Survivor, storyteller, celebrity, sage: Elie Wiesel at 85


When talking about Elie Wiesel, who turns 85 on Sept. 30, it is far too easy to fall into a list of superlatives. 

As a child who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Wiesel witnessed more death and more horrors than most human beings ever will. A onetime journalist who wrote for Hebrew- and Yiddish-language newspapers, starting in the 1950s, Wiesel has gone on to publish more books than most writers ever do, including “Night,” which has become the second-most widely read work of Holocaust literature in the world. He’s received more awards and honorary doctorates and rarified accolades than most university professors might dream of — including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 — and has, quite possibly, met with with more world leaders than any Jew in history. 

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, Wiesel talked to the Journal about some of the lesser-known parts of his remarkable life, including his years working as a journalist, and he expressed concern about what he saw as an increased tendency toward violence in today’s world. Softly, speaking in a contemplative tone, Wiesel used mostly short sentences and never moved to touch the shiny platter of pastries on the table before him. 

But when I offhandedly called him a “public figure,” he swiftly shot down the characterization. 

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” Wiesel told me. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher at the same time — for me, writing and teaching are the same.”

Not knowing exactly what to make of Wiesel’s comment, I called Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has known Wiesel well for 35 years. 

“It’s an inaccurate statement,” Berenbaum said. A professor at American Jewish University and an expert in the development of historical museums and films, Berenbaum wrote his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s about Wiesel’s work and later worked with Wiesel on the council that created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “There’s nobody else who would argue that.”

Indeed, countering Wiesel’s humble assertion isn’t difficult; the survivor’s forceful objection to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS are buried, is but one instance of Wiesel publicly challenging a world leader. 

And wherever he goes, Wiesel is certainly accorded treatment befitting a public figure. I met him in April on the campus of Chapman University in Orange County, where he was spending his third consecutive year as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. On my way to the quiet room in the school’s main library where we were to meet, I passed a poster for Wiesel’s three staged discussions taking place during his weeklong stay there, as well as a glass case in the lobby displaying more than a dozen of Wiesel’s published books and a bronze bust of the author near the entrance to a library room devoted to Holocaust studies. 

Among today’s living Jewish leaders, Berenbaum said, Wiesel is unique. 

“Wiesel is probably the only major American Jewish thinker who is an international figure of world renown without either billions of dollars or an institutional base,” Berenbaum said. “Wiesel’s moral power base is directly related to the moral stature that has been accorded to the Holocaust, and to Wiesel as its most eloquent living survivor voice.”

Unlike, say, philanthropists Ronald Lauder or Charles Bronfman, or the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or any rabbi one can think of, Wiesel has served as a voice for the voiceless, a voice for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a voice against genocide, a voice against Holocaust denial — and he’s done all this on the strength of his own reputation, his conviction and his writing. 

One could liken him to others who survived totalitarian regimes and then went on to lead — figures like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — but unlike those two men, Wiesel seems to feel, or at least project, more discomfort with his own present-day moral authority and power. 

Wiesel also rejects any characterization of him as a “Holocaust author.” 

“I’ve published 16-plus books; maybe three or four deal with that subject,” Wiesel said. “My classes? When I began my career, at City College in New York and then Boston University, only the first two years I taught what you call ‘Holocaust literature.’ I don’t teach it anymore. I don’t know how.”

Such a statement might surprise many of Wiesel’s readers, largely because most of them are very familiar only with “Night,” first published some 55 years ago in French. Wiesel is fully aware of this, of course; at Chapman, he signs the copies of what most of the undergraduates first read in high school. Indeed, some high school teachers feel so strongly about the book’s instructional value that they have their students read it twice. 

Although Wiesel says he does not cover his own writings in his classes, others who study and teach Holocaust literature have devoted years — and numerous pages in scholarly journals — to dissecting the narrative of “Night,” and have expended a lot of energy on the question of how to classify the book. 

“If you want to get Wiesel angry,” Berenbaum told me, “all you have to do is call ‘Night’ a novel instead of a memoir.”

“ ‘Night’ is not a novel, it’s an autobiography,” Wiesel told an interviewer for the Paris Review back in 1978. “It’s a memoir. It’s testimony.”

Wiesel also told that interviewer that he still had the 860-odd-page Yiddish manuscript that later became the book. Left unmentioned in that interview was the version of that Yiddish text that was published, in 1956, two years before “La Nuit,” under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Was Silent”). 

In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, closely examined the slim French volume alongside Wiesel’s Yiddish-language account, and found “Un di velt” to be an angrier work than “La Nuit,” from its first pages through to its end. 

Among Seidman’s examples: Wiesel dedicated both books to the memory of his father, mother and younger sister, Tzipora, but in “Un di velt,” he mentions his parents’ names, Sarah and Shlomo — and mentions explicitly that all three “were killed by the German murderers.” 

Seidman also noted significant differences in the ways each book reveals Wiesel’s writing process: In the Yiddish memoir, he starts to write immediately after liberation, while the French text says he started writing only after a 10-year vow of silence. 

Seidman’s article provoked much conversation and debate — at the time, Eli Pfefferkorn, a Holocaust survivor, called her close reading “an attempt to undermine the authenticity of ‘Night’ as witness testimony.” (Pfefferkorn has since told Seidman that he’s changed his mind about her article and about Wiesel.) Holocaust deniers have used the scholarly debate over discrepancies for their own dubious purposes. As for Wiesel’s own reaction, Seidman said she’s never spoken with him about it. 

“I heard he was angry after my essay was published, and tried to call him, but couldn’t get through,” Seidman wrote to me in an e-mail earlier this month. “Later I sat across from him at a dinner party, and hoped he wouldn’t catch my name.” 

Whatever Wiesel’s influence may have been before, it was Oprah Winfrey’s decision, in 2006, to select “Night” for her book club, which put the book on the best-seller list for the first time and afforded Wiesel a new level of recognition. 

The awards for Wiesel haven’t stopped coming. Named three times by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Wiesel is set to also receive Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Medal of Distinction this year. 

At Chapman, though, Wiesel brushed off his celebrity. 

“I have everything; what can I want?” Wiesel said. “I love teaching — I have teaching obligations; I love writing — I write. What else do I need? Honors? I have enough. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] said, ‘If you pursue honors, they run away.’ I have, thank God, all the highest honors that a human being can get. So what? Has it changed me?”

I asked — perhaps foolishly — if it had. 

“No,” Wiesel said, his voice dropping into its lowest register. Look, if Auschwitz hasn’t changed me, you think honors can change me?”

Some have speculated that those honors may have changed the way people approach Wiesel, though. 

“I have found that Wiesel tends to be ‘celebrated’ rather than questioned in any probing way,” Gary Weissman wrote to me in an e-mail. An assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Weissman has written about “Night” and about the challenges of teaching Wiesel’s text. 

“Many are investing in treating — and experiencing! — Wiesel as a holy figure, rather than as a complex and real human being,” Weissman wrote in his e-mail. 

Weissman said he hasn’t ever spoken with Wiesel; indeed, many of those who have looked critically at Wiesel’s work nevertheless hold the man in high esteem. 

“I have met him several times, but always too briefly to receive much of an impression,” Harold Bloom, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “I regret that his writing to me seems to possess neither cognitive nor aesthetic elements that cause me to meditate further. His has been an honorable life and I respect him.” 

Even Seidman called Wiesel “a very impressive man,” and said that in her 2006 book, “Faithful Renderings,” she had revised her essay about Wiesel in ways that were “much more generous” than she had been 10 years earlier.

“I think I was too judgmental,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of Wiesel, especially today, when he is received around the world in the manner of a visiting sage. Indeed, every word Wiesel says can make news — as I found on April 16, one day after the terrorist attack that targeted the Boston Marathon. At the time, very little was known about the bombers or their motives; in that environment, my reporting that Wiesel, in our interview at Chapman, had called on President Barack Obama to appoint “a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers” to investigate the attacks, instantly became news. The short blog entry was shared 700 times on Facebook; Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asked Wiesel about the commission when she met him later that week. 

Over the course of his life, Wiesel has been approached with these big kinds of questions, and he’s addressed them in his writings. His next book, Wiesel told me, will be about a philosophy of teaching and friendship.

But even today, it’s often Wiesel’s stories that have the greatest impact on listeners. In our ranging conversation, Wiesel and I talked a lot about journalism. Long before he became a celebrity, Wiesel filed stories in Yiddish and Hebrew, first in Paris and later in New York. He told me about the weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, when he put in 18-hour days as the New York-based correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. Back then, Wiesel said, he used to wire his stories from the offices of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He used Hebrew to write shorthand — and still does today. 

From that comment about handwriting, Wiesel shifted into a story of a notebook that his sister recovered from Sighet, the town where he grew up. In that yellowing book, Wiesel found an essay he had written in 1941, when he was 13 years old, called “Reflections on the Interpretation of the High Holidays Liturgy.” 

Meshugge!” Wiesel said, laughing at his former self, an ambitious adolescent, an innocent who knew nothing of what was to come. 

“All of a sudden,” Wiesel continued, “there is one page, which is out of the blue.” 

It was a record of the credit that his family — which owned a small grocery store — had extended to people in their town. 

“All of a sudden, I see there, in the store, [the name], Akiba Drumer, who takes six bottles of this and this. Another thing, another person, a whole page of names,” Wiesel said. “Akiba Drumer; I wrote about him in ‘Night.’ I described about how he came to my father in Auschwitz, he said: ‘In three days, I will be gone. Please say Kaddish.’

“And he owes me six bottles of something in this little book!” Wiesel continued with a chuckle. “So, first of all, I forgave him the debt.”

As readers of “Night” will remember, Drumer’s prophecy comes true — Google his name today and you’ll find links to notes for the many middle and high school students who have to write about the book. Wiesel, who has lived to embody the memory of Drumer and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust, is as powerful and influential as he is precisely because he can, in a few words, bring Drumer into a library’s conference room, just by mentioning a 70-year-old list of names.

But as powerful as Wiesel’s stories are, they cannot match the real-life impact of the events they relate on the man before me. I heard a story of a notebook; Wiesel feels its power. 

“I kept it,” Wiesel told me. “And I had palpitations the whole day. I couldn’t read. That little book — and I was 13 when I wrote it.”

Jewhoo!


One of the profound changes in American popular culture that emerged during the 1960s was the willingness of famous Jews to openly embrace their Jewishness rather than hiding it behind phony names and personas. That’s what David E. Kaufman playfully calls “Jewhooing” in his new book, “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity” (

Hungarian Jews seek removal of anti-Semitic writers from curriculum


Hungarian Jews urged the government to take four anti-Semitic authors off the national high school curriculum.

Hungary’s opposition Socialist Party, meanwhile, pleaded with the prime minister to curb the “revival” of anti-Semitism in the country.

The authors—Istvan Sinka, Dezso Szabo, Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiiro—“spread hatred and anti-Semitism during their lives,” the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary wrote in an open letter to the Ministry of Culture.

“It is unacceptable that their writings be taught to the young Hungarian people,” the federation added.

In May, members of the Hungarian parliament planned to attend a reburial ceremony in Nyiiro’s honor in Romania, but the Romanian government blocked the plan. A priest and writer, NyiIro was an outspoken anti-Semite.

The Hungarian Socialist Party focused on the commemoration of pro-Nazi figures in a separate open letter sent June 22 to the prime minster, Victor Orban.

Socialist Party chairman Attila Mesterhazy wrote that Hungary was experiencing a “serious moral crisis” triggered by the government’s “revitalizing of the historic crimes of the Horthy era.”

Over the past year, several municipalities have named streets after Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian Quisling, or Nazi collaborator. Elsewhere, statues were erected in his honor. Under Horthy, some 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in Nazi death camps.

The Socialist Party called on Orban to “stop the strengthening hatred and the revival of the cult of anti-Semitism.” The letter urged Orban to prevent the Budapest municipal assembly from going ahead with a plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Catholic bishop Ottokar Prohaszka.

Last Friday, 50 U.S. congressmen wrote to Orban to express concern over anti-Semitism in Hungary. The past months have seen a succession of anti-Semitic incidents there.

Author charged in Jewish online dating scam


American author Mitchell Gross was indicted for allegedly scamming women he met on an online Jewish dating service.

Gross, 61, of Marietta, Ga., pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges when he was arraigned late last week in federal court in Atlanta, according to reports.

He has written novels under the pen name Mitchell Graham that include a trilogy of fantasy fiction books, “The Fifth Ring,” “The Emerald Cavern” and “The Ancient Legacy.”

In 2006, according to the indictment, Gross met two women on an unnamed online Jewish dating service and bilked them out of $4.4 million, convincing them to invest in a fake company he set up.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel dead at 96


Pulitzer Prize-winning author, radio host and activist Studs Terkel died in his Chicago, Illinois, home today at the age of 96.

Ed Rampell interviewed him for The Journal in 2006:

In Studs Terkel’s newest book, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey” (The New Press, 2005), America’s preeminent oral historian once again collects his conversations with celebrated people, as he did in his 1999 book, “The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With the People Who Make Them.” This son of Jewish immigrants has covered a broad swath of the 20th century through broadcasting, recording and transcribing in numerous books and Q-and-As. His subjects range from the rich and famous to the broke and anonymous.

“They All Sang” brings together interviews from a half-century of taped conversations with prominent musicians, composers, lyricists and impresarios done for his radio program on Chicago radio station WFMT, with which Terkel has been affiliated since 1951. Reached by phone at the station, Terkel, 93, is as great an interviewee as he is interviewer.

The book includes many Jewish subjects. Bob Dylan noted in 1963 how the Cuban Missile Crisis influenced his lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” predicting “there’s got to be an explosion of some kind.” Ukrainian-born impresario Sol Hurok discussed “music for the masses.”

Aaron Copland, who composed distinctly American works, such as “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Billy the Kid,” told Terkel following a trip to the Soviet Union: “It’s easy for artists of different countries with different political systems to get together and completely forget about the political systems during the time that they’re talking about art. In that sense, music is universal.”

And in an interview with Leonard Bernstein, the maestro muses on music, politics and Broadway, which seemed like a good place to start this interview.

