.m. $8 (general), $6 (students, Skirball and Dance Resource Center members). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8587.

Monday

Head back to NoHo tonight to enjoy a tale of college reunions and famous lesbian folksingers. Eclectic Company Theatre’s “A Weekend Near Madison” tells the story of David Rabinowitz and the complexities that arise when his college ex-girlfriend (the aforementioned folksinger) tells him that she and her life partner would like him to father their child.8 p.m. (Mondays), 7 p.m. (Sundays). Runs through June 16. $12-$15. 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. 818-508-3003

J.Bassman

Tuesday

They’re getting the band back together! For the real Mashina reunion, you’ll have to book with El Al, as the defunct Israeli rock band comes together for four shows in Israel this summer. But for a variation that some would argue is even better, you can catch Yuval Banai and Shlomi Bracha at the Knitting Factory tonight. The three-guitar acoustic show (Nosshi Paz rounds out the group on guitar, as well) will be equal parts Mashina Unplugged and Yuval and Shlomi Unplugged as they perform songs by the group, as well as solo hits.8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. $45 (in advance), $50 (at the door). 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 463-0204.

Wednesday

The Workmen’s Circle explores subtler forms of Jewish activism in a new exhibit titled “Love as Activism: Beyond Egalitarianism in the Contemporary Ketubah.” It features original ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) that use alternative texts or nontraditional artwork to express couples’ unions. Accompanying the show is a series of programs, including two panel discussions, a ketubah design workshop and screening of the documentary “Naming Prairie.”9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday-Friday, but call ahead.) Runs through June 27. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Thursday

Those of a certain generation will recall the term we cannot print, but which Erica Jong coined in her 1973 best-selling novel “Fear of Flying.” (Hint: it involves the word “zipless.”) But the prosaic writer has produced seven novels and at least four books of poetry since then. She discusses her latest novel, “Sappho’s Leap,” with writer Anne Taylor Fleming (“Marriage A Duet” and “Motherhood Deferred”) in another Writer’s Bloc conversation at the Skirball, tonight.7:30 p.m. $15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917.

Friday

Voyeurs and ladies looking for a girls’ night out find common ground tonight in the form of a new play, “Dial-Logs.” Written by Jewish television producers Julie Heimler and Jill Asars, the story is told entirely through telephone conversations and centers on best friends who live on opposite coasts. With the help of good long-distance plans, the two women keep each other updated on the intimacies of their lives.8 p.m. (Thursday-Saturday). Runs through May 31. $10. The Complex, Ruby Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 280-2660.Amy Turner, bottom,and Christina Venuti in “Dial-Logs.”

Rudderless Until Redemption


"Under Radar" by Michael Tolkin (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23).

Recently, I heard Michael Tolkin speak at Temple Beth Am about "Under Radar." Pacing frenetically, he explained that midway through the writing he had stalled and shelved the manuscript. During that time, slipping on his own spiritual path — parallel to the novel’s — he had ransacked various synagogues for answers and had succeeded only in worrying his wife.

Tolkin has regained his footing, and in this magnificent novel, so has his main character, Tom Levy. Best-known for his screenplay of "The Player" (based on his first novel) and for scripts like "Changing Lanes," Tolkin writes characters who move through a mire of moral and spiritual ambiguity. Like their creator, they don’t have an easy time of it.

"Under Radar" chronicles one such man’s journey to redemption. Tom — bourgeois, bored, banal, prone to fantasizing — always selects a woman to mentally focus on while vacationing with his wife and two daughters. During a Caribbean vacation, unable at first to find anyone appealing, Tom finally settles on an attractive, short-haired mother with a rotund, silken-tongued husband. After a small slight, Tom casually commits an act which rightfully lands him in a Jamaican prison for life. There, he does not melt into the boredom, as he expected he would, but changes.

The novel effortlessly unfolds in thirds: the family vacation, Tom’s prison time and unexpected escape, and his years of sailing the seas with a couple he meets on the Jamaican docks. His travels land him for a crucial time in Fiji, where Tolkin returns to his interest in evangelicals.

A married couple who own the beachfront hotel undergo their own spiritual crises, triggered by their teenage son, who turns out to be at odds with their murderous preparations for the End of Days. The son fiercely unravels his parents’ world by removing some pages from a Stephen King novel and other popular books. How he manages this is too fiendishly fun and brilliant to reveal here.

What’s engaging, too, in this short novel is that everywhere, with quick deft strokes, Tolkin takes his characters the extra distance, to reveal both inner life and irony. For example, in bed after Tom finally selects the object of his obsession, his wife, Rosalie, says, "You’re finally relaxing." To which he responds, "Yes. It always takes me a while. I’m sorry." Rosalie continues, "That’s why vacations last a few weeks. You work hard, you need a lot of time to find yourself."

Like many of us, Rosalie sees the world the way she needs it to be. "Under Radar" seems to refer to that part of our lives that are lived under our view, or awareness.

