A pair of princesses arrive in Los Angeles

Two very different Israeli films about their titular princesses open in Los Angeles on May 27. The first of these, a movie called simply “Princess,” is a dark, somewhat surreal coming-of-age story about child molestation. The other, “Presenting Princess Shaw,” is a documentary that tells a tale of courage, creativity and serendipity surrounding a would-be singer.

As the action begins in “Princess,” it is clear that 12-year-old Adar (Shira Haas) is troubled. She spends most of the day sleeping and rarely attends the school for the gifted in which she is enrolled. Adar lives with her mother, Alma (Keren Mor), and Alma’s boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), who are openly physical in front of the young girl. She, in turn, frequently plays games with Michael that become increasingly intimate.  

In a recent interview, writer-director Tali Shalom Ezer described the interaction between the pre-teen and Michael.

“From the beginning, we see that the relationship between Adar and Michael is somewhat undefined. In the doctor-patient game, we see there is something erotic in the way the two relate. Adar has the feeling that their relationship is moving into dangerous territory, but she is ambivalent about it. She is both attracted to this game and her relationship with Michael, but also feels uncomfortable and uncertain about it — she feels that she is betraying her mother, she feels to blame in some way. These contrasting feelings are overwhelming and too much for a 12-year-old girl to carry, and so they distress her.”

Into the mix comes Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who is almost a mirror image of Adar.  He apparently is homeless, so the family takes him into their apartment. But does he really exist, or does he symbolize another aspect of Adar? “After reading the script, people asked me, ‘Is this boy real or is he fantasy? You need to clarify this.’ But for me it was important to keep Alan as a riddle, as magic, as something that I don’t completely understand. I intentionally left this unclear,” Ezer said. “What I did know, however, was that Alan was essential for my main character, Adar, and to the consolidation of her identity.” 

Ezer added, “As I see it, Alan is the expression of Adar’s inner world — a world that sits somewhere between reality and imagination. Presenting Alan like this was my way of representing the experience of disassociation that Adar is going through. However, I invite audiences to understand this in their own ways.”

The documentary “Presenting Princess Shaw” has a different tone and focuses on Samantha Montgomery, who works as an aide at a senior facility in New Orleans. Her goal is to be a singer, and she uploads video of herself performing her original tunes on YouTube, while also baring her soul and revealing the sexual and physical abuse she endured in her youth.  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the musician and composer Ophir Kutiel, known as Kutiman, who has a large following, sees her uploads and is taken with the African-American singer, finding in her an undiscovered talent. He has his own artistic project that he shares on YouTube from his home on an Israeli kibbutz. 

“Kutiman takes segments of musical clips performed by anonymous YouTubers and weaves them into a single, cohesive audiovisual experience,” Israeli director Ido Haar explained in a recent interview.

He continued, “When Kutiman introduced me to the project, I immediately loved the songs and attempted to learn more about the musicians through their YouTube channels, trying to find out who they were. At first, the idea was to do a documentary about several singers and musicians. [But] from the very beginning, Samantha caught my attention. There was something about her. 

“Her unique and touching voice, which exposed a deep, rich, complex and charged inner world, [along with] her honesty, courage and incredible talent stunned me.”

Without her knowledge, Kutiman decides to create a video collage for YouTube featuring Samantha, who calls herself “Princess Shaw,” and Haar asks to film her for a documentary. When she agrees, he starts following her around New Orleans and on her travels to other cities. 

Haar also goes back to Israel to film Kutiman in the process of making the collage. He is able to be on the scene and film her reaction when she first sees herself in Kutiman’s video, which garners a million hits. As a result of Kutiman’s work, Princess Shaw, who had up to then attracted only modest attention, starts to become known around the world. 

Ultimately, Kutiman arranges for her to sing in Tel Aviv at the Habima Theatre, the national theater of Israel. Encouraged by this unexpected turn of events, Samantha continues to fight for her dream.

Haar feels that his documentary examines universal issues. “The main issues I’m exploring are feelings of loneliness, the desire to be heard and recognized, and loved,” he said. “It is a film about long-lasting anonymity in a world that is constantly creating new stars. It is about talent, persistence and the arbitrary connection they have to success, at least as we define it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from: “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

That word, aabehroo, is one of those for which no equivalent exists in the English language. It alludes to the impression that others hold of an individual’s virtue and respectability. To have aabehroo means that the world regards a person in high esteem. To lose it — or, more literally, to have it leave the person — means he will live in shame unless he somehow manages to get his aabehroo back. You may be born with aabehroo because of your family history, but holding on to it requires a great deal of restraint and self-sacrifice. It means making sure you do everything in compliance with society’s idea of what is right, that you live honorably and protect the sanctity of your family’s name and reputation. It means being capable of feeling deep, personal shame before an exacting, infinitely multitudinous jury.

You have to have lived in a place like Iran, Leon thought, grown up with a strong sense of propriety and shame, and feared the judgment of others, in order to understand such a word. You certainly can’t imagine what it means, really, if you’ve lived most of your life in America. In this land of perpetual hope and endless good fortune, this country built on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”— where else in the world is happiness a right? — where even the dead look good and healthy, dressed up and painted and coiffed in the coffin as if on their wedding day, there’s no awareness, perhaps no need, nor would there be any tolerance, of that kind of sacrifice.

Leon could see how Kayla, born and raised in Los Angeles, might throw the word around so carelessly or deride her parents for being concerned with the judgment of others. If not for his own Iranian past, he might share Kayla’s scorn.

As it was, however, he had nothing but appreciation for this and other aspects of a culture that valued grace, harmony, and spiritual growth above all. Even this emphasis on aabehroo, while stifling if carried to an extreme, signaled the importance of individual righteousness to a society’s well-being. Raphael’s Son and his ilk were not representative of the Iranians Leon knew; they were unfortunate aberrations and as such, alas, stood out from the crowd. 

Copyright 2014 by Giina Nahai, reprinted by permission of Akashic Books.

Home is where ‘The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.’ is

Gina B. Nahai’s new novel, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” (Akashic Books) is a wildly inventive story of the Soleyman family that travels back and forth in time between 1950s Tehran and present-day Los Angeles. This Iranian Jewish clan was thriving in Iran before Ayatollah Khomeini decimated their world. Los Angeles has offered some of them safe haven, but it is still not home, and Nahai shows us their struggle with a continued disorientation. Her story focuses on a man she calls “Raphael’s Son,” who believes himself to be the rightful heir to the Soleyman name and fortune; although the family have all negated his claim. We learn of his mysterious and brutal murder in the opening pages of the book. Raphael’s Son had been living in Los Angeles for many years by now, partaking in one criminal exploit after another, and was generally feared and hated. When the police begin to investigate his murder, all kinds of secret alliances and past transgressions among the entire Soleyman family are revealed. Nahai shows us how often what we believe to be true isn’t.  

Her novel has an intoxicating and driving rhythm that pulls you right in, but sometimes her third-person narrative voice can seem distant. One senses she is holding back from revealing darker truths about some of her characters’ lives, almost as if she fears shaming them. The Soleyman family seems a sad lot, yet they are bound together by their desire to uphold their family name and reputation. They bear their grief and guilt stoically and privately, calling upon only their inner resilience for comfort.  

Nahai, 54, a Jewish Journal columnist, author, professor and mother of three, left Iran at 13 for boarding school and never returned. Her father’s foresight prompted the family to move to California several years before the Iranian revolution. She has written of her family as an outspoken bunch who often felt uncomfortable among their fellow Jews in Iran. Yet, Nahai seems to feel her abrupt departure from Iran traumatized her in ways she still hasn’t fully sorted out. Los Angeles has been a good home for her and her family, but it doesn’t offer her something she needs that she seems to believe she left back there. And home, even with its cruel misogyny and violence and palpable anti-Semitism, still seems, at least in part in her mind, to be Iran.  Some of her most moving descriptions in this novel show us characters who are still plagued by an intense sense of having been dislodged prematurely. They walk the broad and sunny streets of Los Angeles like ghosts — unseen by others, but, more scarily, also invisible to themselves.  

[Read an excerpt from 'The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.']

For example, the Iranian cop, Leon, who has been assigned to investigate Raphael’s Son’s murder, came to this country as a 14-year-old with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was trying to save him from being used as a minesweeper on the battlefront with Iraq. He was placed with a host family of Ashkenazi Jews who attempted to help him assimilate. They were surprised when he chose a career in law enforcement — unusual for an Iranian Jew. The pressures on Leon already were mounting. He needed to help his sister and mother and father, who had followed him to America in 1997, 13 years after Leon left Iran. Leon had once briefly harbored secret fantasies of becoming a crime writer, but the reality of his life had become engulfed by the pressure to take care of his family, who were completely dependent upon him.

Nahai describes for us in memorable prose the feelings of uselessness that are destroying Leon’s father, and in effect destroying Leon, too, as he was forced to be a daily witness to it. She writes, wistfully, “His father was one of the many thousands of Iranian men who had to choose between living in fear at home or running to safe obsolescence, between being alone in Iran because all their family had moved away, or moving to America to be with his son and, without a job, having to depend on him entirely. He woke up every day and dressed in a suit and tie even though he had nowhere to go. In the afternoon, he took the bus to the Orthodox Iranian shul that was held in a room on the second floor of a strip mall. Then he strolled down to the Persian grocery store on the ground level and spent half an hour selecting the slimmest, crispiest Persian cucumbers. … On his way home, Leon’s father sat in the rear of the bus and cried quietly for his wasted life and ravaged pride.”

We can feel this sense of psychological disintegration and muted yearnings in much of Nahai’s prose. The author herself has confessed in this newspaper that she, too, feels she “lost the country of [my] birth, the places of my childhood, the handprints of my ancestors on the landscape. … I lost the beauty of the land where history began, the glow of a sunlight that was older, more seasoned, more forgiving than what I’ve seen anywhere else. … I lost the colors of the costumes little girls wore to perform the ethnic dances, the faces of young boys who sat on rotting rowboats along the Caspian shore, the sound of the water crashing against smooth black rocks in the Karaj River, the rosewater scent of the first harvest of apples. I lost the ability to go back and see with my own eyes what I can only now revisit in memory.”

But Nahai does go back in her imagination and sometimes reaches transcendent heights, particularly in some of the passages that describe Jewish life in Tehran in the 1950s, when doors had just swung open that had been shut tight for centuries. We hear her restrained elegance and sorrow in her exquisite rendering of Aaron Soleyman, who has just been summoned back to Iran from studying abroad to take over the family business after his father’s sudden death: 

“The truth about Aaron Soleyman is that he was at once blessed and cursed by a birthright he would never be able to escape. You could see it in his eyes — this awareness of the heft of the responsibility he had to bear. He was the offspring of a wealthy Jew who had, thanks to the kindness of the shah and his own outsize abilities, risen overnight from the hardships and deprivations of the ghetto into a world of privilege and excess, who remembered the past too well and was determined never to go back, or even to pause long enough to catch a glimpse of where they came from and how far he had traveled. His father had given Aaron every financial advantage a young person could reasonably aspire to, but he had also charged him with the backbreaking task of fulfilling, in his own life, every lofty ideal and impossible expectation, every foolhardy dream and failed ambition of all the generations of Jews who had lived and died in all the ghettos and back alleys over three thousand years of history in Iran.”

Like her character Aaron Soleyman, Nahai feels this burden, too, and tries to explain to us what it really feels like to be forced to leave the land in which you were raised and then go and try to create something magical somewhere else. Yet she has done so by producing this beautiful book. 

Spying for Mossad, Israeli author never forsook fiction [Q&A]

For retired Israeli spy Mishka Ben-David, writing fiction was a realization of artistic aspirations he had long suppressed.

Ben-David had a doctorate in Hebrew literature and four books published when the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad recruited him in 1987. He agreed to avoid the authorial limelight as he embarked on a career of surveillance and subterfuge, including a role in Israel's botched assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997.

He says he stepped down after 12 years to spend more time with his family and resume writing. But Mossad stayed with Ben-David and features in half of the books that followed.

The first, “Duet in Beirut”, has been translated into English (Halban Publishers), with another two — “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” and “Last Stop Algiers” – to follow.

Ben-David, 61, spoke to Reuters at his home near Jerusalem about the benefits and drawbacks of taking creative inspiration from real-life espionage.

Q: To what extent do your spy novels reflect real events?

A: I am careful not to write anything that could disclose actual Mossad missions or tradecraft, though the portrayal of the kind of people who work there, their dilemmas and deliberations, the interaction between the command and field units, are accurate.

Some of my fictional devices – say, the undercover tactical unit sent into Lebanon in “Duet in Beirut”, or the way the protagonist in “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” is required to carry out an assassination, ad hoc, without having gone through the rigorous training that would demand – simply do not happen in Mossad. There's a good deal of fabrication.

Q: Do you therefore sensationalise your story lines?

A: There might be a small element of bringing the fictional spies into line with reader expectations of how people in this line of work would look, and what they would be capable of. But in reality there's no such thing as James Bond, and Le Carre's Smiley is also an extreme portrayal, at the unassuming other end of the dramatic spectrum. My characters, like real Mossad people, are somewhere between James Bond and Smiley.

Paradoxically, I would say that what Mossad really does is much more demanding, much more dangerous, and much more mind-bogglingly creative than what you get to read about. The fact you don't read about it is a gauge of its successful execution.

When I write about Mossad, it's because that's where I worked and it's what I know. Had I been a teacher or a hi-tech executive, I'd write about those kinds of characters instead – but with the same human intensity and quality.