 

The Jewish Journal: What is the Jewish influence on the American musical?

Studs Terkel: Oh my God! Overwhelming! How can you even discuss it without Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “West Side Story?” And of course “Candide.” And then you’ve got Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.” The lyricists and composers—you’ve got yourself a whole testament there.

Marc Blitzstein wrote “The Cradle Will Rock” during the WPA days, when the New Deal saved our society. [The Works Progress Administration] provided jobs in the arts—theatrical, art and music projects. “The Cradle Will Rock” was a pretty tough, pro-labor play, about Steeltown. Blitzstein was very much influenced by Bertolt Brecht and [Kurt] Weill.

I once took part in a Chicago production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” [portraying] Editor Daily, who is owned by Mister Mister, who owns the town. And Bernstein started singing along with me. He knew all the words [and] was always pushing other people.

They were going to celebrate Bernstein’s 70th birthday in New York and make it the biggest celebration since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, and he said “no”—he wanted to celebrate in Lawrence, Mass., his hometown, because Lawrence was the hometown of the famous general strike of 1912. Out of it came the song, “Bread and Roses Too.”

 

JJ: What is the Jewish contribution to classical music?

ST: For Jews in the arts, there’s always been this connecting link. There’s [Lithuanian-born violinist] Jascha Heifetz., [soprano] Rosa Raisa, for whom Puccini wrote the opera, “Turandot.”

 

JJ: Tell us about your Jewish background.

ST: My mother came from Bialystock, near the Russo-Polish border, a very cosmopolitan town decimated by the Nazis. My father came from a suburb [and was] a tailor. Chicago is the biggest Polish population of any city outside of Warsaw.

 

JJ: Has Judaism influenced you?

ST: Of course it has. That’s a baby’s question. Of course it played a tremendous role. My father voted for [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene V. Debs for president. Of course, there’s anti-Semitism. Of course, there’s anti-everything. There’s always nativism. At the moment, it seems to be more [about] color, than anything else.”

 

JJ: You interview the salt of the earth, as well as the celebrated. Where does your compassion for common people come from?

ST: [At my mother’s] men’s hotel, there’d be arguing back and forth. I love the idea of arguments and debates. These were IWW [Wobblies] guys; the anti-union guys in the lobby called them IWW, meaning “I Won’t Work.” Of course, it meant Industrial Workers of the World.

And I loved those arguments. They were heated, full of four-letter words, but at the same time, there was something exciting. There was argument, debate—and we hardly have that these days. We just sit there, paralyzed or catatonic, watching the TV.

The word “couch potato” is a TV-originated word, never heard that in radio days. People would listen. Radio was made for Franklin D. Roosevelt—the Fireside Chat was made for him. He spoke not to millions—that’s the secret—he spoke to one person.

 

JJ: Like Copland, Harburg and [Zero] Mostel, you had a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. Your 1949 NBC-TV series, “Studs’ Place,” was thrown off the air.

ST: I was blacklisted, but I found out women’s clubs were great. They’d pay me 50 bucks, 100 bucks, to talk about folk songs or whatever. This one Joe McCarthy guy, a legionnaire, threatened them for sponsoring a subversive: me. They all ignored him completely.

But one very elegant old woman was so furious at this guy that instead of paying me my agreed-upon $100 fee, she doubled the payment. I sent [the red-baiter] a $10 check as an agent’s commission, which he never acknowledged.

 

JJ: During the 1950s, when you worked for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s radio program, you refused to sign a loyalty oath a CBS executive presented.

ST: I don’t believe in that stuff—at that time, I was influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, who batted 1.000 on human rights, on everything. Mahalia told the executive: “If you fire Studs Terkel, you tell Mr. So-and-So to hire another Mahalia Jackson.” Nothing happened. We did the whole 26 weeks.

The moral is to say “bugger off” to your public [or] private servant, to disagree with him—no matter how big he is. That’s how our country was founded.

 

JJ: Throughout the decades, you’ve been associated with progressive causes: The New Deal, unionization, anti-fascism, civil rights, anti-war, etc. What do you think about the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe?

ST: The fact is we were unprepared for this, [we had] no money for this, because it’s going into our military endeavors. Our mal-adventure—I love that—to bring democracy to Iraq. What a joke. But now we’re catching on. It was based upon a lie—weapons of mass destruction.

The New Deal is being hacked to pieces by the current Republican administration; people’s sense of history is being challenged. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease.

 

JJ: What makes you tick?

ST: Curiosity, how do people think. What makes them do certain things. I want to find out what happened way back in the past; how it affects us in the present.

 

JJ: What is the art of the interview?

ST: My biggest asset is my vulnerability. The fact that I’m called “the poet of the tape recorder” is a joke. I’m very inept when it comes to mechanical things. I’m worse at tape-recording than a baby is. I can’t drive a car. I’m just starting to use the electric typewriter, which is a tremendous advance to me.

The computer age is a mystery to me completely. Sometimes, a shoemaker, truck driver or waitress helps me out, because I may have pressed the wrong button, which I do on occasion.

That’s how I lost Martha Graham, the great dancer; Michael Redgrave, the actor; and almost lost Bertrand Russell [when] I visited him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at his cottage in north Wales. He asked to hear my interview with [Summerhill educator] A.S. Neill, and I almost recorded Russell’s interview over Neill’s.

 

JJ: Any other advice?

ST: Let the guy finish his sentence. You’ve got to listen more. Let there be pauses, silence and then more comes out. Let it ride.

Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005).

 

 

 

Debbie Friedman, L.A. Opera, Norman Mailer and David Mamet


Saturday the 3rd

Debbie Friedman strums and sings old and new favorites from her Jewish folk repertoire tonight at Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Twenty bucks gets you in the door, or splurge on the $100 patron seats for preferred seating and parking, plus a copy of her new CD, “One People,” and entree to the exclusive meet-and-greet with the artist herself.

7:30 p.m. $10 (ages 18 and under), $20 (general), $100 (patron). 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. R.S.V.P., (818) 346-0811.

‘ target=’_blank’>www.ticketweb.com.

Tuesday the 6th

Married . . . at last!


I got married for the first time at 50. The groom was 51. Yes, we are both Jewish. We met online.

I am tall, thin, blonde, green-eyed, and have a little turned-up nose. My
father-in-law’s first comment, across the Thanksgiving table, was, “Doesn’t she look like a shiksa?”

My husband is an inch shorter than I am and round. He is also handsome, smart, funny and very logical. But I married him because he is a good person and I love him very much.

I decided when I was about 46 that I really wanted to get married. The question became where to meet men who really wanted to get married, too. I decided to try online dating. I had already done everything else.

It was not love at first sight. It was interest. It was let’s see what will happen. We both had dated enough to know the difference between passion and real caring.

It took three years, but we did it. The short version:

We met in November of 2000. The cats and I moved in with him in 2001, and I gave him an ultimatum. We got engaged in June of 2002 and were planning to marry in December 2002, although I had yet to see a ring.

Thirteen weeks before the wedding, he fell and shattered his shoulder. We postponed the wedding. I told him he had until my birthday, in August, to do the ring, or it was over. This was it.

It took him eight months, but he did it. Three days before my birthday, he took me to dinner, and proposed a second time, this time with ring in hand.

This was August 2003, and we were going to get married August 2004. We would have a year to arrange the wedding. That was the plan. The next month, my then-91-year-old mother fell and wound up in the hospital, so the wedding was moved up to December.

I had three months to plan the wedding. I was crazed, to say the least. It turned out that my little, humble then-83-year-old aunt knew the owner of a hotel, which shall remain nameless, kayn ayin hora, poo poo. It was a fabulous hotel, famous for its weddings. We had a place. Then we had a date, invitations, a dress, a menu, a klezmer band and a dance band, and a lot of tuxedos.

In addition to planning a wedding in three months, a full-time job, I was also working and taking a class. How I did it, I don’t know. But I was almost there. We divided the wedding planning, sort of. My husband chose all the food and liquor. I handled the cake and flowers, the logistics of the day, the arrangements for out-of-towners, the rehearsal dinner, the auf ruf and half of the visitor packets. (My husband did the maps and the sites of interest.)

The day finally arrived. Hair and make-up call, 6 a.m. Both my husband and I have backgrounds in the entertainment industry, but this was the biggest production either of us had to pull off. He had produced and directed theater, and I had produced and directed reality TV. But this was something else.

I was drugged out of my mind the morning of the wedding. Not serious drugs, but Advil combined with terror can have a mind-numbing effect.

I had only my maid of honor, my cousin Patty, in the suite with me as I got ready. The ketubah signing was done privately with the rabbi in a separate room with only my two attendants and the two male witnesses present. It was beautiful.

It was getting scarier and scarier. Patty and I retired to the bridal suite to await the final call. The hotel’s coordinator lined everyone up, then called up to the room. They were ready for me.

Patty and I took the elevator down. We stepped out. I looked back at the mirrored elevator doors as they were closing on 50 years of being single. I looked at myself and affirmed, “I’m doing this.”

I just wanted to get through the chuppah. I got into line, at the end, next to my then 84-year-old father. This was a dream. This was unreal.

The music started and the bridal procession began. The coordinator was counting the beats. The aisle was 80 feet long. My father and I had rehearsed this, but there was no need. He was a natural. The music changed. I heard, “Now,” and I said to my Dad, “Right foot.”

Talk about a deer in headlights. I saw my cousin Jenny smiling. She stood up first, and everyone followed suit. All these people were standing up for me! I was the bride!

The ceremony was great, I thought. I loved the rabbi’s words of wisdom, although I had to watch the video about four times to remember what he said.

It was an awesome wedding, filled with Jewish rituals — the hora, the chair dance, the brachot over wine and bread. Then, after the first course, the mezinka, the dance honoring the mother upon the marriage of the last child. I am an only child, my husband, the last of four. His mother was deceased. We danced around our three parents, unbelieving that their “old” children were finally married.

In case you are wondering, married life is great. It is not a sitcom, it is not a romantic comedy — it is real life. Whatever you were before, you bring to marriage. Marriage is not a date — you see each other in the morning, someone takes out the trash, and you pay the bills.

But you do it together. At last.

Mierel Verbit is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband and cat in Santa Monica. She can be reached at mierelverbit@yahoo.com.

So many authors, so little time


Chick lit, pulp comics, historical fiction, gumshoe action and a dash of Los Angeles noir.
 
Add celebrities such as Jackie Collins and Tommy Chong and you begin — just barely — to get a taste of the eclectic stew that will be the fifth annual West Hollwood Book Fair, Sept. 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in West Hollywood Park. Up to 20,000 participants are expected to check out what’s become perhaps the second largest local event of its kind, after the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: more than 200 authors in dozens of workshops, performances and panel discussions on subjects ranging from architecture, first novels, poetry, true crime and the vampire tome.
 
Plenty of Jewish authors will be in the mix, including former New Yorker Jerusalem correspondent Amy Wilentz, as well as Bernard Cooper (see story on Page 40), who’ll talk about memoir writing at an event moderated by Jewish Journal religion editor Amy Klein.
 
Fair organizers even moved the event up from its usual October date in deference to the High Holidays.
 
Here’s a sampling of other Jewish authors who may be of interest to Journal readers:
 
Author: Tod Goldberg
Panel: “The Short and Short of It: Writing the Short Story”
Time: 11-noon
Buzz: Goldman’s quirky short story collection, “Simplify,” with tales almost all told from the first person, spotlights young men who experience odd (and univited) apparitions — from the Loch Ness Monster to Jesus to a bleeding picture of Elvis, according to the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg will show a more familial side of himself on the panel “Sibling Writerly” (1-1:45 p.m.), with his sisters, the nonfiction authors Karen Dinino and Linda Woods and his brother, Lee Goldberg, who’s written novels based on his own TV shows, such as “Monk” and “Diagnosis Murder.”
 
Author: Rosa Lowinger
Panel: “Cuba: Fact or Fiction?”
Time: 12:15-1 p.m.
Buzz: Lowinger’s “Tropicana Nights,” co-written with Ofelia Fox, describes a chic pre-Castro cabaret from the point of view of the owner’s wife (Fox), who recounts its glory days as a hangout for socialites, gangsters, artists, models and celebrities such as Hollywood bombshell Carmen Miranda.
 
Author: Peggy Lipton
Panel: “Shining the Spotlight: Life Stories by and About Great Actors”
Time: 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Buzz: Lipton (yes, she’s Jewish!) may have become the ultimate 1970s It Girl and fashion icon for her role as Julie on the hit series, “The Mod Squad”; but while her memoir, “Breathing Out,” dishes about the expected experiences of psychedelia and sex (with Elvis, among others), it also describes her battles with depression and memories of child abuse in a striking yet volatile era.
 
Author: Allan Heinberg
Panel: “Pulp, Grind, Manifesto: Writing the Monthly Comics”
Time: 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Buzz: Heinberg wrote and co-created “Young Avengers” for Marvel Comics and “Wonder Woman” for DC comics and — in a decidedly noncomic endeavor — now writes and produces for the hit ABC medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
 
Author: Bettina Aptheker
Panel: “Left Is Right: Progressive Voices on the State of our State”
Time: 3-4 p.m.
Moderator: Erin Aubry Kaplan, Los Angeles Times columnist (and occasional Jewish Journal contributor)
Buzz: Aptheker’s autobiography, “Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel,” will be out next year.
 
Author: Aimee Bender
Panel: “Faces and Places: Breathing Life into Characters and their Stories”
Time: 3:30- 4:30 p.m.
Buzz: Bender’s “Willful Creatures,” just out in paperback, is another surreal and transcendent short story collection. Sample: A jilted bride drives through the desert, the road spreading before her “like a long, dry, tongue” until she suddenly — and excruciatingly — craves a mango.

 
Jewish Journal September 15, 2006 43

Q & A With Russian Jewish Author Gary Shteyngart


Gary Shteyngart is a literary clown with a frown. His biting satire comments on a multi-cultural America in need of self-examination and reassessment.

“Absurdistan” (Random House, $24.95), his extraordinary new novel, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey from post-communist Russia to a mythical former Soviet Union state he calls Absurdistan, with stop-offs in between to his beloved New York City. This Jewish Russian American writer invites us along for the ride. I caught up with Shteyngart earlier this summer in his Manhattan apartment. Shteyngart emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up in Little Neck, N.Y. He currently resides in Manhattan.

