Five books you should read this summer

Among the most emblematic figures to emerge in Southern California in the 1960s was Sister Mary Corita, a “rebel nun” whose exuberant artwork captured the spirit of that lively era. Her story is told with both compassion and critical skill by biographer April Dammann in “Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography.” (Angel City Press), a sumptuous but scholarly book that allows us to see in glorious detail how Kent’s artwork served her spiritual calling and, at the same time, “shook up an art establishment that didn’t quite know what to do with a nun’s bold interpretation of her society.”  Perhaps best known for her iconic “LOVE” stamp, Kent continued to make and teach art long after leaving her religious order and “evolved to represent a subversive homage to mass media.” April Dammann will present her new book at 6:30 p.m. on June 2 at Diesel, A Bookstore, at the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Suite 33, Santa Monica.


A year after graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street and over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries — everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life. 

In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a ponytail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle. This was as close as I would ever come to fulfilling my parents’ dreams of my becoming a lawyer. Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book-writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I’m not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

I graduated summa cum laude and this improved my profile with Mama and Papa, but when I spoke to them it was understood that I was still a disappointment. Because I was often sick and runny-nosed as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure. That term made it from her lips into the overblown manuscript of a novel I was typing up in my spare time, one whose opening chapter was about to be rejected by the important writing program at the University of Iowa, letting me know that my parents weren’t the only ones to think that I was nothing.

[Read a Q&A with the author here]

Realizing that I was never going to amount to much, my mother, working her connections as only a Soviet Jewish mama can, got me a job as a “staff writer” at an immigrant resettlement agency downtown, which involved maybe thirty minutes of work per year, mostly proofing brochures teaching newly arrived Russians the wonders of deodorant, the dangers of AIDS, and the subtle satisfaction of not getting totally drunk at some American party.

In the meantime, the Russian members of our office team and I got totally drunk at some American party. Eventually we were all laid off, but before that happened I wrote and rewrote great chunks of my first novel and learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive, the name of which is, if I recall correctly, the Blarney Stone. I’d lie there on top of my office desk at 2:00 p.m., letting out proud Hibernian cabbage farts, my mind dazed with high romantic feeling. The mailbox of my parents sturdy colonial in Little Neck, Queens, continued to bulge with the remnants of their American dream for me, the pretty brochures from graduate school dropping in quality from Harvard Law School to Fordham Law School to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (sort of like law school, but not really) to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning and finally to the most frightening prospect for any immigrant family, the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Iowa.

“But what kind of profession is this, writer?” my mother would ask. “You want to be this?”

I want to be this.

Excerpted from “Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Six million reasons I don’t like the new Holocaust book

I admit it. I dropped the ball on the story about the new remember-the-Holocaust-by-printing-the-word-Jew-six-million-times book. I saw it sitting in a veteran Jewish journalist’s office a week ago, but forgot to bring it up to my fellow JTA editors.

And then I look at the front page of the Times on Sunday and there it is.

The truth is, when I first looked through it, I couldn’t get past wondering about the copy editor. Did he/she have the easiest or hardest job in the world?

But thinking about it more later, the project rubbed me the wrong way. And my uneasiness only increased after reading the author — maybe creator is the better word — explain the project to the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren.

“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be something of a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.

“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” Mr. Chernofsky continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”

I have no major quibble with seeing this book as a testament to how Nazis looked at the Jews. But for the same reason that it might work on that level, it strikes me as a terrible form of memorialization, especially since most of Hitler’s Jewish victims are not nameless.

Rudoren’s story went right to my next thought — Yad Vashem and it database of victims:

While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 1/2 feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”

Clearly this project works for some folks. According to the Times, the ADL’s Abe Foxman lined up a few donors to buy 3,000 copies to send around.

“When he brought me this book I said, ‘Wow, wow, it makes it so real,’” Foxman reportedly said. “It’s haunting.” (OK, I’m a little hurt about not being on Abe’s comp list, but I promise that has nothing to do with this post.)

But still, I just don’t see it. The Nazis may have indeed murdered our people en masse, but that’s no reason for us to play along. We have 4.3 million actual names. I’d rather see them put in a book and have people ruminate on that.

Michael Berenbaum review: Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).

The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.

Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.

The book’s thesis is simple; Zionism has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, it has produced a vibrant, vital, innovative, creative imaginative, prosperous, diverse society that is throbbing with life, and yet its successes have come at a tragic cost and Zionism’s future, even after 65 years of Israeli independence, is uncertain — the neighborhood is dangerous in new and perplexing ways. How Israel has managed to resolve its myriad problems in the past is no guarantor of future success.

Zionism has achieved so much, and yet not its stated mission, which is to end Jewish vulnerability, to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, to normalize the Jewish condition. It might not have even achieved independence, as Israel lives  in a globalizing world that is increasingly interdependent.

A word on Shavit’s methodology: He has neither written a history of Israel nor a chronicle of its wars and woes, although those can be found in the book. Instead, he has chosen 16 epochs in Israeli life, beginning with the arrival of his great grandfather in 1897, to portray the struggles of each generation. Four deal with the first 50 years of the Zionist enterprise, the birth of the Zionists’ movement and Zionism’s vision “for a people without a land, a land without a people.” He understands what his great grandfather saw and what he did not see — could not see. He takes his readers into the swamps as they were being drained, into the kibbutz as it was being formed, into the settlement of the land and its cultivation in the orange groves of Rehovot. He explores the creation of the Masada myth and the oath: “Masada shall not fall again.”