Q: You say that during Mossad's attempt to kill Meshaal with poison, your job was to wait in an Amman hotel with the antidote in hand in case one of the assassins was accidentally contaminated. The Jordanians captured the hit team and you were ordered by your superiors to give them the antidote so Meshaal's life could be saved. Did such twists of fate find their way into your fiction?

A: Not directly. But during my various assignments, when a situation presented itself that I thought had dramatic potential, I would make a note of it – literally writing myself a memo on the back of a business card or whatever came to hand.

At the end of my tenure, I had 60 of these notes, waiting to be strung together into storylines. “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” is the product of three of these. One posed a situation where a woman leaves her husband, who is in Mossad, because he breaks his promise to her not to carry out assassinations. The second, a dislocated Mossad officer who, while abroad, falls in love with the wrong woman and wants to stay with her despite the orders of his superiors. And the third, a Mossad man who becomes so enamoured of his foreign cover that he is reluctant to 'go back' to being Israeli.

Q: Did your proclivity for fiction interfere with your Mossad work, where getting solid data and being a reliable informant are so essential?

A: There was never any clash between the two, because while I was in Mossad I would not have been temperamentally capable of writing. When I write I need utter concentration, for uninterrupted hours on end, as I delve into myself. My Mossad tasks were constantly focused on the outside world – the mission, the agents, the environment.

Q: Does Mossad have to approve your books?

A: By law, yes, as does the military censor's office and the civil service. Apart from one manuscript that was held up for more than six months while it was being vetted, I've not had any major problems in this regard.

On one occasion, Mossad asked me to change the make of a car that I had described as taking part in a fictional mission, because it was a little too close to the real thing.

The defence establishment also had a problem with the original location for my book “Last Stop Algiers”, which was not Algeria and was a place considered politically sensitive. So I sat with the official and went over a Middle East map, running through the various capitals. Beirut, I had already written about. Amman, I had enough of in real life. Finally we agreed on Algiers, and I rewrote the manuscript accordingly. I've had no problem with Mossad.

Editing by Tom Pfeiffer

On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’

I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.

If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn’t know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.

You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning “Sophie’s Choice,” and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.

There are some clear cases — I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out — but otherwise, I’m going to leave canonization to the anthologists.

Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.

First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.

Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg’s popular “Bee Season” used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew — Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of “The Chosen,” had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.

There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow’s wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March’s eagle’s feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman’s “Maus.” Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.

A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth’s writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.

A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one’s art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.

So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner’s horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World.” The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.

When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in “Intuition” we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes “Kaaterskill Falls” there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman’s passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?

Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a “new Yiddish.” There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer’s Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton’s Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love?

Books: Philip Roth’s Zuckerman has left the building

“Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, $26).

Can one be a major writer, talented, famous, lionized and still be a fool?

The case for the prosecution is “Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth. Roth is a very gifted writer. His eye is keen, his descriptive powers as dazzling as the days of his scathing fiction about his New Jersey Jewish upbringing and community. Roth is still able to evoke pathos for his favorite subject, Philip Roth.

He even suggests self-awareness about the angry young artist he once was. In this book he writes of a young litterateur on the make: “Those grand grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you’re only right. Everything is a target; you’re on the attack; and you, and you alone, are right.”

Ah yes, those days young people outgrow.

Well, some do. Roth, apparently, does not.

This book is blighted. Roth’s great subject reminds me of what Emerson said in his journal about Bronson Alcott: “He never quotes; he never refers; his only illustration is his own biography. His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17th October; today, Alcott on 18th October.”

Roth’s subject is his body, more accurately, his genitalia. There was his youthful lust, his middle age lust and now we are unwilling voyeurs to his aged, unavailing lust. The reader can trace the distasteful peregrinations of Roth’s libido through a series of books designed to illuminate the modern condition. His subject is Zuckerman’s (Zuckerman is one of Roth’s fictional alter-egos) sexual status on 17th October. Tomorrow it will be Zuckerman’s sexual status on 18th October. Throw in some magnificent verbiage, a few political diatribes, include a young nubile woman always interested in him and usually married, and presto — the novel is cooked.

One thing we do not get in a Roth novel is moral reflection. Not on his own actions, at any rate. Adultery is a great subject in literature; without it we would eviscerate the western canon, from Tolstoy to Flaubert. But usually it entails some moral reflection. Adultery without angst is not literature, just license. In Roth, sexual conquest is an entitlement pure and simple. In this novel, incest and adultery are employed (the incest remains cloudy) for spice, and the great themes of art are reduced to prostates and prostrations. We suffer through considerable anatomically excruciating detail about the results of his prostate cancer; yet again, the degradation entails no elevation.

Does it read well? Apart from a multipage obituary of George Plimpton grafted onto the story that has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, yes, it does. Even better if you read the far more carefully crafted prequel, “The Ghost Writer.” E.I. Lonoff, the writer who serves as Zuckerman’s mentor, has real substance. His life, and the young student who desires him, recur in surprising ways in the new book. But Zuckerman’s barbaric yawps make it clear that he really has no interest in other characters except as they move him, irritate him, excite him, depress him.

In the chronicle of wasted time and wasted talent, could Roth not have cared for more than scabrous images and salacious dreams? “Exit Ghost” is a book about old age, a book in which old age has taught the author nothing. One of the consolations of age is said to be that the ego grows less overbearing. Roth remains unconsoled.

Philip Roth is a brilliant man and a major writer. When he turns his pen to portraying the world, or — as he did memorably in “The Counterlife” — to understanding the opacities of identity, the result is remarkable.

Oscar Wilde famously said, when confronted by a customs official, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

“Exit Ghost” is the work of someone who has nothing to declare but his concupiscence. We learned about that 40 years ago, in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The intervening decades have diminished Roth’s capacity without increasing his wisdom.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books will appear monthly in The Journal.

Books: A stranger on a journey

Sometimes I envision Lillian Leyb walking along Upper Broadway in New York, or trudging up subway stairs. She’s solid-looking and pretty, dressed in a mix of hand-me-downs and carrying a worn satchel, still young but with a hard life evident in her step.

In Amy Bloom’s novel “Away,” this unforgettable character makes her way from the Lower East Side to Seattle and then Alaska, hoping to get to Siberia to find her daughter. She had thought Sophie was killed in the Russian pogrom in which Lillian witnessed the murder of her parents and husband. But after arriving in America alone, she heard that Sophie was taken in by a family and then later exiled to Siberia.

With little in her pockets, knowing no one along the way, Lillian begins her journey. She shifts from someone who enjoys herring in cream sauce as a treat to a woman who kills, skins, cooks and eats porcupines that cross her path in the Northwest woods.

In an interview last week in a Manhattan hotel while in town for her book tour, Bloom explained that in fiction there are two basic dramatic plots: “I go on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” Here, she uses both.

“That was what interested me,” she said, “the idea that you always have the potential of being the hero, and you are also going to be the stranger.”

The author of “Come to Me” and “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” Bloom was also inspired by apocryphal stories she heard of about a woman named Lillian Alling, who walked from New York City to Alaska in 1927, hoping to make her way home to Siberia.

“I found myself wondering what would make you go, since I’m not myself a very physically adventurous person,” she said. “If you weren’t adventurous and you weren’t at war, what would make you go? Only love would make you take a trip like that.”

Many novels have been written of immigrant Jews in New York in the early years of the 20th century, tales of men and women who overcame hardship as they became Americans. Although “Away” begins on the Lower East Side, Bloom didn’t want to keep her story there as, she explained, “this is a big country. That’s not all of America.”

“Away” is original and compelling, with unexpected plot twists, an ensemble of unconventional characters, lyrical descriptions of the natural world and moments of real tenderness.

Lillian spends her first 35 days in America ripping stitches out of navy silk flowers until her hands are blue; she’s living with a relative and sharing a bed. Frequently, Lillian wakes up screaming, dreaming of the last bloody night she spent with her family.

Her English is limited, and she answers, “I attend night classes” to any question she doesn’t understand. After she boldly asserts herself to get the job as seamstress for a Yiddish theater company, she becomes the mistress of the theater’s matinee idol who, it turns out, prefers men, and also of his father, the grand impresario of Second Avenue. Through them she meets a new friend whose business card reads “Yaakov Shimmelman/Tailor, Actor, Playwright/Author of “The Eyes of Love”/ Pants pressed and altered.” Then a cousin arrives in America, who shares the news that Sophie is alive, and Lillian must leave even as she found inexplicable love and comfort. Yaakov provides maps and directions.

It’s not that Lillian is particularly adventurous or brave, but she’s driven, with a tremendous capacity for endurance and a dark sense of humor. When she was a girl, her father told her that she was lucky when she fell in the river twice and didn’t drown and didn’t die of pneumonia. And he told her that she was smart and pretty but “lucky was better than them both put together.” He also said, “You make your own luck.” And she does. Although most of her travel adventures hardly seem the stuff of luck, that she gets out alive and able to keep moving recalls her father’s words.

Lillian encounters train porters who let her stow away in a broom closet for a price, a prostitute named Gumdrop who takes her in when she is beaten up, Christian missionaries who pray for her good fortune as they try to reform her, women “in trouble but not really bad” who are her cellmates when she’s confined to a work camp and an isolated telegraph operator who shows her kindness, even as she is lice-covered and limping. At times she prays, she steals, she remembers and she keeps going, making sense of the vast foreign land around her. Several characters share their stories of love and loss, but Lillian is spare in revealing her own.

At times she walks 20 miles a day in Alaska.

“When she can, Lillian walks to a waltz. She walks to a mazurka for four miles, to a fox-trot for another four. She walks to as much ragtime as she can remember…. The spaces between the trees will fill in slowly until the woods around her are a spiked gray wall, and Lillian has learned to make herself sleep in the endless, disturbing dusk. She sings the sad, raspy lullabies her mother had sung to her and she’d sung to Sophie: children lost, lovers separated, crops failing — dirges, all of them, and oddly cheering,” Bloom writes.

As Lillian moves on, Bloom’s narrative occasionally pauses, filling the reader in on what will happen to the characters Lillian leaves behind. As Bloom explained, “My own sense of people with difficult lives it that you don’t get to keep around everyone you want to keep around.” She has created a narrator’s voice that is both a kind of classic 19th century voice and modern — “an old fashioned 21st century omniscient narrator,” she said.

“I don’t think of it as being set in the past. For those people it was not their past, but their present. I wanted to create their modern world.”

Want to hear a story?

So I’m at the Jewish Book Council’s (JBC) open auditions, in the main sanctuary of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, in the front row of the L-Z section of authors who have written a book with a Jewish theme and who would like to sell more than three copies of that book over their lifetime, which is — let’s be honest here — what will happen to most of us if we don’t get invited to speak at a Jewish book fair or two next fall.

My publisher, generous by any standards, has flown me here and put me up in a five-star, Madison Avenue hotel, all expenses paid with two publicists in tow — which isn’t a bad deal, really, I realize, and am terribly grateful — and all he asks in return is that I make a good impression on the good men and women of the JBC during the two minutes I’ll have to make my presentation.

But now I’m looking around at the rows upon rows of authors ready and eager and each carrying a copy of his or her book like a weapon and all I can think of is how much my poor publisher is going to hate me when he sees the first sales figures on my book and realizes he should have invested in a game of roulette instead.

I do like my book, you know, and I do believe it should be read by countless millions — though I will easily settle for dozens — who will mob the bookstores at midnight, dressed in costume, having legally changed their names to those of the characters in my story. But I also realize I’ve come to the world of publishing with a gross handicap — I’ve written a novel, as opposed to something useful, like a book of nonfiction, which is what everyone else seems to have written — and that nothing I can say at the podium tonight is going to tilt the balance in my favor.

You see, nearly 200,000 books are published in the United States every year. More than half of those are works of nonfiction-how-to, inspirational, biography, memoir. Those are the books people buy. People buy them because they serve a purpose — an actual function that justifies the $24 and dozen or more hours of time they consume. The rest — novels and collections of short stories or poems — are useful only as a tax write-off for the publisher, against profits from books of nonfiction, or the occasional novel about kites and wizards, or something that was written 30 years ago and suddenly discovered yesterday by Oprah. So if you’re smart, or semisensible, or at least not of the “don’t change the lightbulb; I’ll just sit in the dark” school of thought, you will write nonfiction.

Tonight, for instance, we hear from a professor of Jewish history who has taught at a major university for 50 years, and has now written a book about it. His facts are solid and his credentials are impeccable. And from a woman who has written about a boat full of Jewish immigrants that, 50 years ago, sank before it reached its destination. And from a rabbi who has written about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States. This is all good stuff, you say, important stuff. And I agree. This is the kind of thing people should read, instead of some little story about things that never happened and people that didn’t exist.

I do agree with you. I really do. I can see why these writers’ careers should rise meteorically while mine lingers in the marshlands of publishing.

But then we have an author who calls himself “an investigative reporter” and who says he has “spent the last five years investigating your marriage.” He says his book will answer all the questions any woman ever had about a man, like “why your husband leaves his socks on the floor.” It’s not a book about Jews per se, he admits, but it could be: many Jews are men, and many of them are husbands.

So he’s over-reaching a bit for the Jewish angle, you say. But he’s spent five years researching this book, and maybe people should care more about socks on the floor than about my little novel, regardless of how much my poor publisher is paying for my hotel tonight.


Edward R. Murrow is followed by a woman who has written a book about bread. Good old ordinary bread. As in the kind you eat. Bread and the many things you can do with it. She holds the book up and, sure enough, there’s the picture of a loaf of bread right on the cover. Look inside and you’ll find the answer to all the questions you’ve always had but were afraid to ask.