Jewish Journal: Would you call yourself a Jewish atheist?

Gary Shteyngart: I would call myself more of a Jewish agnostic. I’m one of these people who would be very happy if there was a god. It doesn’t matter if it is a Jewish God or a Sufi god, or a Christian god. Do I believe it? I’m more than slightly doubtful.

JJ: How important is being Jewish in your writing?

GS: I would say that I am a Russian Jew, or even a Soviet Jew. We are, in our sensibility, a very specific kind of Jew. We lived in a totalitarian system for 70 years where a lot was lost. Jewish humor interests me the most, and Soviet Jewish humor is Jewish humor taken to the max. It’s Jewish humor from the edge of the grave. What’s amazing to me is how Jewish humor has completely permeated this country. I have Korean friends in L.A. who are using Yiddishisms when trying to be funny. Jewish humor is everywhere.

JJ: How would you describe your work? I like the term Jewish burlesque.

GS: There are many different kinds of fiction. There is a kind of restrained style of fiction, and then there is the kind that likes to run around and bare its chest, have a drink and talk to girls. That’s the kind of fiction I write. But there’s room for both.

JJ: When did you know when you were a writer?

GS: Very early on, when I was in Hebrew school. I wrote a take-off of the Torah. I call it the Gnorah and Exodus was Sexodus. I think I wanted to rebel against the very rigid way we were being taught. Most of us needed an outlet, and I tried to supply it. I showed it around, and it was a way to make friends and meet girls. After that, I started to write stories.

JJ: How often did you get into trouble?

GS: I visited the principal quite a lot. In Russia I was interested in orthodoxy, communism, Lenin, Brezhnev or whoever was in charge. In America, I was interested in Reagan, and Bush One. I guess I always have been fascinated by authority and, at the same time, contemptuous of it. In Hebrew school, we were presented with the ultimate authority, God. I remember the Russian kids would sneak pork kielbasa into the school bathroom, and when the rabbi found us he would be incensed and say, “This is what made the Holocaust.

JJ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are going?

GS: As a Russian Jew, I am hard-wired to be pessimistic. Pessimism is what I do best. When I wrote my first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” [2002], it was during the Clinton years, and I was very hopeful. The Soviet Union had fallen, and I thought Russia would rejoin the league of normal nations, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not sure which government, the Russian or ours, has let me down more. I guess there is a confluence of idiocy taking place in the world.

JJ: Where do you think we are headed?

GS: I think we are entering a post-literate age where people are reading less. Reading a novel requires a lot of time and further time for contemplation. I may be na?ve, but I connect literacy with democracy and being informed. I’m worried about our current state of affairs.

The irony is that people may be reading less, but they are writing more. Everyone wants to express themself, but there is a kind of lack of empathy for other people and cultures.

JJ: It’s sort of like one big blog.

GS: Exactly. And in the blog, the person writing is their own hero, or in the video game they want to be the center of action.

JJ: You describe Manhattan as being the world on an island.

GS: I’m worried that Manhattan’s quirky landscape is fading away. I’m worried that Manhattan is becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live on the Lower East Side, you still have a mixed neighborhood. We have the three H’s: the Hassids, the hipsters and the Hispanics. I spend half my day walking around the city. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I started Stuyvesant High School and discovered Manhattan. I looked beyond my Russian and Jewish roots and saw the enormity of life.

JJ: Have you spent any time in Los Angeles, and what is your reaction to it?

GS: I’m absolutely intrigued by Los Angeles and at one point considered living there. I don’t know how to drive a car to save my life and thought better of it. I think in many ways, for better or worse, L.A. is the model for what a future city might look like.

JJ: Final comments on “Absurdistan”?

GS: When I start writing, I write from the perspective of one character. Misha just came to me one day as this big, hulking guy. What I wanted to do with Misha is bring together America and Russia, these two hulking countries. What I love about Misha is his consumerism. He eats his way through the world. He eats sturgeon; he eats women; he eats political ideas; anything that comes along. I wanted to create someone that was much larger than myself and larger than any of the people I know. That was how “Absurdistan” came together.

JJ: What’s next?

GS: Next is a quieter book. I want to calm down a bit, because I feel like I am singing in the same register for too many times in a row. I want to do something more contemplative and more paced. One thing I’m considering is actually writing about other immigrant groups. The Korean American community in L.A. is fascinating, and I’ll probably spend some time in Los Angeles researching my next novel.

Harry Wiland, with partner Dale Bell, was co-executive producer/director/writer of “And Thou Shalt Honor,” a PBS special on elder care and family caregiving. He is currently co-producing and directing “Edens Lost and Found,” a PBS series on urban restoration that will air in early 2007. Wiland and Bell also wrote the companion book (Chelsea Green Publishing), available at

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

‘Design’-ing Woman Comes to Town


“Kosher by Design,” (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, $32.99) “Kosher by Design Entertains” ($34.99) and “Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen” ($22.99) by Susie Fishbein.

With the frenzied anticipation generally reserved for the appearance of a rock star — or at the very least, Oprah — the Orthodox community of Los Angeles is abuzz with excitement: Susie is coming!

“Susie” is Susie Fishbein, the effervescent author of the “Kosher by Design” cookbooks, who has turned kosher cooking on its proverbial ear. And no wonder she bubbles over. According to Gedaliah Zlotowitz, Mesorah’s vice-president of sales and marketing, more than 160,000 copies have sold with no end in sight.

Fishbein will be making three exclusive appearances this month in Los Angeles (see box), and those lucky enough to get a reservation will watch, kvell and sample as their idol cooks.

“Susie Fishbein has done for Jewish cooking what [rabbi and author] Aryeh Kaplan did for beginning Judaism,” said Rabbi Shimon Kraft of the 613 Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard. “They’re buying her cookbooks en masse. She’s a genius at editing and putting everything all together.”

“Our patrons are meshugah for her books,” echoed Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. “We have over 30,000 resources here, and the most precious part of our collection is Jewish cookbooks. Hers circulate so robustly. They’re fabulous.”

Just what is this revolution in kosher cooking that Fishbein has spawned? As food columnist, cooking instructor and dinnerware designer Debby Segura explained, “Lots of people used to feel tied to a few kosher cookbooks, but so much has happened in kosher food over the last 20 years that just wasn’t being reflected, and if it was, it was too complicated. Susie gives you food styling, kosher tips, kitchen tips. But the big deal about Susie’s recipes is they work.”

Risa Moskowitz, who chairs the event for Emek, added, “When I booked the event, everyone said, ‘Oh my gosh, I live by her cookbooks!’ There wasn’t one person who said ‘Who?’ People who aren’t kosher don’t realize what’s possible for us now, the variety of foods and the way to prepare them. They think kosher means dried-out, salted meat. Her books have had a tremendous impact.”

Toras Emes chair Sara Leah Beinstock agreed: “These are the ultimate kosher cookbooks. There’s nothing close to them on the market. Her recipes are easy to follow, and the food is appetizing and delicious. It’s very exciting to have gourmet Jewish cookbooks.”

Fishbein, an Orthodox Jew and mother of four children ages 3 to 11, understands that today’s observant Jews want to prepare many of the same exciting dishes found on restaurant menus and serve them with style. Those who grew up on Grandma’s Shabbos brisket now embrace her Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce.

“Kosher food doesn’t have to be simple or bland,” noted Fishbein by phone from her New Jersey home. “Just about every ingredient is available out there kosher.”

The luscious table settings and presentation ideas that party planner Renee Erreich and Fishbein created for these books — and that photographer John Uher shot — fairly leap off the pages. But everything is doable.

“The food looks intimidating, but the recipes are not,” Fishbein said. “It’s not about putting on a show. These are recipes the family will want to eat over and over.” And they do. So popular are these dishes that guests recognize them on each other’s Shabbat tables.

Routinely dubbed the Jewish Martha Stewart, Fishbein squirms at the comparison.

“I’m flattered, but it’s not really accurate,” she said. “Martha Stewart is all about a lifestyle. If you want beautiful flowers, you plant them and this is how you do it. We’re busy. We have kids. We have jobs. We’re in and out of the kitchen trying to make fabulous meals. I take shortcuts she would never take. I’m about cutting to the chase to accomplish our goals.”

Beloria Fink, whose sister will be driving from San Diego to join her for the Emek event, observed, “Susie can take a simple recipe and it looks extravagant and elegant, like you’ve really knocked yourself out. She’s taken the bland, traditional Shabbos meal and turned it into elegant cuisine. She shows you how to set a beautiful table for each holiday so you can create a legacy for your own children.”

“Kosher by Design” marries food to holiday traditions in new ways that resonate with those seeking a deeper Jewish experience for their families.

“When I think back to Passover in my childhood,” Fishbein reflected, “I remember my cousin Jeff scrubbing the maror, my aunt cutting sheets of egg noodles and Grandma Mollie making chremslach, because 10 minutes shouldn’t go by without her feeding us something. These memories are like yesterday. It’s a happy place for me. I want that for my kids.”

To accomplish this Fishbein went way beyond “It’s Rosh Hashanah, let’s have honey.” Case in point: Pomegranate Chicken. “I tell my kids, ‘You know why I made this dish, you guys? Pomegranate has 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.’ Maybe it’s not my grandmother’s chicken, but it’s incredibly appropriate.”

Similarly, envelope-shaped Won Ton Wrapped Chicken appetizers for Purim are edible reminders of the lots (purim) Haman drew to select the date for the Jews’ extinction.

For Simchat Torah she incorporates the tradition of eating rolled foods to mimic Torah scrolls.

“I thought stuffed cabbage was overdone,” Fishbein noted, “but I’ve got this awesome Chicken Negemaki. Chicken is rolled around scallion and red pepper strips and tied like a scroll with a blanched scallion. True, God never told us to eat Chicken Negemaki, but he didn’t tell us to eat stuffed cabbage either.”

With “Kosher by Design Entertains,” Fishbein moved on to celebrations — a housewarming, dinner for two, an engagement party — nine in all, with spectacular menus and extravagant serving ideas along with the simple, yet elegant recipes she had become famous for.

Now “Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen” offers the dishes kids like to eat — and cook — clearly explained, beautifully photographed and coded for difficulty with one, two or three chefs hats (see story p. 49).

How does Fishbein herself explain the hoopla surrounding her books?

“I think I hit a nerve in the community,” she said. “People clearly have had a creative passion in them that was waiting to be unleashed. I’ve unleashed their inner cook.”

Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce

From “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 teaspoons dried minced thyme
2 shallots
2 racks of baby lamb chops, 8-9 chops per rack; have butcher French the bones
1 cup port wine, divided
8 fresh Mission figs or 6 dried figs, cut into quarters
1/2 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 450 F. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process 2 tablespoons olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and shallots 30-45 seconds or until thick paste forms. Rub herb paste into lamb.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium oven-proof skillet. Add lamb, fat side down, and cook over high heat 5 minutes. Turn lamb and cook an additional minute so that both sides are brown.

Add 1/2 cup port to skillet. Place skillet in the oven and roast 18 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven. Place lamb on a platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Add remaining 1/2 cup port and figs to skillet. Bring to a simmer. Use a spatula to loosen brown bits from pan. Add stock and simmer 3-4 minutes. Sauce will thicken to a nice amber color. Pour sauce over lamb and serve.

Makes four servings.

Additional recipes can be found at ” target=”_blank”>www.cookingjewish.com.

Susie Fishbein will appear in private homes on:

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Holiday Celebration of Arts and Eats


The year-to-year tradition of celebrating Chanukah doesn’t change at our home. It always includes lighting candles, playing dreidel, eating latkes and having the children open gifts. But, the highlight of Chanukah for me is having all of our family together at the same time. It is one of the few holidays when our children and grandchildren arrive from everywhere, so we can celebrate and spend time with each other.

But, for the past 15 years, the festivities have included our special friends, artist Peter Shire and his wife, Donna. It all began when we invited Peter to visit the Skirball Museum, which was then located on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, next to USC. We toured the collection of Judaica in the basement of the museum, and when Peter saw the menorahs, he was intrigued by their design and how the artists had adapted the local culture and architecture into their creations.

Several days later we called Peter and asked if he would be interested in a commission to create a chanukiah for our family, and he was delighted with the idea. He combined contemporary shapes, cactus, the local mountains, and included many colorful symbols that depicted a Southern California theme.

Peter’s chanukiah has a permanent place in our art collection, and is similar to the one that he later created for the Israel Museum and the Skirball. He recently designed several more, some contemporary, with simple architecture elements, others made in the shape of birds or plants.

During the holiday, Peter always lights the candles on his California-inspired Chanukiah at our home. After they are lit, it is time to eat the first batch of crisp and hot latkes, which have been fried in olive oil to commemorate the story of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. I still remember the family Chanukah celebrations from when I was young, consisting of our extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. This was a special time when everyone eagerly awaited the latkes, and later all commented on who had eaten the most.

Of course, while the latkes are served, the children are looking over the wrapped Chanukah gifts, eager to open them, but they have to wait until after dinner when we return to the living room.

The Chanukah meal this year begins with a salad composed of chopped chicken livers, placed on a bed of baby greens and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The main course, ground chicken loaf, everyone’s favorite comfort food, is baked in a tomato-wine sauce and served with homemade cooked apple slices.

For dessert we have a cookie exchange and ask everyone to bring his or her favorite ones to go with the Chocolate Sorbet that I have made. This supersmooth sorbet, made without milk, cream, or eggs, tastes as rich and creamy as ice cream, and I think the addition of Concord grape wine really enhances the sorbet’s intense chocolate flavor. At the end of the evening there are always bags of cookies for the children to take home as a Chanukah treat.

Award-Winning Perfect Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times. “The best we’ve ever eaten,” said their test kitchen and food editors.

4 baking potatoes, peeled

1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

4 extra-large eggs

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Pinch of baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda and salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, three to five minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about two minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes 12 latkes/four servings.