A long story told to Tom by a condemned prisoner fills the prison pages of the novel. It is detailed, elegantly erotic — and I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Which I believe is part of the point, as is the message in a famous Jewish story that Tolkin quotes later in the novel: it’s the telling and the passing on that matters. It reminds me of "The Tell" in the "Road Warrior" films, where post-apocalyptic children in search of their promised rescuer completely mangle their generation’s oral history. The truth is not there, however, but in the telling.

In the end, Tom passes this prison story on. Rosalie says when she hears it, "I don’t expect that any of us fully understand your story, but I don’t think we have to, right away." Tom responds, "No, it takes time." This is the only dialogue between them here, and it says a lot.

The finale avoids tidy clichés. Tom uses his prison knowledge and a sizable sacrifice to reconstitute his world with his family, and achieves something significant both for them and for himself. This unexpected forfeiture, which leaves his continued life with them richer, is what makes this novel so original and moving.

Running With the Wolf


It used to be said that kabbalah should only be studied by the very old or very learned, otherwise it could inspire madness. In his book “Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom in Everyday Life,” Rabbi Laibl Wolf attempts both to dispel the mythology surrounding this ancient, mystical teaching and to demonstrate its necessity for those of us living in the modern world.

The Australian native recently stopped in Los Angeles during his annual world tour, the first of two planned visits here. One might expect the renowned kabbalah teacher to be a great, dark force with penetrating eyes that could gaze directly into one’s soul, perhaps or a remote, silent sage. Instead, he looks like a sweet, fatherly man who speaks with a charming Australian accent that can make someone immediately feel welcome. His voice was infinitely gentle, even when his gaze grew intense while discussing the current situation in the Middle East.

The main thing that struck, though, was how down-to-earth and essential he makes kabbalah seem.

“The Zohar itself — the Zohar being the primary work of kabbalah — predicted a time would come when the fountains of knowledge would burst open from above and below, meaning spiritually and technologically; and the resulting confusion would require us, all of us, to access the deeper wisdom to gain balance,” he began with quiet intensity. “You and I are the heirs to this radical change.”

Wolf says he feels it is time for a “paradigm shift” in the way we see the world, and his book contains exercises and meditations to help alter readers’ perspectives. The key, he said, involves making the change from a self-centered point of view to an other-centered one.

In addition to being an ordained rabbi and studying with such luminaries as the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson and the Dalai Lama, Wolf is also an educational psychologist specializing in working with teenagers.

When not on tour, the rabbi resides in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Leah, and the two youngest of their seven children. He is currently working on producing a documentary that will combine his meditation exercises with the music of Peter Himmelman.

Like his mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Wolf has a loyal following among the religious, the non-religious and those on the path to Jewish observance.

“Unfortunately, in the Jewish world, we were Johnny-come-latelys in terms of teaching the spiritual side of Jewish life,” he said. “Because of that, thousands of truly questing Jewish people turned eastward to Buddhism or to New Age. They were being cheated by the Jewish establishment, which didn’t offer that meaningful approach to life. Therefore it’s not surprising that kabbalah became popular, because Jewish people saw it as the spiritual side of Judaism.”

Although happy that the community has taken a greater interest in kabbalah, the rabbi admits he was disappointed to see it turn into a fad, a la Madonna.

“I’m not at all impressed by the promotion of Jewish spirituality by highlighting glamour,” he said. “The way I approach the teaching of kabbalah is much more down to earth. I want people to learn not about how they can project astrally, speak with angels or even create miracles in their lives. I’m interested in using the spiritual teachings to assist people to understand the amazing nature of who they are as a creation, their attributes.”

The rabbi also does not recommend the study of what he calls “hard-core kabbalah” by novices. Downloading the texts off the Internet or buying a Zohar at Barnes & Noble and attempting to struggle through it alone or with a few friends, as has been popular for several years are, in his opinion, a waste of time.

“There’s a difference between studying explanations of the Zohar and studying the Zohar itself, and I do not advocate the latter,” he said. Instead, he advocates learning about kabbalah through classes.

Wolf admits, however, that he is not above a bit of commercialism, hence the name for his newest methodology, MindYoga. He said he picked the term deliberately as a metaphor for the series of meditation and interpersonal exercises in his books and tapes. For Wolf, a spiritual exercise session is every bit as essential as a daily physical workout.

“We can practice daily stretching our soul, so that in the moment when the appropriate emotion is needed, we are flexible spiritually. Because at the end of the day, whether we are able to sleep well or sleep fitfully depends on how masterful we were during that day in our relationships, in our family, in our professional or business arena or with a stranger. This is the core of Torah.”

Rabbi Laibl Wolf will join recording artist Peter Himmelman at a benefit for the rabbi’s foundation, the Human Development Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. For more information, call Lisa Schneiderman at (310) 314-2213.