The connection between bread and Judaism? Challah, of course.

And then there’s an author who has written a book about aprons. The history of aprons, to be exact. Why they were invented and what they’re good for. The author is wearing one herself, and she carries a cardboard suitcase — like the one Blanche carried to Stella’s house in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In the suitcase she has brought more aprons, each with a different print. Feel free to wear one while you make challah for your Jewish husband.

But here’s the strange thing in all of this: at some point in the course of the evening, I realize I’m not having such a bad time after all. I’m actually enjoying this, actually eager to know what each book is about.

Somehow, this most blatant form of self-promotion, this venue that, until a couple of hours ago, had looked to me like a literary meat market, has suddenly reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place: to tell a good story; a story about Jews; a story that in its own small way continues the tale of this people who have had to struggle, in every generation, to ensure that their story doesn’t end. And I think this is what all the other people in this room have also wanted to do — to write a word, a line, a chapter in that great story, and to make sure our story goes on.

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

Combining fact and fiction confuses peace event

On June 5, the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, two years after standing side-by-side with friends in Gush Katif in an attempt to ward off the evacuation of Gaza, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian peace event marking “40 years of war and occupation” at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

I have not converted to the left; I applaud the achievements of the Six-Day War, yet I cannot deny that the situation in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – the territories, is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians live in a virtual cage, and Israeli soldiers spend the best years of their lives checking Palestinian identity cards at checkpoints to sift out terrorists.

I decided to attend the event with an open mind, to approach it as an opportunity to learn more about the occupation, to show my solidarity with my leftist brethren and to express my appreciation for their humanitarian instincts. While we may disagree on how to end the occupation – I believe in Palestinian disarmament, not reckless Palestinian empowerment –we agree that the status quo is untenable.

The event was like an annual conference for anti-occupation groups. Card-carrying far-leftist organizations were represented by different booths: IPCRI, Machsomwatch, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din, Combatants for Peace, Students for Equal Rights and the Arab-Hebrew Theater.

I arrived a little late, as people onstage were reciting testimonies of acts of Israeli aggression in the West Bank. One man described a group of maverick settlers grabbing an old Palestinian man’s cane and beating him, sending him to the hospital. An Israeli border policeman described the mutual hatred and distrust he had witnessed at checkpoints.

But probably the most moving testimony was that of a Palestinian woman named Jamilla. Wearing a beige hijab, she emotionally described how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) once prevented her from passing a checkpoint while she was in the middle of labor contractions – she gave birth to a boy in a car, only to watch him die on the way to the hospital.

I was deeply saddened and hurt by these stories and grateful that they were being told. We can’t afford to hide from the truth, and I intended to confront my settler friends about such events, because I thought they would share my sadness.

In the middle of the courtyard, Machsomwatch (an organization that monitors IDF behavior at checkpoints) had created a makeshift checkpoint for people entering the Cinemateque building, where films documenting Palestinian hardships were to be shown. I waited inside the caged corridor leading to the revolving metal exit, and Jamilla was standing just in front of me.

We were trapped together, and I felt a need to say something, to apologize for her baby’s death. I knew at the height of my anger during the intifada – when a terrorist attack hit my favorite cafe and a friend got moderately wounded in another – I might have been guilty of bashing Palestinians, calling them horrible names and wishing upon them ugly things, but no one deserved her kind of suffering.

After all, we are all human beings, created in God’s image.

I mustered my courage, tears forming in my eyes – this was a big moment for me – and I said: “I’m sorry about what happened to you.” She nodded sympathetically, and I continued, “Not that sorry is the right thing to say. I don’t know what to say.”

She continued to nod, and I asked her how many children she had. Then she perked up and said: “It was an act!”

“What?” I asked, stupefied.

It turned out that some of the people who gave “testimonies” were actors from the Arab-Hebrew Theater, reciting monologues based on real-life testimonies. Jamilla was not an Arab but an Israeli, because Palestinians generally can’t enter Israel and “play” themselves.

She said she didn’t know whether the exact story she told was true but that similar things have happened.

At that moment, I really wanted to cry. My moment of reconciliation and empathy was killed and with it my open mind – I didn’t want it to be played with.

Waiting at the fake checkpoint actually became strangely enjoyable as I watched thespian “soldiers” in army uniforms dramatize the “humiliation” at the checkpoints. When it was my turn to pass, I went up the steps and they shouted, gruffly: “Don’t move!”

I laughed.

“Don’t smile!” one demanded.

Finally, I showed them my press card and passed through. One of the soldiers eventually smirked, too, and I told him that I write for a Los Angeles paper and joked that I can make him famous. It was all sadly comical, defeating the purpose of the installation, at least for me.

I remained outside and passed by the booth of Combatants for Peace, an organization consisting of IDF soldiers and Palestinian Fatah fighters now working toward peace through nonviolence.

A handsome 28-year-old Israeli student, Yonatan, a former tank officer who refuses to serve in the territories, told me that the organization was founded to bring together the “fighters” of Palestinian and Israeli society, considered the elite of their respective communities.

“Israelis should meet Palestinians and not rely on what they see on television,” he said.

Taking his encouragement, I jumped at the chance to speak with a Palestinian member of Parents’ Circle – Family Forum, which had an adjacent booth. The organization fosters dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members in the last round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Dark, thin Ibrahim Halil, 41, spoke fairly good English as we sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard. Finally, I got the chance to meet the “Palestinian future,” the “moderates” with whom we’ll eventually make peace and live side by side.

He joined the organization because he believes that “the most suitable meeting ground for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians are those who are paid the highest price.”

Call to ‘write and record’ brings new books on Shoah

“Write and record,” historian Simon Dubnow urged his fellow Jews, as he was taken to his death in Riga. Over the decades since Dubnow’s murder in 1941, many have taken his words to heart, and scholars, survivors, novelists, poets, members of the second and third generations continue to publish new work on the Holocaust. This season, in time for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, there are impressive historical works, memoirs of lost childhoods, personal testimonies and artful works of fiction; many written by those who feel an obligation to those whose voices were stilled.


Archivist Bonnie Gureswitsch quotes historian Simon Dubnow in the opening of her essay, “Documenting the Unimaginable: Recording the Truth, Telling the World,” in a companion book to a new exhibition opening April 16 in New York City at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, titled “Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust” (Museum of Jewish Heritage).

Edited by curator Yitzchak Mais, with essays by Holocaust scholar David Engel, psychologist Eva Fogelman, Gureswitsch and Mais, the book documents individual and group acts of resistance through excerpts of diaries, oral histories and letters — some never before published — illustrated with photographs and artwork produced clandestinely in ghettos and camps.

As Mais writes, he and his colleagues have “sought to change the widely held perception that Jews, by and large, failed to resist. The question is not, as some would pose it, why did Jews fail to mount cohesive and effective resistance to the Nazis, but rather, how was it possible that so many Jews resisted at all?”

“The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust,” by Mordecai Paldiel, with a foreword by Elie Wiesel (Collins), includes about 150 well-written profiles of ordinary citizens who risked their lives — who wouldn’t apply the word hero to themselves, but indeed personify that word. They were selected from among the more than 21,000 people who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. The author, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and was helped during the war years by a French priest profiled in the book, serves as director of the Department for the Righteous at Yad Vashem.

Mordecai Paldiel’s “Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust” (Ktav) details the lives of diplomats around the world during World War II, often on routine assignments, who, as Ambassador Richard Holbrooke explains in an introduction, found themselves “in an unexpected moral dilemma of historic dimensions.” Often using unorthodox methods, these diplomats risked their own lives to try to save others, motivated by their sense that official policies were wrong.

Some of the diplomatic heroes are familiar names, like Chiume Sugihara of Japan and Giorgio Perlasca of Italy. Paldiel also includes many others from China, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil,Yugoslavia and the Vatican.

In the book’s epigraph, Paldiel quotes German writer Lion Feuchtwanger: “Who has not gone through a country shaken by internal troubles, by war or foreign occupation, who does not know the significant role that an identity card or an administrative rubber stamp can play in a person’s life?”

“The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945,” by Saul Friedlander (HarperCollins), is a follow-up to his earlier work, “The Years of Persecution,” which together provide a remarkable comprehensive history. The author, who was born in Prague and spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied France, is a distinguished professor of history at UCLA and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. The work is based on letters, diaries and memories, as well as archival documents.


A post-Holocaust story, “The Polish Woman,” by Eva Mekler (Bridge Works), opens when a 29-year-old woman arrives at the law offices of a man who — as she informs him — is the nephew of her late father. At first, the lawyer doesn’t believe that this woman is the long-lost child, who had been hidden by a Catholic family in Poland. A powerful story unfolds, as the lawyer and young woman try to verify her account and her identity.

Born in Poland immediately after the war, the author spent her first few years of life in a displaced persons camp in Germany and now lives in New York.

Aharon Appelfeld is a storyteller who spins his craft with delicacy and compassion. When his first book was published, a critic wrote, “Appelfeld doesn’t write on the Holocaust, but about its margins.” Some 20 books later, he’s still writing in the margins, creating stories drawn, in part, from his life.

In his latest novel, “All Whom I Have Loved” (Schocken), a young son of divorced parents moves back and forth between their homes and lives. The book is set in Europe in the ’30s, and the story prefigures what is to come for the Jews. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Appelfeld lives in Israel.


“Dark Clouds Don’t Stay Forever: Memories of a Jewish German Boy in the 1930s and 1940s,” by Werner Neuberger (Publish America), is a personal story that also conveys a larger perspective on prewar life in Germany. The author left Germany on a Kindertransport, came to the United States at the age of 13 and later served in the U.S. Army. As the title implies, he has managed to sustain his positive, life-embracing attitude. He writes with humility and insight.

“Bread, Butter, and Sugar: A Boy’s Journey Through the Holocaust and Postwar Europe,” by Martin Schiller (Hamilton Books), is told in the third person. It’s the story of young Menek, who would later become Martin, now a 73-year-old electrical engineer specializing in pollution control.

The author captures the child’s point of view: Schiller was 6 when the Nazis invaded Poland and 9 when he and his family were interned as slave laborers. He survived Buchenwald with the help of a German political prisoner.

“My Dog Lala: The Touching True Story of a Young Boy and His Dog During the Holocaust,” by Roman R. Kent (Teacher’s Discover), is, as the author describes, a love letter to his pet, also a casualty of the Holocaust. When Kent’s family was taken from their Lodz home to the Ghetto, Lala — whose name means doll in Polish — would find the way to the family at night, sneaking in and out of the Ghetto. Kent, a businessman who is active in Jewish organizational life related to the Holocaust, has used the story of Lala in speaking with young people as a way to promote tolerance.

Minimalist Keret Reads

Etgar Keret is coming to Los Angeles, but fear not. This brilliant young Israeli writer of his generation, a skillful satirist who seems to have a knack for expressing the emotions, thoughts and language of his peers, has not gone completely Hollywood.

He has returned to fiction, despite spending more than a year working on several movies: “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” based on his novella, “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Festival; “$9.99,” a stop-motion animated film starring Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, based on his story, “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” and “Jellyfish,” which he co-directed with his wife, actress Shira Geffen.

“I’m not mainstream,” insists Keret, who will read from his recently translated short story collection, “The Nimrod Flipout” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), at the Skirball Cultural Center’s fourth annual Stanley F. Chyet Literary Event on April 10.

The 39-year-old writer sits at his neighborhood Tel Aviv cafe, dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt; his long hair is graying and mussed. He drinks a small cappuccino with soy milk served with a plate of flaky halvah cookies.
“Writing stories is the most natural thing to me, but what pulls me to movies is working with other people. I love people, and I love collaborating. I want the people who work with me to love the stories, to be a little bit crazy and committed themselves,” he says.

His 1996 film, “Skin Deep,” won the Israeli Oscar, as well as first prize at several international film festivals. More than 40 short films based on his stories have been produced, and one, “Crazy Glue,” received the 1998 American MTV prize for the best student animated film.

Keret has authored four short story collections in Hebrew, two in English, two children’s books, a handful of novellas, graphic novels, screenplays and collaborated on anthologies. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages, which have received critical acclaim around the world.
His writing has, at its core, a very offbeat, youthful sensibility. Keret writes a lot about men — mostly young men — the army, life in Israel’s secular center, where he was born, raised and still lives, and the friendships and sexual relationships of early adulthood.

Keret’s writing is focused on the characters and the plot rather than aesthetic and conflict. There’s little to no physical description of his characters, but it’s not hard to imagine skinny guys in jeans and T-shirts slumped in chairs or loping down the street.

It’s probably what Keret was like when he first began writing while stuck in a dead-end job in the army. But it was only once he was at Tel Aviv University that his writing took off.

The way Keret tells it, he was always late to class because he would stay up late writing. Finally, his adviser, a philosophy professor, said he would have to cancel Keret’s scholarship if he didn’t get his act together. Keret showed him the stories he had written, which helped kick-start his career.

He doesn’t like to over-intellectualize in his writing, but he does go for emotion, writing about things and events that move him.

Keret and his father, a bookkeeper, have always had an emotional relationship, he says. But the way his father displays love and affection is by means of the details that his father knows about his life from handling Keret’s bookkeeping.
“He’ll say, ‘You got home late that night,’ because of a taxi receipt, or “How was dinner at that restaurant?'” Keret says. “Emotion comes from where it comes from, from the way I live it.”