Chocolate Sorbet (nondairy)

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1 cup Concord grape Wine

Combine the cocoa and sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. Add 4 cups of water, a little at a time, in a thin stream, mixing with a wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to a boil and boil for five to 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the melted chocolate and port. Bring to a boil and simmer for about four minutes, or until thick, stirring constantly. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and place in a larger bowl filled with ice and cold water. Mix until cool. Remove bowl from ice. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the sorbet to a covered container and freeze for at least one hour for flavors to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in the refrigerator and beat until smooth and creamy before serving.

Makes about two quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

 

Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare


“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).

A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.

“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”

Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.

Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.

Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”

“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”

What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.

She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.

The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.

Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.

But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.

“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”

Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.

And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.

Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.

But it’s not only that.

“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”

Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.

 

Why a Novel?


“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).

I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.

Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.

But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.

But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.

In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.

The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.

On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.

On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.

Meow With a French Accent


Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. In both the United States and France, they’ve been enjoying a popular explosion among readers of all ages.

One of the stars of the explosion in France is Joann Sfar, an enfant terrible whose work has become so popular, that it can be found on the bookshelves of hip intellectuals there.

The prolific Sfar, 33, at last count is the author of 40 different comic-book series, including the wildly popular “Little Vampire” and “Big Vampire.” But only two of them — “Dungeon” and “Little Vampire” — are available in English, and they have been aimed mainly at young adult readers.

This summer, however, Sfar’s profile in the English-speaking world is likely to be raised: The first volume of “The Rabbi’s Cat,” one of his best-loved series in France, will be released in English by Pantheon Books in August. Translations of “Big Vampire” and “The Tree Man” are in the works.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” chronicles the adventures of a talking cat, who lives in Algeria with a rabbi and his daughter. The first volume in the series recounts the cat’s desire to have a bar mitzvah. Along the way, it tells the story of how the cat learned to talk — he ate the parrot — and how he took on “the rabbi’s rabbi,” chiding his master’s teacher for his narrow, dogmatic approach to Judaism.

When asked about the abundance of Jewish themes and philosophy in his work, Sfar, who was born to an Ashkenazi mother from Ukraine and a Sephardi father from Algeria, says that for him, Judaism isn’t “an all-consuming passion” it’s just what he knows best. — Lauren Elkin, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

The Many Lives of Lev Nussimbaum


 

“The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House, $25.95).

Lev Nussimbaum lived as though life were theater, inventing an identity, dressing the part, shifting scenes, seeking audiences everywhere. He thought he could keep rewriting the ending, believed he could talk his way out of anything including his Jewish past, but ultimately he could not.

Nussimbaum was born in Baku in 1905, the son of a Russian Jewish émigré who made a fortune in the oil business. In a case of hiding in plain sight, he later on became known as Essad Bey, a well-known writer of books on Islam and global politics, and then Kurban Said, a novelist whose best-known work, “Ali and Nino,” published in 1937, is still in print.

Tom Reiss spent seven years trying to untangle the threads of this most unusual life. His new book is a richly detailed biography that’s also a memoir of his quest and an uncommon view into the Holocaust era. “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House) makes for fascinating reading.

From childhood, Nussimbaum daydreamed of the East, of Turkish warriors, Persian princesses and Arabic architecture. After the Russian Revolution, he and his father fled from Baku to Turkestan and then across the desert in a 50-camel caravan, finally arriving in Constantinople and then Paris. They moved to Berlin, where he secretly attended high school and university simultaneously, “cramming his head full of the mysteries of the East,” as Reiss writes.

At a time when many European Jews were interested in Orientalism, Nussimbaum went a step further and converted to Islam. He enjoyed dressing in full regalia, and was celebrated in literary and intellectual circles for his work, publishing 16 books — including biographies of Lenin and Stalin — before the age of 30. As Essad Bey, he married a Jewish heiress, and when their marriage fell apart in the late 1930s, the story was reported in tabloid newspapers around the world.

He died in Positano, Italy in 1942 at age 36, while under house arrest; although the courtly gentleman was known by townspeople as the Muslim, his Jewish identity was suspect. He was impoverished, unable to collect royalties due on his books. One of the remaining mysteries of his life is why he went to Italy — and offered to write a biography of Mussolini — and then chose to stay there, when he might have had a chance of escaping to the United States or elsewhere. He’s buried in a cliffside cemetery in Positano, the tombstone set to face Mecca.

It’s no surprise that researching a life as unusual as this one would entail remarkable adventures. Reiss, who was dogged in his research and reporting, traveled to 10 countries, interviewing a range of relatives, publishers, aged childhood friends of his subject in Baku, others who claimed to know another author of “Ali and Nino.” Doors seemed to open to Reiss at unexpected moments, yielding gifts.

Reiss found the woman who took over the publishing company (after the Jewish owners were expelled) that published much of Nussimbaum’s work in Vienna. She had gone to see Lev in Positano, and returned with six small leather notebooks in which he had handwritten his final and unpublished work, “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love.” She kept them in a closet for more than 50 years and presented them to Reiss, who was then able to fill in many gaps in the story. Another great discovery was a box of letters, recording a correspondence between Nussimbaum and Pima Andreae, an influential Italian salon hostess who tried to help him in Positano. Nussimbaum was a man who never wrote a boring letter. Theirs was an intellectual love affair, and she was his last link to the outside world. He reveals his deep sadness that in the end he could no longer protect his father, who ultimately died in Treblinka.

Reiss was drawn to Nussimbaum’s story during a trip to Baku in 1998, on assignment for a travel piece. A friend recommended “Ali and Nino” as a useful guide to the city. The author named on the cover was Kurban Said, and Reiss learned there was some disagreement as to Said’s true identity. At the same time, he happened to pick up one of Essad Bey’s early books in his hotel, a memoir and history titled “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” and he immediately saw connections between the two works.

As he got more involved in tracking down the truth about Nussimbaum, the 40-year-old Reiss came to see his subject as a character he had been waiting his whole life to meet, as he said. Reiss is the grandson of German Jews who left in the 1930s, although many relatives remained trapped in Europe; his mother came to the United States in 1948 as a French Jewish war orphan. In his early childhood years, Reiss lived among relatives in Washington Heights before his family moved to Texas and then Massachusetts. The book is dedicated in part to his late great-uncle Lolek, an émigré who would have been Nussimbaum’s contemporary and regaled him with stories of his adventures.

Offhandedly, Reiss refers to himself as a novelist.

“That’s how I write,” he said, “through the experiences of individuals. I think of myself as a novelist who must write the truth.”

He added that he has been obsessed with facts since childhood.

If there has been a theme to Reiss’s books and articles — he wrote about neo-Nazis in Dresden for The Wall Street Journal, a book called “Fuhrer-Ex” on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe — it has been “trying to find the back door into the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe,” he said. “I’ve always tried to find a way of seeing it that pulled me away from the clichés of the era.”

“In some ways, I’m very attracted to the assimilated Jews of Europe,” he said. Reiss has come to see assimilation as a profoundly creative act, particularly in Nussimbaum’s case.

“He was a Jew being forced to become anything else but a Jew,” he said. “Forced to assimilate all the other cultures of the world as a way of running away from being Jewish.”

In talking about his subject’s capacity for self-invention, Reiss sees Nussimbaum “as an unusually American character for a European Jew.”

Over the years, in his different guises, he rewrote his autobiography several times, another quality that strikes Reiss as American.

The multicultural Nussimbaum didn’t write directly about Zionism but one of his last published works, “Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World,” published in 1936, was co-written with Wolfgang von Wiesl, a leading Zionist who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-hand man. In Weimar Berlin, Nussimbaum found a number of other Jewish writers who “sought refuge from the new political realities in esoteric vistas on sympathetic Orientalism.” They saw the Jews as mediators between East and West.

Working on this project has influenced the author’s view of history.

“It made me see the whole early 20th century as one continuous tragedy beginning in 1905 and ending in 1945,” he said. “It was a disaster that began in Czarist Russia, for Jews and for everyone else.”

Did Reiss like his subject?

“I grew very attached to Lev, as often happens with a biographer,” he said. “I grew defensive of him in an odd way and went through stages of being disturbed by his disguises and choice of friends. Over time I grew to not exactly admire him, I grew deeply sympathetic. I guess that means I like him.”

“He feels like a friend who you would want to shake, to come to his senses,” he added. “But what does it mean to come to one’s senses if living in Nazi Europe. If he was crazy in behavior, most people were much crazier. There’s something inspiring in him — he’s someone who creates ways of escape even if in the end it’s just imaginative.”

Reiss, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two daughters, still has the last notebooks and correspondence. His hope is to find an institution, perhaps in the United States or Israel, interested in creating a collection. He could see the letters published as “one of the most interesting 20th-century correspondences.”

To Andreae’s practical questions, Lev would often respond with fantastical tales, drawn from the invented life he lived.

“Up until his last letter,” Reiss said, “he thought he could save himself.”

 

Appreciating Saul Bellow’s Jewishness


 

It disturbed me to hear on U.S. public radio and read in The New York Times that Saul Bellow was to be seen as simply an American writer — which, of course, he is — and not significantly a Jewish writer.

Maybe they think they’re doing him a favor? I think they’re bleaching out a lot of the substance of Bellow, who died Tuesday at 89.

The Times quoted him as saying he had no wish to be part — along with Roth and Malamud — of the “Hart, Schaffner & Marx” of American letters. Well, who would? No good writer wants to be pigeonholed or limited in scope. But he is deeply a Jewish writer — not just a Jew by birth.

Jewish culture, Jewish sensibility, a Jewish sense of holiness in the everyday, permeate his work.

As a child, Bellow attended Jewish schools and grew up in a Jewish family, where he learned Hebrew thoroughly and spoke Yiddish as a primary language. It’s a Yiddish that never went away.

Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is read today in Bellow’s great translation. Yiddish phrases and syntax are found in many of the novels. In “Herzog,” the protagonist is snobbish about the Yiddish of his wife’s lover.

But more important is a Yiddishkayt sensibility: never a schmaltzy echo of Sholem Aleichem, but a reliance on the Eastern European Jewish heart against which to measure life. I’m thinking, for example, of Schlossberg in “The Victim,” the old Yiddish journalist who makes the beautiful speech that defines the moral vision of the book. It’s a great speech and central to Bellow’s vision.

Attacking those whose suspicions of human life turn it into something cheap and empty, Schlossberg says, “I am as sure about greatness and beauty as you are about black and white. If a human life is a great thing to me, it is a great thing. Do you know better? I’m entitled as much as you…. Have dignity, you understand me? Choose dignity. Nobody knows enough to turn it down.”

Bellow has said of the “Jewish feeling” within him that it resists the claims of 20th-century romanticism, the belief that man is finished and that the world will be destroyed.

The world in Bellow’s fiction is, on the contrary, sanctified. The sanctification is often ironic, often in struggle against the neurotic patterns of characters and the foolish, vulgar, meretricious quality of contemporary life. Herzog, for instance, resists “the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value…. The peculiar idea entered my [Jewish] mind that we’d see about this!”

Of course, Moses Herzog, like so many of Bellow’s Jewish characters, feels ashamed that he can’t live up to his ideal, his Jewish ideal of a mensch. But it is a Jewish ideal — for Herzog and for Bellow.

In novel after novel by Bellow there are Jewish characters in a significantly Jewish milieu. “The Victim” concerns a character facing anti-Semitism and his own neurotic defenses as a Jew. “Seize the Day” deals with a son who wants love from his cold, un-Jewish father; the novel ends at a Jewish funeral with the protagonist weeping for the dead stranger and for himself. “Herzog” is centered on the complicated world of a Jewish childhood.

Even the late short fictions, especially “A Silver Dish” and “Something to Remember Me By,” are deeply Jewish. “A Silver Dish,” for example, sets a Jewish worldview against a Christian one.

Bellow has given us a rich Jewish American world. But he has also given me as a writer a complex style, a way of handling contemporary reality, which he derived from both Jewish and American fiction.

You find in Sholem Aleichem, in I.L. Peretz, in Isaac Bashevis Singer, a way of finding the beautiful, the holy, the meaningful in the midst of the comic, the ordinary, the tragic. Bellow is a poet who works with laughable, vulgar materials and works them in the service of a noble vision.

Irving Howe quotes these famous lines from the great Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Seforim: “Israel is the Diogenes of the nations; while his head towers in the heavens and is occupied with deep meditation concerning God and His wonders, he himself lives in a barrel.”

But Bellow has added to this mixture the grace and rhythms of the art novel in English, such as those by Henry James and James Joyce, and the speech rhythms of American writers like Mark Twain. He has given us a new kind of sentence, composed of street talk and philosophy, mixing language of the heart and language of moneymen, machers, American sports and con men.

This new sentence has been taken up by all American writers, Jewish and non-Jewish. If Israel is a blessing to the nations, Saul Bellow has been a Jewish blessing to all writers.

John J. Clayton, a retired professor of modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an award-winning and widely published author of novels, short stories and literary criticism. His work “Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man” won awards in literary criticism. His collection “Radiance” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 1998.

 

Shadows of Shoah in ‘Snicket’ World


 

Daniel Handler looks like a character in one of his own “Lemony Snicket” novels. At a breakfast interview with The Journal at a New York café, he wears a pinstriped suit with a handkerchief in the pocket — reminiscent of something the bumbling Mr. Poe might wear when he deposits the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans at the home of a relative who wants to kill them and collect their fortune. In repose and in photographs, Handler’s face turns dole, as if, like Snicket, he is turned melancholy by the events he narrates.

Nevertheless the disparity between Handler as Handler and Handler as Snicket is huge. In conversation, Handler, who has now authored 11 books in the wildly popular “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events,” is so lively and funny that it is difficult to recognize him as the person who wrote about three children whose lives are so bad that the high point for them was their parents dying in a fire. Handler’s dour fiction seems to be coming from a place that is far removed from his personality.

“I thought it was a terrible idea that I write for children,” said Handler, while tucking into his bagel and lox. “I am the sort of person who thinks of stories that are on the macabre side of the spectrum. I just try to think of things that would be interesting, and what was interesting to me was something dreadful happening or something dreadful about to happen, and I couldn’t imagine any children’s publishing house taking an interest in that.”