It’s an essence that is profusely displayed in his work.

In the collection’s title story, “Nimrod Flip-Out,” which was also printed in the summer 2004 edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine, Zoetrope, Keret tells the tale of four friends, Miron, Uzi, Ron and Nimrod. When Nimrod’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he commits suicide while serving in the army.
Ron, the narrator, appears to be a singularly self-absorbed 20-something, smoking joints and mildly contemplating his future. But he is completely and utterly dedicated to his friendship with his buddies, even when Uzi goes and gets married.

“Me and Miron sat on the balcony drinking coffee. Miron had a new thing going now. Whenever he’d make us coffee, he’d always make one instant for Nimrod, too, in the séance glass, and he’d put it on the table, the way you leave out a glass of wine for Elijah on Passover, and after we were through drinking, he’d spill it in the sink.”

In his inimitable way, Keret gives meaning with each word, choosing carefully in order to imbue the sentence with as much understanding as possible.

“I love minimalistic writing,” he says. “I seek the abstract, and it’s the same in my movies. They say I’m like the captain of the Titanic, because I take sentences out, I throw stuff overboard.”

Etgar Keret will speak April 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. For more information, visit www.skirball.org or etgarkeret.com/.

Readers finally get their say at JBook.com’s Peoples’ Choice Awards

The people have spoken, and they spake Foer.

“Everything Is Illuminated,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s tragi-comic tale of a young American Jew’s journey through Ukraine in search of his grandfather’s roots, is the first winner of JBooks.com‘s People’s Choice Award for the decade’s best work of Jewish fiction.
The award, and a $5,000 check, will be presented Nov. 15 at the Koret International Jewish Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco.
That doesn’t mean Foer’s novel really is the decade’s best book, not by the usual standards. It just means that the more than 1,500 readers who cast their votes in the six-week online contest liked it better than the other five contenders, a list judges whittled down from 115 readers’ suggestions.
The credence one gives to such an award depends on whether one prefers a laurel wreath bestowed by the crowd or the critics.
Online voting tends to draw a younger crowd, and is subject to ballot box-stuffing, organizers admit, although they say they weeded out suspicious patterns.
Certainly the contest, which ran Sept. 6 to Oct. 16, got lots of folks involved in choosing their favorite Jewish book, and that’s what the organizers wanted.
“The idea is to give readers access to the awards,” to reward “what people are reading and enjoying and talking about,” project manager Jane Hadley said.
The People’s Choice Award is part of current efforts to make Jewish books more accessible — or, rather, to reward those books that are more accessible, a conscious goal of the newly restyled Koret Awards. The Koret Awards are being run this year for the first time by Jewish Family and Life in cooperation with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
The Koret awards, sponsored by the Koret Family Foundation since 1998, have been “criticized as too heavy and highbrow,” newly appointed Jewish Family and Life CEO Amir Cohen said. “We’ve brought it down a notch. It’s still prestigious, but it speaks to a larger piece of the Jewish book-reading public.”
Jewish Family and Life founder Yossi Abramowitz, chair of the awards steering committee, said the new Koret Awards are actively trying to influence Jewish book-buying.
“Our goal is not only to honor excellence, but to help book clubs in their buying decisions and influence Jewish culture,” said Abramowitz, speaking from his new home in Israel.
Noting that most Jewish book clubs are “still overwhelmingly women, highly educated, meeting informally,” he said the changes were “very much made with these book clubs and these women in mind.”
The changes were also made with younger readers in mind. Along with the five Koret Awards, three other groups are honoring emerging Jewish writers during the same ceremony.
The Koret ceremony has been moved from April to November, to coincide with the year’s biggest book-buying season. Categories have been tweaked to attract entries that readers and book groups are more likely to purchase.
“Fiction,” the mainstay of most book clubs, remains untouched, but gone are the categories of “history” and “biography, autobiography and literary studies,” which, say Koret organizers, tended to reward books too scholarly or esoteric to appeal to lay readers. They were replaced by “Jewish life and living,” a more wide-ranging category that drew 127 entries this year, more than any other.
The winners, and many of the finalists, were not always the obvious choices.
In the “Jewish life and living” category, Rochel Berman’s “Dignity Beyond Death,” a gentle, somewhat obscure book about Jewish burial societies, beat out Deborah Lipstadt’s better-known “History on Trial,” the chronicle of her well-publicized legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving.
And while Israeli author David Grossman is well known to American Jewish readers, both for his prize-winning books and his leftist politics, “Her Body Knows,” which took this year’s fiction award, is “sexy, very racy,” said Abramowitz, “an interesting choice.”
Is this wrong? That depends on how one understands the role of book awards. Are they meant to reward the most rarefied tastes, or those of most people? Should they honor literary or academic excellence, or books that readers will want to devour?
The market for Jewish books is hot, and book clubs are fast proliferating. If awards want to be relevant, organizers say, they need to be part of the popular dialogue, even as they encourage excellence.
The National Jewish Book Awards, administered by the Jewish Book Council, have been edging in that direction for years. Council director Carolyn Hessel, the prime mover behind the fast-multiplying Jewish book fairs that take place every fall during Jewish Book Month, is an unabashed fan of promoting books that people will want to read.
There are 82 Jewish book fairs scheduled this year from late October through February, she said, and the council is sending 150 authors on speaking tours. The combination, she asserts, sells “a hell of a lot of books.”
Neither Hessel nor the folks involved with the Koret Awards will say their awards compete with each other.
“The more the merrier,” Cohen of Jewish Family insists. Both groups actively promote Jewish Book Month, which runs from mid-November through mid-December, and they have flipped their ceremonies to avoid conflict.
The National Jewish Book Awards, which used to be held in December, are scheduled for March 6 in New York.
Publishers like that just fine.
Larry Yudelson, founder of the year-old Ben Yehuda Press, which publishes Judaica, said that more book awards mean that more books will be brought to the public’s attention. An award “gets people to notice a book, to read beyond the cover.”
And if the academic world feels slighted with the new emphasis on accessibility, there’s an easy solution. “Come up with a third award,” he suggests.

Winners of the 2006 Koret International Book Awards:

Jewish life and living:

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’

Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel

In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

The Perfect Reads for Those Lazy Days of Summer

I read and write during several days of rain in New York City, and I think about Los Angeles beaches, bleached with sunshine. So reclining on a couch isn’t the same as stretching out on a blanket and listening to the surf, but there’s a certain similar lazy quality, with pockets of time best filled with books.

This season brings engaging reading in a mix of genres: literary fiction, comedy, love stories, detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and books that break genre boundaries; books by veteran authors and others not-yet well-known.

After not publishing fiction for a decade, Hilma Wolitzer makes a fine comeback with “The Doctor’s Daughter” (Ballantine). Wolitzer’s 17th novel is a lively and poetic novel about a 51-year-old book editor who wakes up one morning with a strong sense that something is amiss — beyond the facts of her troubled son, faltering marriage, halting career and the increasing needs of her father in a nursing home.

Her father, who was once a top surgeon, is losing his memory, as she is combing through hers for clues about her family history, her marriage and the choices she has made. Wolitzer, the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, captures ordinary life with tenderness and humanity.

In the opening pages of “The Attack” by Yasmina Akhadra (Talese/Doubleday), a suicide bomb is detonated in a Tel Aviv restaurant, as a children’s birthday party is taking place and other diners sit down for what they assume will be a pleasant lunch. Many are killed instantly, and scores are wounded. Dr. Amin Jaafari, an accomplished surgeon, is called into emergency service in his hospital, which echoes with wailing and screaming.

The son of Bedouins, Dr. Jaafari has become a naturalized Israeli citizen and leads a life that’s well-integrated into Israeli society; he’s much respected by his medical peers.

The hospital is quickly crowded with the terrorist’s victims. Just as soon as Dr. Jaafari finishes with one patient, another is wheeled in and by the end of the night, he has lost count of how many people he has operated on. Soon after leaving the hospital thoroughly exhausted, he is called back and asked to identify a body: It is that of his wife, and authorities are convinced that she was the suicide bomber.

Dr. Jaafari is confounded that his wife, with whom he shared a close, loving relationship, who was equally integrated and comfortable with their Jewish friends, could have had a secret life — that something unknown to him could have driven her to this most heinous act. Ostracized by the community for his wife’s action, he sets out to understand why she would sacrifice herself for a cause that seemed to have little place in their life together and, from what he’s aware of, in her life.

This fast-paced novel is provocative and well-written, leaving the reader with powerful questions. Yasmina Akhadra is the feminine pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer living in France who is the author of five other books published in English, including “The Swallows of Kabul.”

On her blog, Village Voice sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel names Santa Monica author S. Hanala Stadner’s new memoir the most offensive book title of the season, “My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” (Matter Inc.). But once readers get over the title, they may be struck by the author’s clear and honest voice. Stadner continues to shock as she unravels her life story of a Montreal childhood shaped by her parents’ Holocaust experience, her efforts to leave home for Hollywood and their world behind her.

Her journey takes her into the world of drugs and alcoholism, obesity and anorexia, all of which she details, along with her failed relationships and her efforts toward recovery and healing. Her humor is on the edge. Stadner is known around Los Angeles for her popular cable access television program; this is her first book.

“You Gotta Have Balls” by Lilly Brett (Morrow) is another book that might have been served well by a different title. The Australian author whose last book, “Too Many Men” was a best-seller, Brett sets this comic novel in downtown Manhattan, where she now lives. In that novel and this one, she touches lightly on the lingering psychological impact of the Holocaust on the second generation with humor. Here, Roth Rothwax — the heroine of “Too Many Men” — is at first skeptical about the latest project undertaken by her father, a survivor.

He backs a Polish friend with a skill for making variations on meatballs in a new restaurant, and the place becomes an overnight success, the kind of New York restaurant where people make reservations weeks in advance. The book title is the name of the restaurant, and the novel features recipes.

“Adverbs” by Daniel Handler (Ecco) is about people trying to find love. The publication marks the return to adult fiction by the author of a number of popular children’s books written under the name Lemony Snicket, collectively titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Here, the chapters are titled, “Immediately,” “Obviously,” “Collectively,” “Truly,” and 13 other adverbs; the interconnected, inventive stories about searching for love in its many forms are set in a taxi, courtroom, diner and back in a taxi, among other places.
As the author says, “It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.

In “Triangle” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Katherine Weber creates a novel revolving about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The author of several previous novels including “The Little Women,” Weber tells of the granddaughter of the tragedy’s last survivor, as she tries to unravel the facts, while a feminist scholar gets in her way as she tries to do the same. This absorbing novel probes the borders between memory and history. Weber’s own grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.

Irreverent Stories You Haven’t Heard

“All your stories are the same,” a British girl in an MFA creative writing program tells the Jewish students in one of the short stories in Elisa Albert’s new collection, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, $18). “I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but….”

The unspoken “but” is: Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?

Albert, for example calls herself a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit” in the above MFA story, which, incidentally, is a fictional letter penned to Roth offering him the chance to impregnate her. But Albert, like other sardonic Jewish short story writers, is probably closer to the next millennium’s version of Roth and Woody Allen. Instead of portraying an overwrought Jewish mother and other now-familiar Jewish stereotypes, Albert uses Judaism as a setting for mostly secular characters to air their grievances with each other, or themselves.

Judaism here is a Yom Kippur meal, where one sibling has had an abortion and another has an eating disorder. It’s a bris, where the mother doesn’t want to give up her baby to the mohel (whom the uncle calls “Shaky McSnips”). It’s a themed bat mitzvah, where the aunt gets stoned in the bathroom with her niece’s friends while pondering the state of her own shaky marriage.

In short, these are stories about the next generation of Jews — Jews well-versed enough in their culture to throw around references to Camp Ramah and the search for chametz and Ba’al Teshuvas, but they are so comfortable with it that they have no problem tearing it apart.

“What the f– is your neshama?” Miri asks her best friend Rachel, watching her prepare to cut her hair off before her religious wedding.

The neshama — the one Rachel is saving in the story “So Long” — is the Jewish soul. And the soul of these 10 stories is that Jewish characters find, perhaps, a sense of identity in their Jewishness, but not necessarily any particular spiritual meaning.

“How This Night Is Different,” and other in-your-face expressions of Jewish culture like the popular Heeb magazine, is this generation’s attempt to connect to their heritage, and connect even while they mock.

If sometimes they go too far, if at times they offend, they still expect to be part of the cultural dialogue. As Debra, the convert looking for a shul in Lisbon in the story “When You Say You’re a Jew,” muses: “A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?”

Elisa Albert will be giving reading Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; Tuesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; and Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 6510 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park. On Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m., she will be in Santa Monica as part of the ATID/Sinai Temple’s Shabbat at Home program for young professionals. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3244.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, July 8
The Hollywood Palladium’s got the beat tonight. Head there for ’80s retro fun wrapped up in a good cause. Bet Tzedek — The House of Justice presents its annual Justice Ball benefit with headliners The Go-Go’s.

8:30 p.m. $75-$150. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. (323) 656-9069. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>


Sunday, July 9
A midsummer night’s edutainment comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Tonight, they perform “Ahava: From Israel with Love” at the Ford Amphitheatre, with Chen Zimbalista on marimba and Alon Reuven on French horn. Explanatory introductions of each piece will be given by conductor Noreen Green.

7:30 p.m. $12-$36. 2850 Cahuenga Blvd., East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.

Monday, July 10
TV gets some artistic recognition, thanks to Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). Today FIDM opens its new exhibition, “The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design,” which continues through Sept. 9. On display are highlights from 40 years of television costuming, including clothes worn by Sonny and Cher, Barry Manilow and Carol Burnett, on their shows and specials.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. (daily, except Sundays). Free. FIDM Museum and Galleries on the Park, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 624-1200, ext. 2224.


Tuesday, July 11
The sound of music drifts through the air, mixing with that signature zoo scent, this evening. The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association kicks off the first of two “Music in the Zoo” nights. Tonight, hear the Masanga Marimba Ensemble of Zimbabwe, the Scottish Wicked Tinkers, the Mediterranean music of Shaya and Rafi and the Irish Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder. Plus, the animals get a later bedtime of 8 p.m. and “Club Med Circus Performers” monkey around.

Tues., July 11 and 25, 6-9 p.m. Free (children 5 and under), $7-$16. Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park. (323) 644-6042. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Wednesday, July 12
Invisible friends get revenge in “Bunbury: A Serious Play for Trivial People.” The play by Tom Jacobson features the never-seen characters of Bunbury (of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and Rosaline (of “Romeo and Juliet”), teaming up to sabotage classic literary works. It is performed at the Skirball Cultural Center, and recorded to air on L.A. Theatre Works’ radio theater series, The Play’s the Thing, which broadcasts weekly on public and satellite radio, including 89.3 KPCC.

8 p.m. (July 12-14), 3 pm. (July 15), 4 p.m. (July 16). $25-$45. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P.,
(310) 827-0889.

Thursday, July 13
July gets a little hotter with Stephen Cohen Gallery’s “Summer Skin” exhibition. The group show features nude works, some naughty, some nice, by artists like Diane Arbus, Anthony Friedkin and Horace Bristo. The raciest stuff, by guys like David Levinthal, Larry Clark and Robert Mapplethorpe, can be seen in a separate viewing room.

July 7-Aug. 26. Free. 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-5525.


Friday, July 14
Literature takes center stage with The New Short Fiction Series, a host of evenings in which actors read from a published work of fiction. This year’s first featured writer is author and poet Carol Schwalberg, whose “The Midnight Lover and Other Stories” will be performed, tonight.

8 p.m. $10. Beverly Hills Public Library Auditorium, 444 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-2220.

Mother and Daughter Authors Are Klass Act

Sheila Solomon Klass and Dr. in Perri Klass — mother and daughter co-authors — don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they do elaborate on them in Talmudic style, layering on comments, memories, opinions and their own interpretations of the same story.

In a kitchen table interview in Sheila’s Washington Heights, N.Y., apartment, the two women talk candidly about their lives and careers — sometimes describing the other and waiting for a correction to be lobbed back — and their new book, “Every Mother Is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace and a Really Clean Kitchen” (Ballantine).

Perri, 48, is a pediatrician and writer, and Sheila, 78, is an author and teacher of writing. Between them, they’ve written more than 25 books, although this is their first collaboration. The book is told in alternating voices and reads like their live conversation. They share ideas about home, children, writing, relationships and the way their lives overlap and echo. There’s nothing thorny or strained between them, even as they disagree. The book is funny, thoughtful and smart — full of love but avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality.

“In some ways we spend our lives telling stories about our mothers,” Perri writes, determined to give her mother her say in print.

Among their similarities, Perri points out that both have three children, long marriages to academic men and work that allows time for writing “around the edges.”

“She started out in a completely different place. She invented the whole thing. I was just copying,” the daughter says.

“Perri gives me too much credit,” her mother replies. “I don’t feel I invented this kind of life. I stumbled upon myself.”

Perri is one of the best-known pediatrician-writers in the United States. She gained national attention as a medical student in 1984 when she began contributing to the “Hers” column of The New York Times and published a much-discussed essay in The New York Times Magazine on being pregnant while attending Harvard Medical School. Since then, she has published widely in magazines, ranging from Parenting to Esquire to Knitter’s Magazine (she’s also a serious knitter) and has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction. In addition to her work at a neighborhood health center in Boston, she directs Reach Out and Read, a national program that trains doctors and nurses to stress the importance of reading.

Sheila is the kind of ardent New Yorker who prefers subways to taxis and wanders the streets with confidence — she’s still dazzled by the city where she’s spent most of her life. For more than 40 years she has taught writing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and she has written 16 novels, including several for young readers and a memoir of her time living in Trinidad, where Perri was born. Her other children are also writers: her son a screenwriter, and her younger daughter a poet, songwriter and English professor.

The book is in many ways a paean to husband and father Morton Klass, an anthropologist who specialized in religion and died suddenly in 2001. Perri says that she so missed hearing his voice and thought that this project would be a way for them to look at their memories from different perspectives. After his death, Perri and Sheila traveled to Trinidad, where they had previously lived in a small wooden hut on stilts while Morton did research for his dissertation — this was a return trip they had hoped to do with him.

While Perri grew up in suburban New Jersey with familial support for all of her pursuits, Sheila grew up very poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1920s, in an unhappy Orthodox home. In order to attend Brooklyn College, she ran away from home and took a live-in baby-sitting job. Sheila never wanted a life like her mother’s, although she later realized that “she who gives you life is never wholly separated from you.”

Perri doesn’t seem so much like a younger version of Sheila, but there’s a direct lifeline between them. It’s perhaps in their habits of home, kitchen and thrift that mother and daughter differ most, and playfully spar. Sheila never leaves a teacup in her sink, perfectly refolds the newspaper whenever she or anyone else puts it down, lives frugally and gets her assignments in early. Perri misses deadlines regularly and spends much of what she makes. Her home is chaotic and, unlike her mother, who served breakfast every morning at a set table, she tries to remind her kids to grab a handful of nuts on their way out of the house. While Perri isn’t allowed to wash a dish in Sheila’s home, Sheila makes sure to wash Perri’s sink full of dishes whenever she visits, in spite of her daughter’s protests. It’s motherly prerogative.

“When I think about strength, I think about my mother,” Perri says. “My mother has always been very reliable in a way that I don’t think I am. I sometimes come home and I say I’m too tired to even think about dinner. Never in my whole life did my mother, who worked all day and had dinner on the table every night, say she was too tired.”

“Only because I didn’t know I was allowed,” Sheila remarks.

The book ends in India, another return trip for the intrepid pair. Perri makes the plans, adding a few luxuries her mother would ordinarily eschew. The final scene is one of mother-daughter mischief, as they view the Taj Mahal at night.

Perri is about to become a New Yorker. She and her husband, a professor of history, are joining the New York University faculty. Along with an appointment at the medical school, she’ll also teach in the journalism school.

As for Sheila, who has some trouble with her vision and hearing, she’s grateful every day for the gifts of her life. Moving back to Manhattan after her kids left home was like returning from exile. She offers her own mantra: “Let it be known that she never took a cab of her own free will.”

For Journal readers who will be in the New York region, there will be a Mother’s Day event, celebrating mothers and daughters, co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and the UJA-Federation of New York. It will feature a conversation with Dr. Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass – moderated by Sandee Brawarsky and hosted by JCC Mid-Westchester. The dialogue will be followed by a book signing and light refreshments. It takes place Monday, May 15, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., JCC Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, Scarsdale. The event is free but reservations are required. Contact Tia Disick, (212) 921-7822 x237, or tia@jewishweek.org

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.



Jack Abramoff

We stand guilty as charged — and we are proud of it.

David Klinghoffer correctly notes (“In Defense of Jack Abramoff,” Jan. 27) that Orthodox writers — left, right, and center — expressed their embarrassment about Jack Abramoff’s behavior. Jews are meant to be exemplars of God’s teaching. When they get it wrong, the Divine Name itself is desecrated. If the rest of the community fails to speak out — with a communal “Not in Our Name” — they are seen, with some justice, as being complicit.

Klinghoffer is right that Abramoff — the person — should not be abandoned or distanced. It is the behavior that needs the public criticism, not the person. We should feel for his tragedy, and wish him well.

He is wrong about other issues. Unanimous court verdicts are perfectly acceptable in a Jewish court, except in capital cases. Abramoff’s repentance does not change the need to distance ourselves from the original misdeeds for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that repentance before God is ineffective in sins between Man and Man. Mitigating Abramoff’s behavior with a Robin Hood defense is a worse error. It is precisely because so many people feel that they can take ethical shortcuts for a “higher” purpose that we need to remind ourselves and the world that this is unacceptable.

While I didn’t claim to know what Abramoff was actually thinking when he wore the hat (I was trying to put a more positive spin on his behavior, something I recall that Klinghoffer elsewhere in his piece suggest we all do), I do have a pretty good idea of what I wrote and thought. I did not suggest that returnees are more likely to have character flaws than those born into observance. My life’s work with returnees to Jewish tradition and my regard for them are a matter of record [at www.cross-currents.com], including my belief that many show up at the gates of observance with better character traits than those who preceded them since childhood.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Sydney M Irmas Chair, Jewish Law and Ethics
Loyola Law School

David Klinghoffer’s article on Jack Abramoff was so full of lies, distortions, half truths and illogic that it should win the first annual James Frey award for deception in Jewish journalism.

According to The New York Times (Jan. 10), Abramoff has expressed contritions to some, while “in conversations with people he considers sympathetic, he has insisted that his practices were Washington business as usual.”

Klinghoffer said Abramoff’s confession was “not a stark and true representation of crimes committed” but a confession squeezed by a plea bargain. But The New York Times also reported that Abramoff “recounted in detail” his crimes to prosecutors. Is Klinghoffer implying that Abramoff is now compounding his crimes by committing perjury during the testimony required in his plea agreement?

Finally, the Klinghoffer/Abramoff team can’t even get its spin straight on the “fedora issue.” Abramoff told Klinghoffer it was just a “a crushable rain hat.” But The Forward (Jan. 6) reported that Abramoff purchased the fedora from Bencraft Hatters, a Brooklyn-based haberdasher, for $200. A quick look at The Jewish Journal cover or many of the other photos of that day show clearly that was no “crushable rain hat”

Hmmm, doesn’t inspire confidence as to the rest of the article does it? It would take an hour of Oprahlike dissection of Klinghoffer’s piece to do it justice.

Perhaps The Jewish Journal should publish future articles by Mr. Klinghoffer in its fiction section.

Lawrence Weinman
Los Angeles

I am ashamed that The Jewish Journal not only carries [David] Klinghoffer, but that you allow such anti-Jewish hogwash when he spouts about the crook, [Jack]Abramoff. There is no question that Klinghoffer is spouting his Republican right-wing apology for Abramoff and does it in the name of Judaism. That is too much.

Abramoff stole money from Indian tribes, used the money to support his own style of life and has created a crisis in government in Washington through his using such money to buy Tom DeLay and Bob Ney. He created false organizations, including Jewish ones, hired wives and daughters of congressmen who did nothing but rake in money from him. Then has the chutzpah to want sympathy as a poor Jew in a black hat, and Klinghoffer supports him.

It is not bad enough that he has pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, but he has demeaned the good works of Jews in this country. Abramoff deserves nothing less than a prison term, a loss of citizenship and for my part, the use of RICO [Act] to take all of his possessions that he acquired. He is and has been an evil man, who has helped to destroy democracy.

How Klinghoffer can have the guts to absolve him and accuse other Jews of turning against Abramoff is totally beyond me. I would say the same whether Abramoff was a Democrat or a Christian. The fact that he was Jewish only offends me more. It means that he learned nothing from his religion.

Al Mellman
Los Angeles

The less said about your whitewashing this man due to his “good deeds” the better.

I. Grossman
Los Angeles

There is good reason to be critical of [Jack] Abramoff.

Anti-Semites throughout the United States will point to him as an example of the corrupting influence of Jews in the United States. What happens in the United States is reported throughout the world; so this will effect the greater Diaspora.

This is just something else that militant Islamic extremists will point out to their children as to why Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth.

Michael L. Stempel

We thank David Klinghoffer for his thoughtful article regarding the dreadful way many in the Jewish community have behaved toward Jack Abramoff.

Elaine and Robert Leichter

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684


Hitler and the ‘What If?’ Question

“The World Hitler Never Made,” by Gavriel Rosenfeld (Cambridge University Press, $30).

In 1979, comedian Al Franken wrote a skit for “Saturday Night Live” called “What if: Überman,” featuring Dan Aykroyd as Klaus Kent, a clerk in Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda. Klaus dashes into phone booths to become Überman, uses his X-ray vision to detect bombs and to reveal Jews by looking through their pants, and ultimately leads his country to victory. The Nazi organ Der Daily Planet reports, “Überman Takes Stalingrad in 5 Minutes: Diverts Volga,” and “Überman Rounds Up Two Million Jews: Total Past 6 Million.”

This is undoubtedly one of the more outrageous examples, but since 1945, more than 100 authors and screenwriters in Europe and America have asked the same “what if” questions: How would the world look if the Nazis had won? If the Holocaust had never happened? The theme has attracted some of the finest minds in Anglo-American letters. Philip Roth’s latest best seller, for example, “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) imagines an alternate past where U.S. President Charles Lindbergh signs neutrality pacts with Germany and Japan in 1940 and forcibly resettles the country’s Jews to the rural Midwest.

These scenarios, known as “allohistory,” or alternate history, are the objects of Gavriel Rosenfeld’s careful study, “The World Hitler Never Made.” The Fairfield College professor has analyzed every artifact of “what if” speculation on the Nazi era he could unearth, from celebrated sci-fi novels such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” to obscure “Twilight Zone” episodes, to fiction that one might describe politely as complete schlock (read: Newt Gingrich’s co-written flop of a novel, “1945,” about a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union; the book was so unsuccessful that most of its unsold copies ended up pulped one year after its publication in 1995).