But take an interest they did. When he was 28, Handler, who at the time was a struggling writer, found himself possessor of a four-book deal with Harper Collins, which was intrigued by his proposal for a series of books about, as he puts it “orphans who will get into a lot of terrible trouble and nothing good will ever happen to them.”

The series became a runaway hit and turned the warm and fuzzy world of children’s literature on its head. Thus far, the books (there will be an unlucky 13 books in all), with their wretched-sounding alliterative titles — the latest one is “The Grim Grotto” — have sold 25 million copies. This past winter, Jim Carrey starred as Count Olaf, the series’ most nefarious villain, in Paramount Pictures “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events.” The film, based on the first three books, made more than $100 million at the box office (no date has been set on a DVD release).

Handler’s genesis as the chronicler of the macabre came about from a childhood in which the Holocaust was a lurking constant.

“My father left Germany in late 1938,” Handler said. “He left for what in retrospect seems like obvious reasons, but at the time everyone was figuring out when to leave. And those who chose to stay generally were not having a good time.”

The Handlers eventually settled in San Francisco, and their household was a traditional Jewish one — they observed Shabbat, went to temple and sent their children to Hebrew school. But, as Handler puts it, when the extended family would get together, “the stories around the dinner table would be about getting out of Germany.”

“I don’t think I had a specific fear of the Nazis. The narrative that was in my head was would I know when it was time to leave — that any moment the borders could be closed and what could you do?” Handler said. “When I was a child I took relief from the fact that San Francisco was on the shore, so I thought I could leave that way, which was kind of silly because what was a 10-year-old boy going to do — be pushed out in a rowboat on the Pacific Ocean?”

But like Count Olaf, who attaches himself to the Baudelaires like a murderous leech that they can’t escape, Handler “was aware that there was menace at an early age.”

“I don’t think the Jewish philosophy on menace is that it doesn’t really exist or that good will overcome it. And certainly there is not any sense of if you are a good person, you will avoid that menace, which is certainly a sense in other religions,” Handler said. “Judaism doesn’t promise that at all. If you look up the history of the Jewish people, you would think that they had been chosen for something else. So I think there was that sense [when I wrote the books].”

Now Handler lives in San Francisco and is working on books 12 and 13 of the series, as well as an adult novel. He is also a new father of 1-year-old Otto, who, like Sunny, the youngest Baudelaire orphan, likes to bite things and speak in unintelligible syllables that only his family can understand.

“The baby only has one word now. He says ‘aorbb,’ which means up,” Handler said. “I am nervous about [Otto reading my books] because you have no worse critic than your own offspring. I fear he will find the books boring, and that will be very painful for me.”

I do have the option of not telling him that I wrote them,” he added. “I wonder how long I can keep that up.”

For more information on “Lemony Snicket” visit www.lemonysnicket.com (which tells readers “Attention: Please Run For Your Life. You have undoubtedly reached this Web site by mistake”).

 

Safe Harbor From Shoah in ‘Shanghai’


 

Boys can be squirrely when any adult visits a classroom to lecture. That’s why when Ursula Bacon comes in to talk about her Holocaust experience, she tells stories about how she once had a cockroach for a pet, and that she didn’t have use of a toilet for eight years.

Such gross-out stuff appeals to boys, some of whom contact her after she visits their schools; she speaks to more than 2,000 middle school and high school students every year. Bacon said one boy called her at home after she spoke to his class and told her that when he went to the bathroom later that day, “‘I flushed the toilet and I thought of you.'”

“When you make the children laugh, you own them,” said Bacon, the author “Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl’s Journey From Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China.” The 267-page memoir portrays the eight years Bacon spent, from about age 10 to 18, as a German Jewish refugee in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto.

“Shanghai Diary” was chosen as a Barnes & Noble “Holiday 2004 Discover Great New Writers” selection and a reading Bacon did in Denver was aired on C-SPAN. The Portland-based writer speaks Jan. 18 at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center; she is also scheduled to speak in June at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Bacon and her German Jewish parents arrived in China in May 1939 and left in August 1947, boarding a U.S. troop ship headed for America. “Shanghai Diary” is not about Dachau or other Holocaust flashpoints, but instead it’s a story of a young Jewish girl fleeing Nazis; Bacon wrote it as a tough but still happy-ending alternative to the most famous diary ever written by a Jewish girl.

“A counterpart, a little bit, to ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ with a happy ending,” Bacon told The Journal. One problem with many Holocaust memoirs, she said, is that they are, “awkwardly written,” by people who see themselves as survivors, not authors.

“Just because you have a story doesn’t make you a storyteller,” said Bacon, who made a career as a publishing consultant and ghostwriter of 20 books.

Although unsure of her exact age, Bacon believes she was born in 1929. The book’s artwork shows a German passport listing her being born in 1930, but that was one of several passports her mother obtained, in which she dated her daughter’s birth from between 1924 and 1932, in case Bacon needed to flee Germany on a Kindertransport train to England.

“I have seven birth certificates,” Bacon said.

Written in 90 days, “Shanghai Diary” was published in 2002 and last year got a fresh 40,000 hardcover print run. Bacon said that larger East Coast publishers wanted more typical Holocaust imagery: “They wanted ovens, they wanted gas chambers.”

But such things were not in Shanghai’s ghetto of 20,000 European Jews. Its narrow streets teemed with disease, urine, occupying Japanese troops and colonized Chinese who viewed the powerless refugee Jews as white colonialists.

Bacon knows that her book stands apart from the Holocaust writings of Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann. To quote one of her book’s Chinese-English phrases, Bacon’s ultimately upbeat saga is the story of “one lucky girl-child.”

It is Bacon’s luck that allows her to admit — despite disease, Japanese soldiers and later American planes bombing Shanghai — the life described in “Shanghai Diary” was difficult but not comparable to Auschwitz. Bacon makes her writing seemingly more accessible than traditional Shoah tomes dominated by gargantuan themes of evil, genocide and threadbare slivers of humanity.

The author likes to quote her father, a longtime printer and pressman. “He thought that there’s a difference between tragedy and inconvenience,” she said, “and he just felt we were inconvenienced. Going to Shanghai then became the inconvenience; we did not have barracks where people were pushed together. But we had all the things that you do not pack in a suitcase, and keep in your heart and your mind. I’m very grateful for the eight years there that gave us shelter from a world gone mad.”

Aside from telling schoolboys about her pet cockroach, Bacon said she also tells her classroom audiences three things: “Hate and prejudice don’t work, don’t blame the world for who you are and what happens to you because you are your own work. And take your dream to bed with you; it’ll come true.”

Ursula Bacon will speak to the Friends of the Valley Cities JCC on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. at 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. She will be appearing with screenwriter Clancy Sigal (“Frida” and “In Love and War”) in a combined evening of conversation and book signing. $25. For more information, call (818) 786-6310.

 

Holiday Breads Worth the Calories


With the no-carb craze sweeping the nation, Atkins Diet adherents make sure to avoid pasta and potatoes, but when the High Holidays roll around, even purists are tempted by succulent Jewish breads.

What would Rosh Hashanah be, after all, without huge round challahs? Or Yom Kippur without bagels to break the fast? Not to mention Bukharan bread, za’atar pita and the wide variety of breads that Sephardim adore.

Atkins converts aside, bread has historically been among the most important staples in the Jewish diet. We even eat matzah at Passover — a holiday that revolves around shunning luscious, lofty loaves.

Indeed, bread was once considered a complete meal, and until recently was the mainstay of many people’s daily calorie intakes. In the Bible, bread is a symbol representing food.

"Jewish law said that if bread is served, you have a meal; without it, you are having a snack," wrote Maggie Glezer in her upcoming book, "A Blessing of Bread: Jewish Bread Baking Around the World" (Artisan).

Bread is central to Jewish celebrations. Ideally before each meal, and certainly before holiday meals, a blessing is recited, thanking God for bringing forth bread, and by implication all food, from the earth.

"At Rosh Hashanah, my family likes the same breads each year," said Glezer, an Atlanta mother of two children who bakes huge batches of sweet honey challahs and freezes them. She serves some of these airy challahs at Rosh Hashanah and the rest at Yom Kippur. But her family breaks the fast with her homemade honey cake — which Glezer considers bread.

Knowing that challah braiding is a dying art, what inspired Glezer to write a book about baking Jewish bread?

"I’m a bread fanatic and a Jew — that’s how I came to this," she said, adding that she’s been seriously studying bread baking for 15 years. An American Institute of Baking-certified baker, Glezer specializes in teaching bread techniques to both amateurs and professionals. This is her second book about bread, and she writes on the subject for culinary magazines.

"’A Blessing of Bread’ is accessible to less experienced bakers," she said.

Because Glezer empathizes with beginners relying on recipes and a picture to produce unfamiliar breads, she gives readers numerous guidelines, conveying exactly what the dough looks like at each step. Her recipes are often long, but for novices it’s like having a professional baker at their side.

With more than 60 recipes in her cookbook, Glezer encourages people to stray from the usual babkas, bagels and deli rye to try new delicacies like Turkish coffee-cake rings or Hungarian walnut sticks.

Glezer’s goal was not to include every bread recipe in the Jewish repertoire — which would take two lifetimes. Her aim was to give readers a thumbnail sketch by highlighting some recipes from Sephardi, North African, Near Eastern and Ashkenazi cultures.

To assemble this impressive collection, she spoke to and baked with people from many backgrounds. She also included lively oral histories, anecdotes and passages from folk tales.

While the book features international holiday baking, Glezer has a special place in her Ashkenzi heart for sweet challah. At Rosh Hashanah, people often drizzle honey and raisins into challah, hoping for a sweet year. Instead of the oval-shaped, braided variety, the Rosh Hashanah challah is spiraled to represent the cycle of life and the completeness of the world.

"Rosh Hashanah is apple season," said Glezer, explaining that while apples have been a symbol of sweetness for centuries, this treasured fruit has recently begun to appear in American challah recipes. Calling for huge chunks of apples, Glezer’s spin on this new genre produces delightfully moist results. Her step-by-step instructions yield a coffee cake or a sweet bread to serve with dinner.

"While my Apple Challah can be prepared in a loaf pan or a circular cake pan, at Rosh Hashanah, I prefer the cake pan for its round theme," she said.

"One of the best parts of the Holidays is Sephardic pumpkin bread," said Glezer, explaining that her recipe was inspired by one from Gilda Angel, author of "Sephardic Home Cooking."

Angel explains that among Separdi Jews, pumpkin is popular at Rosh Hashanah because it expresses "the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength."

While pumpkin gives the bread an appealing color, it derives its aromatic flavor from cardamom and ginger, popular Sephardi spices. Glezer suggests either fresh or canned pumpkin.

"My favorite part of writing ‘A Blessing of Bread’ was listening to bakers and others talk about their lives," she said. "Their stories are the fabric of Jewish life; their recipes the carriers of our tradition."

Hearing her rhapsodize about her favorite subject is like being with an energetic bubbie who has burned her fingers in ovens a thousand times but still exudes the enthusiasm to taste the unfamiliar, learn from strangers and share amazing recipes for a never-ending basket of Jewish breads.

Apple Challah

2 envelopes instant yeast

5 cups unbleached bread flour

1 cup warm water

3 large eggs

6 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan and dough

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

3 large baking apples (Braeburn preferred)

In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and 1 cup of the flour. Then whisk in the warm water until yeast mixture is smooth. Let it ferment uncovered for 10-20 minutes, or until it begins to puff up slightly.

Whisk the eggs, oil, salt and sugar into the puffed-yeast slurry. When eggs are well incorporated and the salt and sugar have dissolved, stir in the remaining 4 cups of flour all at once with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto work surface and knead it until it is smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. Soak your mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it. If the dough is too firm to easily knead, add a tablespoon or two of water. If the dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.

Place dough in the clean, warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment for one hour, or until just slightly puffy.

While the dough ferments, peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Then cut each slice across into three pieces. End up with large, squarish apple chunks. Measure 4 1/2 heaping cups of the chunks. Reserve them in a covered container.

After initial ferment, sprinkle dough and work surface with flour. Pull out the dough. Cut dough in half into two equal pieces, keeping one piece covered while working with the other. Roll out the dough into a 1/8-inch-thick, 16-inch-long square. Scatter 1 heaping cup of apples over the center third of dough. Fold up the bottom third to cover it.

Press dough into apples to seal it around them. Scatter another heaping cup over the lower half of dough — onto the second layer of dough — and fold the top of dough over both layers to create a very stuffed letter fold. Press down on the dough to push out air pockets and to seal dough around apples. Roll dough into a bowl. Move dough in bowl so that the smooth side — without a seam — faces up. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with other piece of dough, using another bowl. Continue fermenting both doughs for about an hour, or until they have risen slightly and are very soft.

Oil two 8-inch round cake pans. Using as much dusting flour as needed, pat each dough half into a rough round shape. Try keeping smooth side intact on top. You won’t be able to deflate dough much now because of the apples. Slip dough into pans smooth side up and cover them well with plastic wrap. Let loaves proof for about 30 minutes, until they have crested their containers.

Immediately after shaping the breads, arrange an oven rack on the lower third position and preheat oven to 350F.

When loaves have risen over the edge of the container and won’t push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush each with a generous tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle them with a few tablespoons of sugar. Bake for 45-55 minutes total. After the first 40 minutes, switch the pans from side to side. Bake 5-15 minutes more. When loaves are well browned, remove them from oven, unmold and cool on a rack.

Pan de Calabaza (Sephardic

Pumpkin Bread)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 envelope instant yeast

1/3 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

About 3 3/4 cups bread flour, divided

2/3 cup warm water

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, cardamom, ginger and 3/4 cup of the flour. Whisk in warm water until yeast slurry is smooth. Ferment for 10-20 minutes, or until slurry begins to puff up slightly.

Whisk sugar, salt, oil, one egg and pumpkin puree into puffed yeast slurry. When mixture is well combined, stir in remaining 3 cups flour with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it onto your work surface. Knead it until well mixed, fairly smooth and firm. Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough. If dough is too firm, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. Dough should be light orange, firm, easy to knead and not at all sticky.

When dough is fully kneaded, set it in the cleaned, warmed bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough ferment about two to three hours, until it has tripled in size.