Rosenfeld admits that the works are of “uneven literary quality” — but that is precisely the point. While most academic studies of literary representations of the Nazi era and the Holocaust focus on “high” art and literature, Rosenfeld’s aims to study the images of Nazism that proliferate in popular culture. Whether they intend to or not, speculations about the “what ifs” of Nazi history offer good evidence of our memory of the actual events.

What he discovers is a not altogether shocking but nonetheless worrisome trend: As the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past, authors are taking more and more liberties with their portrayals of Nazism — and readers are responding. From the end of the war to the mid-1960s, allohistorical works in the English language depicted the Nazis as uniquely evil and portrayed an imaginary Nazi occupation of England and America as straightforwardly dystopic. Since then, he argues, alternate histories reveal an increasingly “normalized” memory of the Nazi era and even of the Holocaust. That is, recent works are less likely to represent Nazis as purely evil and the Allies as purely valiant.

In the postwar period, the allohistorical imagination conjured up what can only be called absolute nightmares of a Nazi future. In 1947, Noël Coward wrote a play sarcastically titled “Peace in Our Times,” set in Nazi-occupied London from 1940 to 1945. The story’s protagonists wage a noble war of resistance against a brutal Gestapo official, who avers that it is Germany’s “destiny to rule the world,” while Britons who preached appeasement in the 1930s end up collaborating with their persecutors. John Wall’s “The Sound of His Horn” (1952), set in the Nazi calendar year 102 — a century after the “First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism,” Adolf Hitler’s victory over Europe — emphasized the brutality of a would-be Nazi-ruled continent. Science fiction author Cyril Kornbluth published a short story in 1958 titled “Two Dooms,” in which an American nuclear scientist eats hallucinogenic mushrooms that make him imagine a German-occupied America where extermination camps have been set up outside Chicago. In all, Nazis were painted as unparalleled in their wickedness.

But, Rosenfeld notes, in the mid-1960s authors started writing alternate histories of Nazism differently. For example, at the dawn of “a more pessimistic mood within postwar British society,” the genre was used to break down national myths instead of reinforcing them, beginning in 1964 with Giles Cooper’s “The Other Man” and the 1966 film “It Happened Here.” These works, Rosenfeld writes, “blurred the line between the British and the Germans, depicting both as mired in the same immoral world” by focusing on the possibility of British collaboration.

In the United States, disillusion with the Vietnam War inspired revisionist portrayals of America’s war against the Nazis. In 1972, the political scientist Bruce Russett published “No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry Into World War II,” an analysis of “might-have-beens” in World War II. Claiming that Americans might have been better off had they never entered the war, Russett relativized Nazism’s evils by insisting that “Nazism as an ideology was almost certainly less dangerous to the United States” than communism. He criticized American intervention in Vietnam by contesting the historical necessity of intervention in Europe.

This trend becomes even more pronounced by the beginning of the 1990s, by which time Robert Harris could crack the international best-seller list with his novel “Fatherland” (1992), featuring a humanized and even honorable Nazi as its protagonist. Recent novels about the Holocaust, such as Daniel Quinn’s “After Dachau” (2001) — however noble their intentions — have undermined the Holocaust’s uniqueness by using it to draw attention to other genocides, reflecting what Rosenfeld regrets to call “the erosion of prior moral perspectives” to the Holocaust and the Nazi era in general.

In the end, Rosenfeld has mixed feelings about alternate histories. On one hand, he recognizes their capacity for critique, but he also worries they can distort or divert our attention away from real history. It is clear, however, that Rosenfeld’s book is not so much a contribution to literary criticism — in which it is at times lacking — as much as to a larger debate over the portrayal of Nazism.

“Humanizing Hitler may in fact eliminate him from our nightmares, but it may also diminish his place in popular awareness altogether,” he writes. “Only as long as the dictator continues to haunt us are we likely to continue studying, reflecting upon, and drawing historical lessons from, the Third Reich’s destructive legacy.”

Rosenfeld might be exaggerating the extent to which our culture is “forgetting” the evils of Nazism, but his warning is well taken.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Noah Strote writes on Jewish and European history. He lives in Berkeley.

No Religious Bias in Racy ‘Bodice Rippers’

Fess up or don’t, a lot of us are reading romance novels — otherwise known as “bodice rippers.” The numbers speak for themselves, accounting for 48 percent of all popular paperback fiction published, according to the Web site of the Romance Writers of America.

And that “us” includes more than a few Jews.

While there are no statistics to prove it, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Typing “Jewish romance novel” into Google calls up dozens of bodice rippers featuring Jewish themes or characters, and not all published by small presses. And since publishers make their decisions based solely on a manuscript’s marketability, the romance novel industry is as democratic as it gets. Bottom line, these Jewish-themed books are getting published because editors know there are readers who will buy them.

Just who these readers are is hard to say, according to Mark Shechner, professor of English at State University of New York at Buffalo and co-editor of “Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Jewish-themed pulp fiction is prevalent and has a loyal following, it’s just not singled out in reviews, Shechner said.

“There are even writers of Chasidic romance fiction, like Pearl Abraham, author of ‘Romance Reader,'” he noted.

Recently published Jewish-themed romances include Persian Jewish writer Dora Levy Mossanen’s “Harem,” and her 2005 follow-up, “Courtesan”; Australian Jewish author and screenwriter Tobsha Learner’s “The Witch of Cologne,” and Southern Jewish writer Loraine Despres’ “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell.”

The list goes on, with titles also including works that seem to be a part of an emerging genre fondly termed “biblical bodice rippers” by Abigail Yasgur, executive librarian at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.

Anita Diamant’s 1998 best seller, “The Red Tent,” a fictional retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, seems to have set off the trend. Two recent releases include Eva Etzion Halevy’s “The Song of Hannah” and Rebeca Kohn’s “The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther,” which both came out in the last two years.

A Jewish tradition of romance writing may help account for this trend, Shechner said. “The earliest Yiddish writing we have is from the early 16th century, ‘Bovo of Antona,’ a Yiddish translation of the Anglo-Norman romantic epic.” Moreover, “there were courtly romances with names like ‘Pariz un Vyene’ (Paris and Vienna). There were early translations of Arthurian tales into Yiddish — very early.”

And while the genre is easy to mock, consider this before you do. Shechner believes that the Jewish culture has an intrinsic relationship with romance.

“Maybe after all, romance is one of the authentic undercurrents of the Jewish imagination,” he said. “Isn’t romance the underside of piety, the negative, the shadow, the suppressed yearning that follows duty and restraint around? That is how I look at it.”

Three Romance Books Follow Novel Paths

“The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell” by Loraine Despres (Willaim Morrow, $23.95).

Incorrigible Belle Cantrell can’t seem to help being bad — or is it just that she’s ahead of her time? Women combating social repression are a common theme of historical romance fiction, and “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell” is no exception.

The protagonist of Loraine Despres’ latest book lives in 1920s Louisiana, and whether it’s fighting for women’s suffrage or against the Ku Klux Klan, this Scarlett O’Hara with a sex drive always seems to be getting herself into trouble.

It doesn’t help that she’s fallen for a handsome Jewish Yankee with a wife back in Chicago.

Spitfire Southern girls and genteel Jewish men seem to be Despres’ specialty, having written for television shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” — including penning the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” episode. Despres is currently a producer living in Los Angeles, as well as a romance writer.

In 2002, she published her novel, “The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc,” and has followed it up this year with a prequel, “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell.” Both feature Christian Southern belles with affections for Jewish men.

But while the protagonist of Despres’ “Bad Behavior” may seem a bit of the Southern girl cliche, the book’s sexy love scenes aren’t too purple and should leave regular romance readers satisfied. So will a host of other kooky characters and a happily-ever-after ending.

“The Witch of Cologne” by Tobsha Learner (Forge, $14.95).

Interfaith love sits at the heart of Tobsha Learner’s dark historical romance epic, “The Witch of Cologne.” The starkness of mid-1600s Germany is brought into focus through the eyes of Ruth Bas Elazar Saul, a learned midwife and the daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Deutz.

At 23, Ruth is still unwed, after running away to Amsterdam to escape having to marry a man she did not love. Ruth’s rebellious nature also leads her to study Kabbalah and modern birthing techniques in Amsterdam.

However, her inability to live a quiet life, coupled with her maternal family’s unfortunate history with an evil Spanish friar who has since become an inquisitor under the Inquisitor-General Pascual de Arragon, puts Ruth face to face with the Inquisition.

This chain of events will bring Ruth face to face with true love — in the form of nobleman and Christian canon Detlef von Tennen — and, ultimately, her greatest tragedy, as well.

As defined by the Romance Writers of America’s Web site, this story isn’t considered a romance: “In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

But apparently, emotional justice isn’t to be had in 17th century Cologne. Still, considering this book remains in good company with other “nonromances” like the film, “Titanic,” and the book, “The Bridges of Madison County,” we feel fine including it just the same.

Moreover, readers who enjoy hints of magic and circles of political intrigue woven through their romances will be pleased with this choice.

“Courtesan” by Dora Levy Mossanen (Touchstone, $14).

The exotic lives of Parisian courtesans in the Belle Epoque provide the backdrop for Persian Jewish author Dora Levy Mossanen’s latest novel, aptly and simply titled, “Courtesan.”

Mossanen’s protagonist, Simone, is yet another headstrong girl. But what’s a girl to rebel against when she has been raised in a brothel by her famous grandmother, the courtesan Gabrielle?

Simone’s best way to defy her grandmother, and the mother who followed in her footsteps, is to embrace what her grandmother rejected, namely a Jewish upbringing and a more conventional life.

Simone chooses to follow love, rather than follow their ways. And so she does, all the way to Persia, where she marries Cyrus, a Persian Jew and the shah’s jeweler. But that is just where Simone’s adventure begins, eventually taking her back to Paris and to the diamond mines of Africa.

While certainly lighter than “The Witch of Cologne,” “Courtesan,” to its credit, also does not provide the formulaic happy ending. However, its flowery prose is occasionally too much, and Mossanen’s tendency to imbue her women’s sexuality with supernatural qualities can seem silly at times.

Still, it is refreshing to find a romance that does not rely on its characters’ opposing religions to provide the story’s major obstacle.

‘Love With Noodles’ Rife With Canoodles

“Love With Noodles” by Harry I. Freund (Carroll & Graff, $25).

Consider the curious case of Dan Gelder: 60 years old, Jewish, paunchy, bad back. Yet it seems every bejeweled Park Avenue matron is after the investment counselor for love, for money or maybe for just a quick roll in the hay.

That’s the cute and quirky premise of “Love With Noodles,” the debut novel by 65-year-old Park Avenue investment counselor Harry I. Freund. The novel’s subtitle is, “An Amorous Widower’s Tale,” and just how true to life it is, we may never know. But whether or not art imitated life is irrelevant, especially when the ride is as much fun as “Love With Noodles.”

What Freund sorely lacks in literary style, he more than makes up with heart and humor.

Narrated in the first person, present tense (always risky), “Love With Noodles” follows Gelder’s canoodling with a string of women who enter his life just as he emerges from mourning his late beshert, Ellen. Gelder lives alone. His grown son, Eric, faces financial ruin. What’s worse, Eric is planning to marry a non-Jew.

Though all Jewish, Gelder’s women vary widely — from Charlotte, the wife of a friend off on a gay fling, to Maya, a Palestinian rights activist with a knack for lovemaking so vigorous it puts her partners in traction.

He nearly finds beshert No. 2 in Violet, a stinking-rich widow who loves adventure, diamonds and sticking it to those she detests. Gelder nearly steals her heart, and the two are off to Israel to visit Violet’s Orthodox daughter.

But soon, Gelder meets Tatiana, a 43-year-old Ukrainian widow with a 9-year-old piano prodigy son. She is gorgeous, lonely and seemingly angelic. Gelder falls for her hard. But does she love him for who he is or for his bank account?

The last third of the novel chronicles Gelder’s efforts to weed out all the meaningless sexual encounters and settle on choosing between the women that matter: Violet and Tatania. How about both?

Freund has trouble setting the tone of his story. Is it farce? Comedy of manners? Social satire? He isn’t sure, and that trips up his writing.

Moreover, though the book is filled with sex scenes, Gelder/Freund approaches them so gingerly, so squeamishly, they end up less than erotic. One almost feels embarrassed for the author, who doesn’t seem to want to shine a light into the bedroom.

As with many first-person narratives, the main character/narrator is often the most poorly drawn. That is the central problem with “Love With Noodles,” as Gelder ends up frustratingly two-dimensional. A novelist is required to reveal characters, not cover for them.

However, the women are delightful, especially Violet. She has all the color and brashness of a Tennessee Williams heroine. If they ever make a movie adaptation of this book, the Shirley McClaines and Meryl Streeps of the world will be fighting for the part.

There’s plenty of Jewish content here, from the pair of Orthodox Jewish weddings, to Gelder’s anguish over his son’s intermarriage, to the sojourn across Israel.

Like all good fiction, “Love With Noodles” expands its borders beyond the parochial. Anyone past the halfway point of life, hurtling forward with unease, will see something of himself in Gelder, paunch or no paunch.

Freund has a long way to go if he wants to join the ranks of great American novelists. But if there was a Pulitzer Prize for understanding the subtleties of life, Freund would have his on the mantel by now.

First Person – Documenting Hate

In late fall of 1999, I wrote a short story, “Summertime,” which I eventually included in my collection, “Assumption and Other

Stories” (Bilingual Press, 2003).

When the book reviews started coming in, most noted that particular story’s unsettling premise. But what fascinated me more was the response I received via e-mail or in person from family, friends and strangers alike. More on that later.

“Summertime” begins benignly enough. The first section of the story has the heading, “6:53 a.m.,” and we encounter a married couple having difficulty getting their young son ready for summer day camp. Claudio Ramírez and Lois Cohen obviously love their son, Jon, but as with most parents who must get to work, mornings can be a bit frustrating. Jon eventually gets dressed, fed and trundled off to Claudio’s car for the ride to camp. The next section is titled, “7:39 a.m.,” and we switch to a dusty, small hotel room where we meet a sleeping man named Clem whose “head looked like a pot roast as it lay nestled heavily on the over-bleached pillowcase.” Clem wakes to begin his day. Clem is from Oregon and has driven to Southern California on a mission.

The story moves along, switching between the Ramírez-Cohen family and Clem. We eventually learn that Clem’s “mission” is to perpetrate a hate crime. He eventually settles on the Jewish day camp that Jon attends. I paint Clem as an average person who feels belittled by the world and who hopes to have a “big day” that will put his face in every newspaper and on TV. He is no evil genius. But the evil he perpetrates is as harrowing and real as any better-planned hate crime.

To this I wrote the story after we experienced the horror of Buford Furrow’s
attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC), on Aug. 12, 1999. Furrow, a self-described white separatist, shot and wounded three children, a counselor and the receptionist at the JCC. That same day, he murdered a Philippines-born postal worker, Joseph Santos Ileto. Furrow admitted to wanting to kill Jews. He also stated that Ileto was “a good ‘target of opportunity’ to kill because he was ‘non-white and worked for the federal government,'” according to then-U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas.

For almost four hours that hot, horrible day, my wife and I didn’t know if our 9-year-old son, Benjamin, had been a victim. We huddled together with my mother-in-law outside the camp waiting for word. Unfortunately, because the police were concerned that the shooter or shooters were still in the vicinity, the children who had not been wounded had been whisked off to a safe house. A rumor ran through the crowd that a boy named Benjamin had been shot and killed. The agony ended only when, eventually, we were reunited with our son.

Frankly, I’m having difficulty writing these words because the memories are coming back, full and clear. But that’s one reason I wrote “Summertime.” I wanted to use fiction to remind others that ordinary people living in today’s world can be the target of hate crimes. And I also wanted readers to understand how easily hate-filled doctrines can be appropriated and acted upon by an “average” person.

Now back to the various responses to “Summertime.” Most readers — particularly those who know my family — knew that Clem was based on Furrow. But several other readers had never heard of Furrow’s attack on the JCC or his murder of Ileto. Those readers (most of whom do not live in California and who are not Jewish) expressed shock when I mentioned that the story was based on our own experience that day in August. And I expressed shock that they had not heard of the incident, particularly since it had received extensive (if not worldwide) news coverage. But this confirmed my conviction that writing about hate — even if fictionalized in a short story — can indeed educate the public about how easy it is for a person to become a Buford Furrow.

When I started writing fiction in 1998, I didn’t feel that I had the moral authority to write about anti-Semitism. Though I had converted to Judaism 10 years earlier, my experience with bigotry was based on my ethnic identity as a Chicano. But after Aug. 12, 1999, I earned the right to talk about one particular act of hate against Jews. I will go further: I now have the duty to remind others of what Furrow did that day. Why? Because if we forget, we help create a climate where it could happen again and the Furrows of the world will have won. And I don’t intend to be responsible for that.

Daniel A. Olivas (

Medieval Me

What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We’ve asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b’nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at

“>Click here to discuss this book

“The King’s Persons” by Joanne Greenberg. (Henry Holt, 1963).

It is 1963. I am a 12-year-old ignoramus.

I am wandering around in a used bookstore in Brooklyn. I see a paperback with a lion and Magen David on the cover. A Jewish book! I inhale books, especially novels and I’m always looking for something to read on the long Shabbos afternoons.

I plunk down 25 cents for the book.

Twenty-five cents has irrevocably changed my life.

This was Joanne Greenberg’s first novel. She gained some fame and a spot on the best-seller list a few years later with “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Practically everyone I know has read “Rose Garden” or seen the movie. I have never ever met one person who has read, much less heard of “The King’s Persons.”

In the Christian year of 1182, Jews held a unique position in English society. Forbidden to own property, they were “the king’s persons,” whose lives were under his protection, and whose fate and fortune belonged to him and him alone. To support themselves, therefore, many Jews turned to moneylending, which was illegal but tolerated by the king for its contribution to the national economy. And indeed, for a short while this arrangement worked well; in York, Christians and Jews lived together harmoniously. When economic conditions began to deteriorate, the already overtaxed Christian nobles looked for a scapegoat. On the coronation day of Richard the Lion-Hearted, the London crowd erupted in mass attacks on Jews, which spread rapidly northward and culminated in the massacres at York.

Against this richly evoked background, the author, at the height of her powers, portrays the experiences of everyday people of the time: Baruch of York, the Jewish moneylender; his sensitive and questioning son, Abram, in love with their Christian servant, Bett; and the young monk Simon, Abram’s best friend. The lives of Christian and Jew alike are twisted and changed, and we come to understand the myriad subtle forces at work as we see neighbor rise against neighbor in an irrational onslaught of hate. But what is most powerful, apart from the historic drama, is the elegant manner in which the author exposes the motives of the human heart with such insight that only compassion and sorrow are left.

Since childhood I have been a voracious reader, but no book has ever captured my imagination like this powerful and beautifully written novel. The fiction that is championed by the intellectual elite never spoke to me. I read Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Mysteriously, they are labeled Jewish novelists, but I feel nothing genuinely Jewish in their work. All I sense is an ugly nihilism that has nothing to do with the Judaism as I live and experience it; these are fashionable novelists who are blind to the rich and multilayered Yiddishkayt that has flourished in my America. Their work is stylish and so very polished — but at the core it is void of any authentic Jewish spark.

Even now, as I read “The King’s Persons” I weep for Bett, perhaps the most vividly etched character in the book. A Christian child, she is sold by her blunt peasant parents as a kitchen maid to Baruch of York’s family. Over the years, she has learned to read and write Hebrew in a society where most women are illiterate. So thoroughly has Bett been saturated in the laws, customs, thoughts and feelings of her Jewish family that no Christian man will marry her. She is alienated from her own parents. They sense that she is … different. Living with Jews has made her too fine, too smart and too verbal.

“Bett,” says her confused father, “ye thinks too much for a common female.”

And, finally, when the king proclaims that no Christian will be allowed to work for a Jew, Bett realizes that the world no longer holds a place for her.

“Perhaps I, too, must be afraid,” she said.

Faithfully, I sit down once a year and read “The King’s Persons.” I still have the same dog-eared paperback that I bought for 25 cents. I do not so much read the words as breathe them in. I continue to marvel at the perfection of language, the totality of vision. I read the novel and I look around and I understand that this book, this story, these fully realized characters changed the course of my life. And just as surely as I am who I am because of who my parents are, because of who my wife and children are — I am a screenwriter and a novelist — because more than 40 years ago, “The King’s Person’s” gripped my soul, set my heart and mind aflame, and allowed me to follow a path that otherwise I never would have imagined.

Robert J. Avrech is an Emmy award-winning screenwriter. His first novel, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden” will be published by Seraphic Press for Chanukah. Photo of Robert Avrech by Hallie Lerman

Another Braff Tale of Jewish Ennui

“The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” by Joshua Braff (Algonquin Books, $22.95).

While fidgeting at Shabbat dinner, Jacob Green decides to play a game he calls “The Unthinkable” — imagining blasphemies that would infuriate his super-strict father. Like hurling the challah football-style at the fridge. Or making it drop from his tush. Or putting it in his mouth and thrashing his head like a doberman.

“Or if I molded it into a big breaded schlong and bumped it repeatedly against [my brother’s] forehead,” he says to himself.

If Green sounds like every teenager who’s hated mandatory Shabbat dinners, he’s also the protagonist of Joshua Braff’s viciously witty and poignant new novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.” It’s a thorny coming-of-age story set in New Jersey suburbs, a trend recently proffered by Jewish artists such as filmmaker Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”).

Zach, also the star of NBC’s “Scrubs,” is Joshua’s younger brother, so it’s perhaps not surprising the siblings’ debut efforts share emotionally repressed youths and ambivalent attitudes toward Judaism. In “State,” Zach Braff’s character ridicules the moveable walls shuls erect to accommodate High Holiday Jews and professes, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not really Jewish.”

“Unthinkable” is Joshua Braff’s edgier answer to a childhood in which ritual wasn’t a choice, but an obligation.

“Although Abram Green wasn’t my father, luckily, there were certain rules,” the 36-year-old novelist said. Churlish rabbis supervised tzitzit inspection at his Orthodox elementary school yeshiva; bar mitzvah thank-yous had to be written and proofed; the teenage Braff had Conservative Hebrew school three times a week and an older brother who scribbled sardonic drawings behind the rabbis’ backs.

“His bitterness toward it all was kind of attractive,” the mild-mannered Braff said. “I was kind of the middle, sensitive child, so I looked up to my brother and was proud of his ability to rebel.”

Although Braff repressed his own rebellious thoughts as a boy, he lets loose in “Unthinkable,” which he describes as “perhaps a bit of a primal scream, albeit highly fictionalized.” His protagonist imagines bar mitzvah thank-yous detailing his lust for the nanny.

“I had no idea that they made bookends out of Jerusalem stone,” another imaginary note says. “We were able to hoist them up on my bookshelf yesterday. They looked really great up there before my shelving collapsed into a cloud of snapped particleboard.”

Green’s older brother, meanwhile, gets busted for the “disturbingly accurate pencil drawing of Rabbi Belahsan … found pinned-up in the yeshiva library. In it, the rabbi was in a consensual threesome with a lobster and an erect pig.”

How have readers responded to the lobster and the pig?

“I’ve gotten a lot of reaction to that — so far, all good,” Braff said.

Yet, he concedes others may not be amused when he participates in an upcoming Jewish Book Council tour.

“I wrote the novel, especially the religious stuff, with a certain amount of reckless abandon,” he said. “If I offend anyone, I’ll certainly apologize, but I don’t think the book is self-hating. It’s just kind of rebellious, kind of a shout out — like that Woody Allen scene where the rabbi is on a game show and his wife force feeds him bacon. It’s twisted, and out of context, ridiculous, but at the same time kind of shocking and funny.”

The darkly comic novel began, innocuously enough, with musings about Braff’s yeshiva lunchbox several years ago. Having written myriad short stories also featuring “unheard, precocious children,” he hoped to create a book “that was not a memoir but that drew on real emotion and memory,” he said.

Stream-of-consciousness writing exercises helped, notably a drill in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” that suggested jotting items remembered from one’s grade school lunchbox.

Braff’s thoughts drifted back to his yeshiva’s cafeteria and to his kosher lunch ensconced in a “Waltons” box. Of why he preferred that treacley drama to “The Incredible Hulk,” he says in an essay, “Sensitive and troubled middle child of early 1970s New Jersey vintage stares longingly at the sleepy ease of this unconditionally ‘normal’ 1940s family.”

“I certainly had warmth and affection in my home,” he told The Journal, “but I would have loved to have had the freedom of being on Walton’s Mountain at times instead of being in a place in which there was quite that much ritual. At yeshiva, I always felt like I was fumbling those rituals, and that there was always a rabbi who was not interested in explaining anything but who just kind of barked at me.”

Braff dropped Judaism when he left home to attend New York University; he began his return during a college trip to Israel in which the culture “for the first time was on my terms,” he said. “I remember being at the Wailing Wall and absorbing in a different way than I had before.”

Now he has a Jewish wife and children: “We have fun with the holidays,” he said. “It’s been reinvented, in a way.”

Since Braff revisits touchier years in “Unthinkable,” he was understandably nervous about showing a draft to his parents before publication. Turns out he need not have worried: “They’re supportive, so they were encouraging.” he said. “My dad did say, ‘The father figure is terrible,’ and he wanted to know if it was him. I told him, ‘Certainly not.'”

Yet that character and others are so vividly drawn, Kirkus Reviews noted that “Unthinkable” is “compulsively readable, in a horrifying sort of way. What will Braff do next now that he’s gotten that off his chest?”

The author’s answer isn’t unexpected.

“I think I’m probably going to write about a family, and I think they’re going to be Jewish,” he said.

Braff’s “Unthinkable” launch party is Sept. 18, 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110. He’ll also appear Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m., at Fais Do-Do, 5253 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles as part of First Fiction 2004, a reading by five debut novelists. For information, call (310) 659-3684.

When I get to my classroom, my stomach begins to clench. I put my books and lunch box by my desk and move slowly into the [tzitzit] inspection line behind Ari Feiger. Ari has a glandular issue that gives him breasts and makes him smell like wet skin. He also has striped pajama bottoms that creep out the back of his pants and a dirty blond afro that can actually hold pencils. When I ask him if he has an extra tzitzit he says, "Yes, but not for you," and walks away from me.

"Ari," I say, following him, "I’ll pay you for it."

"I put on a clean one after lunch," he says. "It’s not for sale."

"But I forgot mine," I whisper.