Oil two baking sheets. Divide the dough into two loaves of equal size, placing each on a baking sheet. Tent them well with plastic wrap.

Let loaves proof 60-90 minutes, until triple in size.

Thirty minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the upper third position. Remove racks above it. If both baking sheets won’t fit on one rack, place a rack below it, leaving room for bread to rise. Preheat oven to 350F. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt to use as a glaze.

When loaves have tripled and don’t push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush them with egg glaze. Bake loaves on individual baking sheets for 35-40 minutes. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the pans from top to bottom or from front to back so that breads brown evenly. Bake 15-20 minutes more. When loaves are very well browned, remove them from oven and cool on a rack.

Serve Up Something Different in 5765


Food is the centerpiece of every Jewish holiday. For Rosh Hashanah especially, our traditional foods are a kind of ritualistic prayer where we ask that the coming year be better than the last. During a time when are lives are weighed and measured, we dip the apple in honey and eat the head of a fish (or broiled cow tongue in certain Sephardic households) to ask for the next year to be sweet and prosperous. Every Rosh Hashanah you probably expect your mom’s famous roast, or the traditional honey cake, but why not make this year about trying new recipes with similar flavors. Sweet is the theme for this season and new cookbooks are varying the holiday fare by borrowing from other culinary cultures and serving up some traditional favorites with a twist. Before you gather around your table this year, check out these latest cookbook offerings and surprise your family and guests with something a little bit different.

It’s so easy to refer time and again to the family recipe book to create your Yom Tov menu, but it’s more exciting to bring other culinary traditions to your holiday table. Dispersed across the globe for centuries, Jews have adopted much of the cuisine of their host countries and incorporated local and available ingredients. Jewish cookbook queen, Joan Nathan, in her book, "Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Schoken, $29.95), has updated the recipes from her two classic books, 1982’s "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and 1997’s "The Jewish Holiday Baker," and invites you to prepare classic dishes from Jewish households all over the globe, making this year’s holiday a cross-cultural feast.

Right before the High Holidays, the bakery is always the last place you want to be shopping. This year, instead of taking a number and waiting in an endless line, opt for the simple pleasure of making your own challah. In her book, Nathan includes an authentic Moroccan family recipe for Pain Petri (challah) to spice up your holiday table.

For the main course, go with Persian Fesenjan, a chicken stew made with walnuts and pomegranates — another fruit traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the meal with all of the other symbolic foods. The many seeds of the pomegranate are a sign of fertility, and serving an entrée that incorporates its juice is an original way to further indulge in the seasonal fruit.

Pain Petri (Moroccan Challah)

Note: You can either make this by hand or using a food processor.

7-8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs plus 1 yolk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1 1/2 scant tablespoons (1 1/2 packages) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

Place 7 cups of flour in a huge bowl. Make a well in the center and place the sugar, three eggs, 1/3 cup of oil, salt and sesame and anise seeds in the well. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then add it to the well.

Using your hands, gradually work in the flour with the ingredients in the well. Add more flour as needed. When a medium-stiff dough is formed, knead on a wooden board for about 20 minutes.

Form the dough into a ball, turn it in a greased bowl to coat the surface and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes, or until doubled in size. Punch down and knead once more. Divide the dough into five pieces. Either shape each into a round ball or make a long piece of it and twist it into a spiral with the end of the dough at the high point in the center. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Remove the dough to the cookie sheet. Brush with the remaining egg yolk mixed with the tablespoon of oil and bake for 35-45 minutes.

Persian Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew)

One 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups walnuts, ground

1/3 cup hot water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons sugar

Brown the chicken in the oil and remove to drain on a paper towel. Brown the chopped onion in the same oil.

In another pan, brown the walnuts, stirring constantly, without using any shortening. When brown, add the onion. Then slowly add the hot water so that the mixture does not stick. It should not be too liquid — more like a paste. Then add the lemon juice, pomegranate juice, tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and sugar, stirring with a spoon. When well-mixed, add the chicken.

Bring the mixture just to the point of boiling (not a fast boil). Decrease to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the chicken is very tender, about 45 minutes. If the sauce is not thick enough, remove the chicken and boil the liquid down until the desired thickness is reached, stirring as it cooks.

For a holiday menu rich in fruit and vegetables, a vegetarian cookbook is a great source to draw from on Rosh Hashanah when on the hunt for new recipes. Try a soup with sweet fruits and vegetables to change up the first course. Vegetarian cookbook veteran Nava Atlas, in her new book "The Vegetarian Family Cookbook" (Broadway, $17.95), offers tasty recipes for the die-hard vegetarian or for anyone looking to enrich their diet with more fruits and vegetables. With the plethora of junk food at our fingertips, it is more tempting to reach for potato chips than carrot sticks to satisfy hunger. Inspired by a lack of healthy food choices for adults and children, Atlas compiled a cornucopia of wholesome meals and snacks for even the pickiest eaters. Her Creamy Butternut Squash and Apple Soup is a great starter for the Rosh Hashanah feast, or a fabulous meal by itself when opting for a lighter lunch after days of endless holiday eating.

Creamy Butternut Squash

and Apple Soup

1 large butternut squash

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1 large red onion, chopped

4 cups peeled, diced apple, any cooking variety

4 cups prepared vegetable broth, or 4 cups water with 1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 cups low-fat milk, rice milk, or soy milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Halve the squash lengthwise with a sharp knife and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place cut side up in a shallow baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Or, if you’d like a more roasted flavor, simply brush the squash halves with a little olive oil and leave uncovered. Either way, bake for 45-50 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until golden, eight to 10 minutes.

Add the apples, broth and spices. Bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer gently until the apples are soft, about 10 minutes.

In a food processor, puree the squash with 1/2 cup of the milk until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

Transfer the apple-onion mixture to the food processor and puree until completely smooth. Return to the soup pot and add the squash puree; stir together. Add the remaining milk, using a bit more if the puree is too thick.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cook over low heat until well heated through, five to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once or let the soup stand off the heat for one to two hours, then heat through as needed before serving.

Serves six.

Honey cake is a great way to end the meal, but Lise Stern’s "How To Keep Kosher" (Morrow, $24.95) offers a great variation you might want to serve after a light pareve or dairy lunch. The sponge honey cake is a tradition not to be forgotten, but Stern livens it up hers with some honey frosting and tops it with caramelized apples. Her creation is one of the many kosher recipes she features in her book which is primarily meant to educate and excite her readers about the fundamentals of kashrut, its origins and modern-day practices.

Honey Layer Cake With

Caramelized Apples

1 large egg

1 cup honey

1 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Oil for the pans

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray or lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

Combine the egg, honey, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until well blended.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a sifter. Sift half the flour into the honey mixture. On low speed, blend until fully incorporated. Sift in the remaining flour and blend in until smooth.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, until pale gold in color and a tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then remove and cool on racks.

When fully cool, spread Honey Cream Frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and on the top of the cake (not on the sides). To serve, slice into wedges and put on individual plates. Top each slice with a spoonful of Caramelized Apples (see recipe below).

Makes 12 servings.

Honey Cream Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature

Pinch salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Cream together the cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth, using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. Blend in the honey, then the confectioners’ sugar. The frosting should be of an easily spreadable consistency. If it seems too thin, add additional sifted confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Caramelized Apples

2 tablespoons salted butter

3 apples (preferably pink lady or gala), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add the apples and sauté for two minutes. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat, and simmer over low heat for five to 10 minutes, until the apples are softened but still hold their shape. Serve warm; the compote may be reheated.

If the thought of slicing into a rich cake is a bit unbearable after a long meal, opt instead to prepare a helping of Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits. Former actress and neophyte cookbook author Pamela Hensley Vincent compiles treasured family recipes in her new scrapbook cookbook, "The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook" (Overlook Press, $24.95). So much of our history is in our culinary heritage and Vincent offers a glimpse into the lives of her immediate family and the recipes for which they were famous. Yetta’s — short for Henrietta, Vincent’s maternal grandmother — stewed fruit is a light desert that fits neatly into the sweet holiday theme.

Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits

4 to 6 peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered

12 plums, pitted and quartered

12 apricots, pitted and quartered

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed

Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 limes)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup dark rum

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Put the peaches, plums and apricots into a pot. Add the cherries (whole & un-pitted). Add the water, lemon or lime juice, brown sugar, rum and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool. Then pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge.

Yields four to six cups.

Russian Emigre’s Tales of New World


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 ingredients."

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.

Writing Well Is the ‘Best Revenge’


It’s 7 p.m. on a recent Monday at Samuel French book store in Studio City, and Stephen Fife is hanging out, waiting for more people to show up for a reading of his new memoir, “Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life (And Has Been Killing Me Ever Since).”

The person responsible for promoting such events is abroad, he says, creating a publicity glitch that’s resulted in, well, hardly anyone turning out to the reading, save for eight friends and fans. It’s a fitting snafu, given that Fife’s hilariously caustic memoir covers everything that can go wrong with anything to do with the theater — and why he perseveres.

“Revenge” revolves around a 1998 staging of his acclaimed adaptation of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish classic, “God of Vengeance,” directed by his idol, the legendary Joseph Chaikin. The book recounts Fife’s misadventures during that Atlanta production — such as his frantic attempts to find free places to crash — between astute insights into the play, the American theater and his colorful past.

Fife, 51, describes growing up an “upper-West-Side-private-school Jew,” the proverbial “black sheep” of his privileged family. He recalls earning good reviews and no money for plays such as his Pinteresque Holocaust saga, “Mickey’s Home”; suffering criticism while adapting “Vengeance” for Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1992 and his unabashed envy of successful playwrights. (During the reading, he asks at least two people if they’ve read Donald Margulies’ adaptation of “Vengeance,” which — as he gleefully notes in his memoir — Chaikin disliked.)

In an era in which showbusiness autobiographies often present the author as hero (think Neil Simon’s “Rewrites”), Fife “carves out a niche for the less-than-gorgeous dramatists of the world,” according to American Theatre magazine. “[He] is unafraid to tell the unattractive truth from the worm’s eye view, to reveal his own schadenfreude, to swipe at colleagues for real and imagined slights.”

“Fife offers a dirty-thoughts-and-all self-portrait in extreme close-up, in the model of early Philip Roth,” another publication, Creative Loafing, said.

Looking artsily rumpled in black jeans and a T-shirt at the reading, the playwright comes off more like an affable, self-deprecating cynic; he smiles politely when a woman gushes, “You have wonderful, self-effacing humor, kind of Larry David-ish.”

Fife is less prickly than David, but he does take umbrage with American Theatre’s claim that his “Revenge” digs at people to get even.

He wrote the book for different reasons, he says during an interview in his sunny, cluttered Santa Monica apartment. He got the idea back in 1998 when, while reeling from a difficult divorce, he unexpectedly realized his 18-year-old dream of working with Chaikin.

“I had in mind a memoir that would deal with the actual experience of theater and would convey a visceral sense of dedicating yourself to an art form you love, regardless of whether you are successful,” he says.

Fife began scribbling notes during rehearsals of Asch’s 1905 drama, about a shtetl pimp who raises his daughter “purely” upstairs while getting rich off the brothel below. The inevitable production problems ensued: Fife says he was appalled, for example, when a promotional poster depicted a drawing of a naked woman dangling from a Star of David (to add insult to injury, the woman didn’t even look Jewish). Then, a community leader denounced the play as “an attack on Jewish businessmen” and the production hung in the balance until the leader attended a rehearsal and approved the show, Fife says.

Behind the scenes, the playwright continued to fight with his girlfriend, who had helped him find a place to stay in Atlanta but was chagrined when he refused to buy his host a thank-you gift.

OK, so he may have burned some bridges in Atlanta, and “Revenge’s” tell-all stories aren’t pretty, but then again, “Blood has to be spilled for comedy to be truly funny,” he says.

“People like to gloss over the nastier sides of things,” he adds. “But I wanted to present the truth about the journey of the playwright, warts and all.”

He doesn’t spare himself: “I think I come across as a pathetic character, for the most part,” he says. “I show my professional insecurities and my rocky history in my relationships, including a number of e-mails that were quite unflattering, in which my girlfriend speaks of me as a ‘constantly rebelling little boy.'”

The playwright appears to have made progress, since he currently shares his apartment with said girlfriend, now his “life partner,” and their 5-year-old daughter. He’s also become the literary director of a new Los Angeles area theater, Pacific Stages, whose debut production is his own black comedy about dating, “This is Not What I Ordered.” Thus far the production has had at least one crisis, a problem with an actor who, in Fife’s words, was “just mugging like crazy.”

So the theater is continuing to save his life, and to kill him.

“I have a play opening this week,” as he told participants at his reading. “So obviously, I’ve learned nothing.”

“This is Not What I Ordered” runs May 28-June 27 at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets, $20, call (323) 655-TKTS. “Revenge” readings are scheduled for June 6 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, (310) 822-8392; June 9 at Book Soup in West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and June 12 at Borders Books and Music in Hollywood, (310) 659-4045.


Excerpt from Stephen Fife’s "Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since":

Not that it was a pleasant thing to admit, but there comes a point when many of us stop being good sports and start wishing some ill-will on our more favored peers, no matter how talented they are. And Donald Margulies was a talented playwright, whose play "Sight Unseen" had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he had been dubbed the official "Jewish-American Playwright" in some press-sanctioned ceremony to which (as usual) I had not been invited. My own Jewish play "Mickey’s Home" had been beaten out several times by his plays, in one case actually getting knocked off a theater’s roster when a new play of his suddenly became available. (That theater’s artistic director, the very picture of WASP gentility, had actually said to me: "Well, you couldn’t expect us to do two Jewish plays in one season, could you? We have subscribers.")

But now Margulies had crossed the line, he had climbed into my wheelhouse and made it personal. Five years after my version of "God of Vengeance" had been produced at Playhouse 91 on New York’s upper East Side — receiving 17 rave reviews and selling out the last few weeks, despite losing our big-name star during rehearsal — I received a call from a literary associate at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, offering me 30 pieces of silver (alright, 20), to be on a panel discussing a production of The Donald Margulies version of "God of Vengeance."