When he hears this he turns to the other six boys in my class and starts singing the word tzitzit to the tune of "The Flintstones." "Tzitzit, meet the tzitzit, have a yabba-dabba tzitzit, a yabba tzitzit, you’re gonna be so screwed. Ya’akov’s got no tzitzit!" he yells and points at me.

"Shhhh! Shut up, Ari. The rabbi will hear you."….[Now] Rabbi Mizrahe moves toward the lineup and touches each of Gary Kaplan’s tassels. Gary sings along to "Torah Torah" but stops completely when the rabbi steps past him. I feel a sour and tingly stomach-burning climb up my throat. I try to swallow but I have no spit. Michael Bornstein is next. His yarmulke needs centering but his tzitzit has never hung better. And then I see him. I see my brother, [Asher]. He’s hopping in the hallway, trying to find me. I shake my head. "Too late," I say without sound. Too late.

As the rabbi moves closer, our eyes meet. I sing with him, "…tziva lanu Moshe." I watch his fingers touch Ari’s tassels. I watch him finish and step up to me.

"Excuse me, Rabbi Mizrahe," says Asher.

The rabbi stops his song and turns to the door. Asher keeps his eyes from me and takes a step closer.

"I need to tell my brother something. May I see him for a second, please?"

Rabbi Mizrahe faces me and nods his head. Asher steps up and grabs me by the elbow. He leads me back toward the door.

"Do not leave this classroom," the rabbi says. "Torah, Torah, Torah…"

Asher holds my shoulders and turns my back to my classmates. He reaches in his pocket for his balled-up tzitzit and crams it down the front of my pants."

"No time to put it on," he whispers. "Untuck your shirt and let the fringes just hang over your belt." — From "The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green" © 2004 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

The Arts

The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

Israeli Novel of Ideas Overpowers Story

“Foiglman” by Aharon Megged. Translated by Marganit
Weinberger-Rotman. (Toby Press, $19.95).

Can a work of fiction be important without being successful?
If so, it would look pretty much like “Foiglman,” by the distinguished Israeli
author, Aharon Megged.

“Foiglman” was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is
being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a
Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has
been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.

Megged’s book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely
overpower the novel itself. True, they are ideas of the utmost gravity, and
they are given unusually thoughtful and provocative treatment here. If the
fictional framework of Megged’s book were handled as magnificently, in fact,
this would have been a staggering work of art.

At the center of the novel is Zvi Arbel, a 60-ish professor
of European history and the author of “The Great Betrayal,” a study of a 1648 massacre
of Polish Jews that many historians view as analogous to the Nazi genocide. Zvi
lives comfortably in his hometown of Tel Aviv and teaches at the university,
while his wife, Nora, works as a biologist. Their grown son, Yoav, is employed
by the army and lives nearby with his wife and young daughter.

Trouble arrives one day in the form of a fawning fan letter.
Out of the blue, an obscure Yiddish poet named Shmuel Foiglman sends Zvi a
volume of his poems that contains a lavish dedication “to the very important
author of ‘The Great Betrayal,’ who … penetrated to the crux of the awesome
tragedy of the murdered Jewish people, the ashes of whose 6 million are
scattered over the earth of Europe.”

With little interest in poetry and only a spotty command of
Yiddish, Zvi is perplexed by this gift from a total stranger. Yet something
about the book — which contains mostly lamentations by a man who clearly lived
through the Holocaust — elicits sympathy from Zvi.

The two men strike up a correspondence, followed by a series
of meetings in both Tel Aviv and Paris. Against the wishes of Zvi’s
increasingly irritated wife, he offers to arrange for a translation of
Foiglman’s book into Hebrew and, eventually, for Foiglman to move to Israel for

Over time, Zvi learns pieces of Foiglman’s past, from his
childhood in Zamosc, Poland, to the 1942 deportation of the town’s Jews,
whereupon Foiglman and his twin brother fled to the barn of a Polish peasant,
who agreed to hide them for a high ransom, then turned them over to the Germans
two weeks later.

“Thus Shmuel Foiglman,” Megged writes, “witnessed first hand
‘The Great Betrayal.'”

Later, the brothers were sent to Majdanek and from there to
various labor camps, surviving somehow until the end of the war, when they wandered,
barely alive, through a shattered Europe.

Though he now expects that here in Israel both he and his
poetry will at last find a nurturing home, Foiglman is doomed to
disappointment. There is little interest in Yiddish in Israel at all, where
Hebrew reigns supreme. Foiglman’s hopes that the Yiddish language might rise
again out of the European destruction, that something might be preserved from
that savage annihilation, are dashed.

After Zvi himself puts up the money to translate Foiglman’s
book, it is all but ignored by the Israeli literati.

“Sometimes at night,” Foiglman confesses to Zvi, “I wake up
from a terrible nightmare in which I’m shouting, ‘Gevald!’ and nobody
understands my language.”

Meanwhile, as Zvi’s friendship with the poet blooms, his
marriage withers. At first merely irritated by Foiglman, Nora becomes jealous,
then angry and finally, after Zvi refuses to cut off his association, she
begins a tumultuous affair with a younger man.

Finally, after months of unbearable agitation, she commits
suicide. Four months later, Foiglman becomes ill and dies, leaving Zvi doubly
haunted by sorrow and guilt.

If these domestic betrayals seem trifling when compared to
the massive betrayals of history and language that are the themes of Megged’s
book, their failure to move the reader lies at the bottom of the perhaps
unavoidable pitfall the author has set for himself. The truth is that the
author has succeeded so well in outlining his big ideas — the impossibility of
translating the horror of the Holocaust, the failure of art and faith in the
face of mass murder — that his own novel has become a disappointed testament to
the truths of those ideas.

His characters are simply too flimsy to bear the symbolic
weight he has heaped on them, and it’s difficult to care about Zvi and Nora’s
marital squabbles in the face of Foiglman’s devastating history.

In the end, the reader is left with awe and certainly
compassion for the victims of genocide, but with little in the way of aesthetic
satisfaction . Â

The Case That Shook the Rabbinate

"The Rabbi and the Hit Man," by Arthur J. Magida (HarperCollins, $24.95).

If not for the legion of pederast priests unmasked like some gruesome ecclesiastical episode of "Scooby Doo," Rabbi Fred Neulander might have been a shoo-in for "most infamous religious figure of the past decade."

Now, it’s a toss-up. So be it.

Yet after tearing through Arthur J. Magida’s "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," the painstakingly detailed account of the rise and fall of Neulander, a philandering New Jersey rabbi who paid an assassin to bludgeon his wife to death in 1994, one can only lapse into a well-worn cliché. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Magida’s cast seems to have been recruited from the dank, smoke-filled and, invariably, black-and-white alleyways and barrooms more commonly conjured by Philip Marlowe or Raymond Chandler. But these are real people: The glib, popular religious leader with the ambition of Napoleon — and the stature and libido to match.

The slovenly, seemingly harmless hit man with a long and sordid history of failure and pathological lying.

The crusty, brilliant homicide detective who’s seen it all.

The highly attractive, brassy female reporter who ends up cracking the case.

Sounds like a really good episode of "Law and Order," doesn’t it? Can’t you imagine Jerry Orbach saying something like, "The congregation won’t be dancing the hora when they hear about this!" before a quick fade to black and that "Law and Order" clang?

But, again, this is not make-believe, but horribly, vividly and even nauseatingly real. Magida — an author as well as a veteran journalist for Jewish publications — seems to have interviewed every congregant at Neulander’s M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., twice, and his exhaustive work has paid off. He’s talked to longtime friends of Neulander and his wife, Carol, and assassin Len Jenoff, in addition to the police and lawyers working the case. He also spoke to those who knew all of the protagonists 25 years before the 1994 murder.

The result is a dense yet tightly paced retelling that reads like a top-notch crime novel and has more angles than a dodecahedron. And no one has more angles — or is more crooked — than the man in the middle, Rabbi Fred J. Neulander.

The rabbi is presented as a walking contradiction: He got into the rabbinate because he thought it would be a steady job, yet he was an inspirational spiritual leader, popular enough to found his own congregation. He was extremely short, unusual-looking and dressed like a fuddy-duddy, yet he was rolling in women. He seemed to love his children, but made certain that, in calling 911, his paramedic son would be called to the scene of the murder, giving his alibi veracity — after all, what kind of man would subject his son to such a thing?

Yet, Neulander isn’t painted solely as a diabolical monster. One can understand how so many of his congregants, young and old, came under his spell. But one also can see how a smaller number saw him as a phony, and noted that he paid a disproportionate amount of attention to M’kor Shalom’s attractive female congregants.

In short, Neulander is presented as a real human being, with real flaws — one of them being that he hired a fat loser of a hit man to batter his wife to death, transforming the family’s comfortable suburban home into a horrific, bloody scene reminiscent of the Manson family’s finest.

Magida’s fourth book is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read, but there is one area in which he comes up short. The congregation’s shattered faith during the eight long years between Carol Neulander’s murder and Fred Neulander’s conviction in November of last year are documented well — exhaustingly well. But what now?

What happened to assistant Rabbi Gary Mazo, who bravely took over after Neulander resigned in shame? Has membership dropped off? Has the temple moved beyond its reputation as the place founded by that guy who killed his wife?

For a book that deals with eight years of history and decades upon decades of prehistory so gracefully, the lack of any sort of follow-up sticks out like a killer in the pulpit.

Yet this is an isolated flaw. Magida’s writing is spiced with just enough emotion and personality to avoid the tone of daily newspaper reporting but not dip over the top into a morality play.

Provide your own mental "Law and Order" clang, and you’re set.

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j., the Jewish newsweekly of Northern California.

Noir Fiction Fills in the Babel Blanks

"King of Odessa" by Robert Rosenstone (Northwestern, $24.95).

In an impressive effort of literary boldness, historian Robert Rosenstone fills in some of the blanks in Issac Babel’s life and work in a first novel, "King of Odessa." He writes as though he has recovered a lost Babel manuscript, imagining what one of Babel’s final years might have been like. Other than a few postcards sent to his family, no records remain of the summer and autumn of 1936, when Babel, then 42, returned to Odessa, the city of his birth.

Stretching the lines between fact and fiction, Rosenstone narrates the story in Babel’s voice, writes several letters sent to Babel in the voices of the women in his life, and also pens a final story about his character, Benya Krik, the clever Jewish mobster of Odessa who’s something of a Robin Hood — and referred to in Babel’s stories as "the King."

"Yiddish noir" is how Rosenstone describes the novel’s style to me. Rosenstone, who has taught modern European and American history at California Institute of Technology, is also the author of "Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed," which was the basis for the Academy-award winning film, "Reds."

With irreverent humor, textured descriptions and sensitive attention to detail, Rosenstone imaginatively constructs Babel’s world. Some of Babel’s childhood recollections in the novel are based on his short stories. The young Babel, indifferent to the violin lessons his father insisted that he take, would prop a book on his music stand when he was supposed to be practicing. He would read while simply making noise with the violin, which was indistinguishable from music to his tone-deaf father in a nearby room. Some days, he would leave the violin in his closet and fill the case with a bathing suit and towel and head right past his teacher’s home to the beach. There, he befriends an athletic guy who teaches him to swim and also tells him that his early writing has a spark of genius.

In 1936, Babel goes to Odessa for a rest and to work on a film with Sergei Einsenstein, and also as part of a mission he undertakes with the secret police to help a condemned prisoner escape. Although he hasn’t published anything in a while, in Odessa he is celebrated; Babel is treated as though he invented the city and its characters in his stories. His romantic affairs are complicated, with a wife and daughter in Paris and two other women, too. Rosenstone invents an additional woman, an actress, whom he meets in Odessa, who might be an agent of the state. It’s not clear whether it’s his own escape that he’s trying to arrange, although Babel ultimately turns down an opportunity to leave.

"I fell in love with Babel some years ago," Rosenstone said, "particularly with the whole world of Jewish Odessa." The author, who spent about eight years doing research — as much as on any historical biography he has written — added that he was also interested in the trajectory of Babel’s life, from being an international star with "Red Cavalry," a collection of stories that came out in the 1920s, to falling out of favor and not being able to publish.

"I’m fascinated with how people went on with life in the new world they thought they had built, when it was closing in on them. And with the tensions between the hopes, the realities, the despair of life," he said.

Rosenstone, whose earlier five books are works of history or biography including a memoir about his grandfather, "The Man Who Swam Into History," describes "King of Odessa" as fictional biography.

"You can’t write a biography of Isaac Babel," he said, pointing out that when Babel was arrested, all of his papers were taken, and the materials still not have emerged even as Soviet files have been opened. In addition, Babel was known for being secretive.

"I think its a good introduction to a bit of lost history," he said. Although he’s never been in Odessa, Rosenstone makes the city come alive as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. From the 1880s to the 1920s, that city was the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, under the rule of czarist Russia. Rosenstone studied 19th century travel books, photo collections, memoirs that mentioned Babel, literature about the period and "everything I could get my hands on about Babel and Odessa and Odessa Jews, about the literary scene between the revolution and his death." The book jacket is a souvenir postcard from Odessa, circa 1897.

Since the novel was published, Rosenstone has heard from Nathalie Babel, the writer’s daughter, who is the editor of a recently published one-volume "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel," with new translations from the Russian. She wasn’t pleased that Rosenstone had taken on this project, and Rosenstone explains that she has a particular view of her father as almost a saintly figure.

Rosenstone thinks of the work as "a kind of homage to Babel." He’s also pleased to be spreading an appreciation of the Russian master to the American reading public. At several bookstore readings, people have left with copies of Babel’s books.

Robert Rosenstone is speaking Nov. 19 at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8644.