I had put down the receiver and silently screamed at the playwright’s decibel (which not even dogs can hear) and then phoned a friend of mine who worked at Long Wharf. She had smuggled out a script, meeting me in the parking lot of a large shopping center, where I had to read the 200-plus page script on the spot, as if I was Julius Rosenberg memorizing state secrets. In the end, that production was canceled (another 20 pieces of silver down the drain), but his version was out there, hanging over my head. So what if it had 25 characters and included a full klezmer concert? I mean, he was Donald Margulies, the darling of regional theater, the state-sanctioned "Jewish American Playwright" — so what chance did my script have, right? Except Joe Chaikin liked my version better. Yeah. He loved my version, and he was going to direct it. The Joe Chaikin.

‘Dance’s’ Conflict Is Center Stage


In Mirra Bank’s unflinching documentary, “The Last Dance,” legendary children’s author Maurice Sendak passionately describes the Holocaust piece he hopes to create with members of the acrobatically virtuostic Pilobolus Dance Company. He envisions a train station, a menacing figure and refugees. He imagines a double bill with the children’s opera, “Brundibar,” once performed at Terezin. “It’s [my] loyalty to all the dead,” said the 75-year-old author (“Where the Wild Things Are”), who lost numerous relatives in the Holocaust.

During such conversations, Pilobolus’ three artistic directors squirm uncomfortably. “I just don’t find waiting around at the train station … very interesting,” the troupe’s Jonathan Wolken said. The directors suggest the story shouldn’t be concrete but should evolve through improvisation.

“But I’m the storyteller,” Sendak retorts at one point.

The tense moment is one of many Bank captured after Pilobolus members invited Sendak and his partner, writer-director Arthur Yorinks, to become their first outside collaborators in 1998.

Speaking by telephone from his Connecticut home, the author and set designer told The Journal he agreed, in part, because he loves collaborating with dancers and Pilobolus’ work isn’t unlike his own. “Their playful, almost shameful use of the body reminds me of babies and children,” he said.

But as the partnership got underway, Bank captured the stormy, often hilarious clash of egos, as well as the vibrant creative process. In the film, the collaborators argue about the piece’s title, whether it should specifically reference the Holocaust or involve nudity. “Those who went to the ovens were stripped naked,” Sendak said of the nudity.

“It’s a kind of stupid striptease,” Wolken said.

The edgy, cinema verite style film joins a budding subgenre of movies, including Matthew David’s 1998 documentary, “Dancemaker,” that explore the sometimes prickly choreographic process.

Looking back on the Pilobolus partnership — captured by Bank’s handheld digital camera — Sendak said he was “baffled by their tenacity, and I’m sure they’d say the same of me.

“It was unpleasant,” he said of the tension. “I don’t like getting angry or in an emotional condition, because the Holocaust subject was emotional enough.”

Wolken, who also lost family in the camps, sees things differently. “Flying sparks can vulcanize a project,” he told The Journal. “And Maurice loves a good argument. It energizes him. If he doesn’t have one, he manufactures it.”

“The Last Dance” began when Bank, an acclaimed PBS filmmaker whose work often involves Jewish themes, attended a Pilobolus performance in summer 1998. “I asked [artistic director] Michael Tracy what the company was doing next, and he said it would be a dark, Eastern European, possibly Holocaust-driven Grimm’s fairy tale with Maurice Sendak,” she recalled. “I said, ‘My God, that sounds like a film.'”

Over the next eight months, Bank videotaped 125 hours of the collaboration, which sometimes seemed destined for failure. After one particularly turbulent session, Sendak dejectedly told Bank he felt “bumped off the rails.” At 11 p.m. that night, he called her and threatened to quit.

“I think Maurice thought he could control the process more than he did,” Bank said. Of why Wolken became his primary antagonist, she said, “within Pilobolus, his role is often that of provocateur.”

The filmmaker found the discord “gut wrenching. I felt deeply connected to everyone involved,” she said. “I also had a great deal personally invested in the project, and there were a number of times I thought it might fall apart.”

Instead, the tense partnership eventually yielded a powerful dance piece, “A Selection,” which received rave reviews in New York in 1999.

Bank’s documentary also received rave reviews, not just from the critics but from the protagonists involved. “However, I cringed the first two or three times I saw it,” Sendak said. “I didn’t like to see myself carrying on like that. I became the big … noisy Jew and Jonathan became the uptight, ‘No, I don’t want to go there,’ Jew.”

Wolken, for his part, called “The Last Dance” “a great film. But it presents just a narrow slice of what went on. In a good movie, you have to have conflict, and Mirra searched for it. As a good filmmaker, she at times manufactured it.”

Both Sendak and Wolken told The Journal they are old friends, which isn’t depicted in the movie. They said they’d collaborate again in an instant. But Bank isn’t so sure. “Everyone was proud of the dance piece they created, but they also may never work again,” she said. “Which is why I called the film, ‘The Last Dance.'”

The film opens April 24 at the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles, coinciding with Pilobolus’ performance of different works at the Ahmanson May 2 and 4. Bank and Pilobolus members will appear for a discussion after the “Last Dance” screening at noon on May 3. For information, call (323) 461-2020. n

7 Days in the Arts


2/SATURDAY

Monique Schwartz has people talkin’ about our mommas. No need to organize a posse though. This is actually kind of Schwartz’s way of doing that herself — to analyze and combat stereotypical depictions of Jewish mothers in film. Her documentary “Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema” screens today as part of the Laemmle’s “Bagels and Docs: A Jewish Documentary Series.”

10 a.m. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, including other screening dates and times, call (323) 848-3500 or visit www.laemmle.com.

The wacky duo is at it again, only this time they’re being sponsored by Muslims. Thanks to the Iranian Muslim Association of North America (IMAN), the comedy duo of Rabbi Bob Alper and Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed continue their goal of “building bridges in troubled times through laughter,” tonight at IMAN Cultural Center.

7:30 p.m. $18 (in advance), $20 (at the door). IMAN Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 202-8181.

3/SUNDAY

It’s been 10 years since “The Quarrel” hit theaters, and this morning, the Sunset 5 hosts a special screening of the film about two old friends reunited after the Holocaust and the differences and disagreements that still separate them. Following the screening, the film’s writer-producer David Brandes moderates a discussion on “Good and Evil in Islam and Judaism” between Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dr. Khaled M. Abou Fadl. Proceeds benefit The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

10 a.m. $12 (general), $118 (sponsors). Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 556-5639.

Panic grips your heart as you realize you only have only 27 days left till Chanukah. We know, that lunar calendar’ll get ya every time. But fret not, dear readers. For today is the Contemporary Crafts Market. Jewish trinkets and tchochkes are yours for the buying at this gift extravaganza. So quit the kvetching and head on down.

Nov. 1-3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. $6 (adults), free (children 12 and under). Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.

4/MONDAY

We know there’s a pole-vaulting joke in here somewhere, but we’re pretty sure the folks involved in the two one-act plays that make up “Folk and Race” have got that covered. So instead, here are the basics: Act One is the dramatic interpretation. It’s a play about a Jewish pole vaulter who hides his religion to gain a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team after his better is kicked off for being Jewish. And Act Two is a parody of Act One, a la Mel Brooks. Take the leap and check it out.

8 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19. $12. The Theatre District at the Cast, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-5862.

5/TUESDAY

Bursting with fruit flavor is Jewish artist Rebecca Newman’s latest exhibition “Between the Branches.” The 17 new drawings continue her study of Southern California tropical tree species, everything from bananas to bougainvillea. They’re on display now at TAG, The Artists’ Gallery.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), through Nov. 9. TAG, The Artists’ Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.

6/WEDNESDAY

Things we can learn from (818), a non-profit “dedicated to furthering the education, production and distribution of filmmaking in the San Fernando Valley”: 1. “Valley film” is not a euphemism for porn. 2. The Valley has already made important contributions to the world of film. 3. It’s a worthwhile trip over the hill this week for the Valley Film Festival, screening 16 films, including four from Valley residents and one from Israel, called “Raging Dove.”

Nov. 1-7. El Portal Theatre, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For information call, (818) 754-8222 or visit www.valleyfilmfest.com.

7/THURSDAY

The UJ’s series “In Their Own Words: Conversations With Writers” continues tonight when Journal arts and entertainment editor Naomi Pfefferman interviews author Dara Horn. Horn will discuss her first novel “In the Image,” a story that examines the nature of good and evil, and the presence of God.

7 p.m. $15. University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1546.

8/FRIDAY

So you think the ballet “The Nutcracker” just conjures up Christmasy images of Sugar Plum Fairies. Not if Akiva Talmi, the kibbutz-bred producer of the esteemed Moscow Ballet, has his way. He pushed his ballet to informally dedicate its 2002 season to” celebrating the contributions of Jewish cultural heroes of the former Soviet Union,” who had to downplay their heritage to succeed back in the U.S.S.R.

Nov. 7-9, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.,Long Beach. (213) 480-3232.

Spinning a Jewish Web


When preschool teacher Sylvia Rouss noticed a lack of children’s literature about Judaism, she did something about it: she wrote the books herself. Rouss, who teaches at Stephen S. Wise Temple, is the author of the popular "Sammy Spider" series, which are widely used in Jewish schools around the country.

"I use the spider as a vehicle to teach young children about Jewish holidays and Israel," said the Tarzana resident. In her latest book, "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel" ($6.95, Kar-Ben Publishing), which was released in July, Sammy tags along when the family he lives with makes a special trip to the Holy Land. "It is very hard to find any books for young children on topic of Israel," Rouss said. "We try to teach [children about Israel] every year because it is so important at a Jewish school."

Earlier, when Rouss completed "Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah" (Kar-Ben Publishing, 1993) she was asked to create a series around her crawling character. It wasn’t long before the young spider experienced Passover (1995), Rosh Hashana (1996), Shabbat (1998), Tu B’Shevat (2000) and Purim (2000). While "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel," is the arachnid’s seventh adventure, Rouss has written numerous other books as well as two anthologies and two activity books.

Having traveled to the Jewish homeland every year for the last 27 years, Rouss has developed a strong connection to the country. As such, she just wrote a new book for older children called "Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook," which is about a young girl living in Israel. The story deals with terrorism through the eyes of a child. Rouss is quick to point out the importance of going to Israel during times like these. "When someone’s sick, you make a point of visiting them," she noted.

In addition to the "Sammy" books, Rouss recently released a preschool rhyming book called "The Littlest Candlesticks" ($14.95, Pitspopany Press).

Meet Sylvia Rouss as she gives public readings of her three most recent works on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 10 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, (626) 967-3656; and Sunday, Nov. 24, 11:30 a.m. at Pages Books for Children, 18399 Ventura Blvd., No. 15, Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.

‘Literati MeetsGlitterati’


"Will Kevin be there?" my friend Jodi asked when I invited her to my upcoming book party at Dutton’s.

Oh, no, I thought. Not again.

It used to be that literary launch parties were about books, not boys. They were a chance for like-minded lit lovers to commune amid dusty bookshelves, to meet the author and — in the benighted days before signed editions sold for big bucks on eBay — snag a personalized copy for posterity.

But at the Dutton’s gathering for my first book, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," I watched with amazement as junior high gender jockeying took centerstage: awkward flirtations, too-loud laughter, spats over who’d spotted the buxom brunette "first." Could my book’s subject matter — my adolescent diaries — have somehow inspired this regressive behavior?

After all, at an event reputed to be a bastion of bohemia, my normally low-key gal pals were suddenly sporting glossy lipstick and push-up bras, while my cool-as-a-cucumber guy friends frantically tossed out paper scraps, like pieces of confetti, scrawled with phone numbers. Two weeks later, when "Stick Figure" made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list, four pairs of friends called to say — squeal! — congratulations before reporting that they’d begun — squeal! squeal! — dating.

At the time, I believed both the best-seller status and the hookups had been a fluke.

Then I started telling folks about this month’s Dutton’s party for my latest book, "Inside the Cult of Kibu." It wasn’t just Jodi who inquired about Kevin’s attendance. It was Kevin who pressed me about Lisa’s R.S.V.P., and Lisa who coyly asked if David would be "in town" that evening. David, in turn, wanted to know if Amy planned to show up sans "the ornery boyfriend she’d been on the rocks with" while Amy more tactfully wondered whether Michael had "bought the book yet."

Finally, I confronted my friends. "This is a publishing party!" I reminded them. "If you want me to set you up, I’m happy to play yenta. You two can grab a latte. Alone."

Not so, they insisted. Between work and Whole Foods, Tae Bo and tennis night, no one seems able to program a Palm with individual coffee dates. In our time-compressed lives, we’ve reduced reading to Internet hyperlinks and compacted chemistry into quickie first-second impressions.

Embodying the cliche about judging a book by its cover, we’ve bought into the nifty online profile, the book party as gawking event. But maybe we’re overlooking the "book" itself.

I tried this logic on my friends. Unimpressed, they replied with two words: speed dating.

"All your eligible single friends will be in the same room for an hour — and they’re prescreened by you!"

Before I could utter, "Oy vey," the suggestions came pouring in: "You should send out an Evite so we can see who’s coming." "Maybe you should get JDate to sponsor the event." And the perennial Jewish girl’s lament: "Are you sure you want to have it in the courtyard? Our hair might frizz in the humid nighttime air."

The more I insisted that this wasn’t a meat market, the more people became noncommittal about attending. "We’re marking the occasion of my publication! This isn’t a primping-fest!" I whined before announcing that I wouldn’t stand for a "literati meets glitterati" party.

Predictably, the number of takers dwindled. Soon my earnestness turned to shameless self-promotion: Hoping that the book’s merits would serve as incentive, I quoted reviews calling it "hilarious" and "gossipy" and recited the blurb declaring that it "deserves a place on the bookshelf right next to that other classic of digital bubble-popping, Michael Lewis’ ‘The New New Thing.’"

But by week’s end, many had deleted "Lori’s Reading" from their Outlook and replaced it with "Yoga Works." As my friend, Mike, put it, "Where else can you find so many beautiful bodies in one place?"

Then came the missive from my editor. Despite my radio appearances, he admonished, "No one can get more bodies into the room than the author!!!!" His desperation was apparent in those four consecutive exclamation marks, a punctuation faux pas he’d never have allowed in my manuscript.

I remembered that ubiquitous childhood nightmare of having no one show up at your birthday party. The adult version felt equally mortifying: reading in a huge public space to a mere four people, two of whom are deaf, two of whom are your parents.

In the service of preserving both my self-esteem and the good graces of my publishing house, I decided to cut a Faustian bargain: I would steal those beautiful bodies from Yoga Works.

Out went an e-mail titled, "Multitasking With Menshes." I touted Dutton’s as the hottest venue for meeting attractive, quality, like-minded mates. I name-dropped hipper-than-thou hunky young writers who’d read at the celebrated book venue, capitalized the phrase "speed dating" and even admitted that I’d met Mitch, a cute chemist I dated several years ago for nine months, at another friend’s Dutton’s signing. (So what if Mitch turned out to be gay?)

Part of me feels a tinge of disappointment that some will buy my book as no more than a soulmate lottery ticket. The other part is grateful that people will come to my party at all. Then again, I now have far more pressing problems to deal with. Like, what the heck should I wear?

Three Little Words


When the book came in the mail, I lifted it from the Amazon box and gazed at it with pride. There on the cover were three little words that warmed my heart: By Laura Levine.

I’ve been a professional writer for more than 35 years, and never have three words meant so much to me.

Growing up in a Jewish home filled with books, I knew early on I wanted to be a writer like P.G. Wodehouse, Sam Levenson or my all-time favorite — Agatha Christie. I’d been a rabid Agatha Christie fan ever since I was 10, when my Uncle Hymie introduced me to her. An Orthodox Jew and talmudic scholar, my uncle was the last person you’d expect to curl up with Miss Marple. But that he did. And he passed on his love of Agatha Christie to me.

Someday, I vowed, I’d have my name on the cover of a book, just like my beloved Agatha.

But I never did write that novel. Not right away. When I first started out, I was an advertising copywriter, a fairly anonymous position. No “written by” credits on commercials. And more often than not, after the clients got through tinkering with my copy, I barely recognized it anyway.

The clients loved to tinker. I remember spending months waiting for the honchos at General Mills to decide whether Count Chocula and Frankenberry — two cereal characters I’d created for them — were “monstrously delicious” or “ghoulishly good.” More months were spent debating whether Count Chocula should have fangs or more conventional orthodontia. (The fangs lost.)

Eventually, I got tired of writing stories that ended in the words “void where prohibited by law,” and decided to give showbiz a try. After churning out what seemed like dozens of spec scripts, I finally wrote one that sold — to “Laverne & Shirley.” For days, I drove around town singing the theme song to that show. (Extra credit for those of you who remember that it started: “Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer, Incorporated!”)

So there I was, happy as a clam, never dreaming that when I showed up for the taping of my script, there’d be only two of my original jokes left. That’s the way it works in television. Rewriting is the name of the game. In my 18 years in sitcoms, I considered myself lucky if 60 percent of any given script with my name on it was actually written by me.

At least with “Laverne & Shirley,” my script got ripped to shreds from afar. But when you’re on staff, the process is far more painful. You have to sit there and watch them eviscerate your script, trying not to strangle the producer as, one by one, your beloved jokes bite the dust.

No, staff writing is not exactly a ride in the country. (Unless the country you’re riding in is Afghanistan.) The writers’ rooms I worked in were usually dank holes in the bowels of the studios, with frayed carpeting and fearless battalions of mice rattling around in the walls, just waiting to grab a bite of your breakfast bagel.

Often I was the only woman in the room. And there were always a few guys on staff, Type-A barracudas, who labored under the mistaken notion that the louder they shouted out their jokes, the funnier they would be. How, I asked myself, could anyone think with all that shouting going on?

Sometimes, when we were struggling over a joke at two in the morning, I’d find myself thinking of Agatha Christie. I’d once read that she used to plot out her stories taking long walks on the moors. I wanted to take long walks on the moors. So what if I didn’t exactly know what a moor was? I wanted to be on one! I wanted to be anywhere but that rathole of a writers’ room.

Eventually, I got my wish. When I reached the stage in life where my gray hairs outnumbered my writing credits, the phone stopped ringing. I was old (“old” being defined in Hollywood as anyone over 27). I was a showbiz “untouchable,” and I didn’t mind a bit. At last I was free to write in silence.

Once again, I remembered Agatha. Why not try writing a mystery? And so I did. Just like Agatha, I plotted it out taking long walks. I strolled along Westwood Boulevard, past the bagel shop and the copy shop and Dr. Babajanian’s painless dentistry offices. OK, so it wasn’t the moors, but at last, I could hear myself think.

I found an agent who liked my book and an editor who published it. And what’s more, they didn’t change a thing. Oh, maybe a word here and there. But otherwise, it was just as I’d written it. And now, here it was in my hand, its bright pink cover beaming up at me. With those three little words I’d often dreamed of: By Laura Levine.

After 35 years, at last they were true.

Shedding Some Light


"Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, "Everything Is Illuminated" has garnered rave reviews everywhere, from The New York Times to Esquire, with front jacket quotes by Russell Banks, Nathan Englander and mentor Joyce Carol Oates; it has even been optioned for a movie by actor Liev Schrieber’s prodction company.

Foer, a 25-year-old Princeton graduate, turned his short, unsuccessful trip to the Ukraine, where he searched for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust, into a bizarre fictional account of the search for a woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. The novel, whose narrator is uncoincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer, is interwoven with the hysterical correspondence from his language-mangling translator, Alexander Perchov, and tales of their trip around Ukraine with his narcoleptic grandfather, and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

With his silver-rimmed glasses and a slightly sardonic smile, Foer seems less like the literary wunderkind of the moment, and more like the really, really, really smart Jewish guy from your high school class who might not have gone to the prom because he was working on his science project. Actually, Foer had thought of "Illuminated" as a "project" the whole time he was working on it.

"I never used the words book or novel. I’m still not comfortable with calling myself a writer," he told The Journal last week after he appeared at The Los Angeles Times Book Fair.

Growing up the middle of three brothers, Foer was a member of the Conservative Addis Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He did the weekly Hebrew school thing avec bar mitzvah, albeit reluctantly. "I didn’t really think about [my Judaism]."

"It was the kind of experience that didn’t reveal itself until much later," he said.

In the process of researching and writing the book, Foer — the author, not the narrator — discovered his strong ties to his roots. "I feel more connected to the past," he said. "In part because I did it on my own terms — it was very liberating, not constraining." The book helped him "make something personal … to depart from tradition."

Indeed , the "historical" parts of the book, in the late 18th century Ukranian shtetl Trachimbrod, are more irreverent than traditional.

Has this offended anyone?

"It’s amazing how flexible Jews are. It’s understood that it’s a joke. I knew I was being true, the way I felt things, and there must be some good in that. I never made of or deflated anything," he said. "The Bible is about people who depart. That’s what Judaism is about."

The acclaim of his book hasn’t fazed him. Of course, it might just be that he’s used to it. Foer’s first book was as the editor of anthology of fiction, "A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell" and he’s already at work on is second novel, the story of a New York man who kept diaries during the Holocaust but was overshadowed by Anne Frank.

With the apparent success of "Illuminated" — it reportedly pulled in almost half a million dollars in a book house bidding war — Foer said that he feels more isolated. "People didn’t want to talk about the book," he says of his close friends and family. His life hasn’t changed much because the book has "nothing to do with real, fundamental substance."

Oddly enough, of all the glowing reviews he’s received, he say the one that means the most to him is from The Forward, calling it "The Century’s First Great American Jewish Novel."

"The Great American Jewish Novel has been, until now, a 20th-century convention, and with the exception of Henry Roth, its claimants have been primarily first-generation Americans whose fiction burst into a postwar literary landscape…." The review discusses Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and says that "Illuminated" "at once recalls the literary tradition of these novels and invents something all its own."

What that something is, isn’t entirely always clear, concise or pretty, but in the end, perhaps it reveals the most about Foer, both the author and the character.

He used this device of calling the narrator himself because, "It’s the way it had to be. I know the story I wanted to tell, and using myself was the key to get it."

But he isn’t sorry.

"In retrospect, it made me vulnerable."

An Impostor Survivor


In the 1948 film "Gentleman’s Agreement," Phil Green, changing his last name to Greenberg, passes as a Jew in order to write a searing exposé of anti-Semitism. Over the course of the film, a strange thing starts happening: By merely passing as a Jew, Green starts identifying as one. He forgets the line between fact and fiction, between the act and the reality; he begins to believe his own charade.

We might wonder: What if Green spent years, instead of weeks, masquerading as a Jew? What if he spent a good portion of his life persuading others that not only was he Jewish, but he had survived one of the most tragic chapters of Jewish history? The quandary is rich with implications; it asks us to grapple with the power of suggestion and the elusiveness of memory. Is it possible, after all, to construct a series of memories and then believe them, to convince ourselves that we are what we think we are?

Such queries are not as hypothetical as one might imagine. In 1997, Binjamin Wilkomirski (aka Bruno Doeseker) arrived in New York to read from his prizewinning book "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood" and to raise money for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "Fragments," lauded by everyone from college professors to BBC critics to Rosie O’Donnell, vividly recounted Wilkomirski’s past as a child survivor of the Holocaust.

One year later, Wilkomirski was accused of being a Swiss-born gentile impostor. When German novelist Daniel Ganzfried put forth documentary evidence that "Fragments" was a work of fiction, the public was left in various states of belief and disbelief. Some denounced Wilkomirski as a crafty fraud. Others refused to abdicate their faith in either the writer or his tragic tale.

Still others, including Blake Eskin, felt personally affected by the news. After discovering that the author of "Fragments" shared his maternal family’s surname, Eskin’s family had embraced Wilkomirski as a long-lost relative from the town of Riga, in Latvia. Though never quite sure where this stranger fit into the family tree, Eskin’s mother, and Binjamin himself, remained confident that "all the Wilkomirskis are somehow connected." The source of this confidence? "There’s a feeling," Binjamin would say.

It’s a feeling that Eskin recounts in "A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski," published early this year. Well- researched and meticulously detailed — sometimes a bit too detailed — this is a book that tells a rich, emotional story in the least emotional of tones. Part memoir, part family history, part mystery and part expose, "A Life in Pieces" establishes, ironically enough, what the facts of Binjamin’s life never could: a link between the faux-Holocaust survivor’s past and Eskin’s own.

"If he really was my cousin," Eskin writes, "I would have a personal connection to my family’s European past." But even though Binjamin turns out not to be his cousin (or even, evidence suggests, a survivor), what Eskin gains, in the end — on journeys between New York, Washington, D.C., Latvia and Israel — is exactly this personal connection to his Eastern European Jewish roots. What, after all, is the shtetl to American Jews? A mythical memory of sorts, a piece of history over which they are told to feel ownership — even when America is more theirs than is Eastern Europe. In visiting this "vanished world," in confronting the ghosts of his family’s past, Eskin, a secular Jew, is, in a visceral sense, able to trace the line between his family’s past and his own present. He comes to possess his past in a way that few of us, looking at withered photos of the "Old World," ever do.

Such is the memoir within "A Life in Pieces"; the mystery of Binjamin himself is its drama. Personal narratives by survivors are sacred because they do what facts and figures cannot: turn the abstract idea of "6 million" into living, breathing souls.

"Fragments" was not the first such survivor narrative to be discredited; Eskin writes of several others that were eventually proved more fiction that fact. But the case of Binjamin hit a nerve, partly because more than just a narrative, Binjamin — accused of faking the kink in his (professionally curled) hair and even the Yiddish lilt in his voice — constructed an entire faux identity.

It was an identity that many, including Eskin’s own mother and numerous child survivors, were loath to relinquish. What does it mean, Eskin implies, to believe Binjamin, and what does it mean to disbelieve him?

Believing Binjamin means attributing the inconsistencies and hazy facts of his story to the messiness of memory. It means subscribing to an ultra-postmodern view of history: Even if Wilkomirski’s story does not hold water, it may be no more false than many historical accounts. Since we cannot know about the past for sure, this view proposes, fiction is as true as history — or, in a more cynical sense, history is as false as fiction. "The reader was always free to conceive of my book either as literature or as a personal document," Binjamin declared. Professors of Holocaust studies heeded his words and continued teaching "Fragments," in essence asserting that the line between literature and history is not easy to discern.

Believing Binjamin means believing what Freud, on abandoning the seduction theory, did not: that memories "recovered" with the help of a psychiatrist — as Binjamin’s were — are always valid. It means discounting the work of doctors like Elizabeth Loftus, who successfully planted false childhood memories, of joy and pain, in her experiment subjects.

Disbelieving Binjamin, however, means so much more than believing him. It means envisioning memory as an active muscle, capable of fabricating its own past. Binjamin, it seems, used the Holocaust as a metaphor for the traumas of his life: The bogus characters in his memoir may correspond, Eskin tells us, to actual figures from his past. Whether Binjamin’s identification with the Holocaust was conscious or unconscious we’ll never know, but in many ways Binjamin simply took to extremes the kind of Holocaust empathy that our culture promotes.

Enter the Holocaust Museum in Washington and you’ll receive your passport, an identity that you adopt for the course of your visit. Attend a bat mitzvah and you’ll discover "twinning," by which the celebrant shares her day with a particular Holocaust victim. America, at least, often asks us to feel like survivors.

Disbelieving Binjamin, too, means affirming truth as a virtue and rejecting the notion that the Holocaust, and history more generally, are unknowable. It means recognizing that faux survivor memoirs — works of "faction," which blend fact and fiction — are the Holocaust denier’s ideal target. It means validating the pain of actual survivors, especially child survivors whose memories, though fragmentary, have truth on their side.

"After years of investigating and pondering the author of ‘Fragments,’ I know little about him," Eskin concludes in "A Life in Pieces." Reading his book, we crave a neat solution to the mystery of Binjamin; we are desperate for a glimpse of the true essence of this man. Eskin denies us it. In the end, his work is testament to the bottomless pit that we call "identity"; it reminds us that knowing another is like truly knowing the past: Both have immense complexities — and immense rewards.