Shavit does not give his readers a history of the War of Independence, but chronicles in one chapter the struggle for Lydda 1948, which was first published in the New Yorker. From there, he grapples with the absorption of immigrants and the great project of Dimona, which sought to give Israel the security, the normalcy for which it so longed. He is careful not to arouse the censors’ ire, and tells his readers only the details that have been published in the West. He avoids dealing directly with the epic wars of 1967 and 1973, and with the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but rather with its aftermath of settlement, occupation and peace, and then focuses on contemporary challenges.

In each chapter, Shavit interviews key historical figures. An unidentified engineer describes his role and the role of his colleagues in creating Israel’s nuclear umbrella; Aryeh Deri tells his story of the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin and Amos Oz are interviewed about the peace process. Shavit listens attentively, asks the most poignant of questions, researches comprehensively and reflects deeply. He comes to listen and to probe; he leaves to consider and to absorb, to reflect and to write. He goes to Israel’s bars and discothèques to explore their hedonistic, individualistic culture; he meets with Israeli entrepreneurs and bankers and with those fighting for social justice against the unrestrained free market forces that have magnified class distinctions and shattered the social justice contract of Israel.  He meets with farmers and industrialists, generals and intelligence chieftains.

And he meets with Israeli Arabs to hear their story, to learn of their tragedy.

He sees the paradoxes of contemporary Israel and is willing to confront them: In Shavit’s writing, the commonplace divide between hawk and dove seems shallow. Right and Left are seen as mirror images of one another. Simple formulas: “If only we annexed [or withdrew] from the territories, there would be peace.” Mutual recriminations: “Our dead have died because of their illusions of greater Israel [or that peace was possible].” Jewish extremism and Muslim fanaticism have fed one another, nourished one another and played into the hands of the other. They may even be allied with one another, seeking a confrontation that will result in the other’s demise. Grappling with the 1967 war — a war that is still being waged — will not protect the achievements of 1948, because that war, too, is also ongoing.

Shavit avoids simple characterization: He sees the occupation in all its horror, the expulsion of 1948 in all its indignity, yet he is under no illusions that peace is readily achievable, even with withdrawal even as he understands its urgency all too well. He believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to the Jewish people. And while he cannot accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s sense of himself as the Winston Churchill of 2013, he believes that the Prime Minister understands the threat, even as he may be contributing to it by not acting more robustly on the Palestinian front and further isolating Israel. Shavit understands that the threats of disintegrating states and non-state actors are very different from the armies that attacked, or threatened to attack Israel, in the past. We cannot fight the past wars to win the next.

Shavit is hard on Israel’s political leadership, a leadership unequal to its task, unworthy of the nation’s past. The more I read Shavit, the more I recalled a remark someone made 30 years ago that sadly still rings true: “Only a confirmed anti-Semite would believe that Israel has the political leadership it deserves.”

One can quarrel with Shavit. Was the tragedy of Israel from the inception of the Zionist movement, from Herbert Bentwich, or from his successors?

One can quibble with some of the details of this work. There is no evidence that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to bomb Auschwitz, no matter how many times and to how many prestigious forums the Prime Minister of Israel reiterates the charge; there is direct, documentary evidence that David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency Cabinet he chaired refused to request that Auschwitz be bombed on June 11, 1944, during the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, because they did not know enough of what was happening on the ground in Auschwitz. They still thought it was a labor camp. Israel must grapple with its own history before it charges betrayal by the West.

Yet “My Promised Land” is a work without peer. No single work depicts the complexity, vitality and achievements of Israel society as well. And no other work also depicts Israel’s failings and its challenges so poignantly, so lovingly and so soberly.

Like many Israelis, Shavit has staked his own life and the life on his children on this uncertain outcome. Such is the believer’s faith. His last words are “come what may.” They sound eerily akin to the Biblical Israelites’ response at Sinai,“na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and hear.”

Warsaw’s other uprising

For most Jewish readers, I suspect, the phrase “Warsaw uprising” refers to the stirring last stand of the Jewish ghetto fighters in 1943.  But there was quite another upwelling of armed resistance in Warsaw a year later, and that’s the focus of “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00), an account of the doomed effort at self-liberation launched by the Polish Home Army against the Nazis even as the Red Army sat and watched on the far side of the Vistula.

Richie’s book is only the latest in a small but important trend in publishing that calls our attention to the richness, complexity and tragedy of events on the ground in Poland during the Second World War. Timothy Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “Bloodlands,” is one example, and so is Louise Steinman’s newly-published memoir, “The Crooked Mirror.” All of these books are worthy efforts to rescue one of the most consequential nations in European history from the realm of “Polish jokes” and to open our eyes to its heroic if also tragic saga.

“My Poles will not revolt” is what Hans Frank, the man in charge of occupied Poland, told the Fuehrer when the first reports of skirmishing in Warsaw reached Hitler’s headquarters. He was wrong, as it turned out, but Heinrich Himmler, the architect and operator of Germany’s machinery of terror, looked on the bright side:  “It would give them the excuse to do what they had wanted to do for years — erase Warsaw from the map,” Richie explains.

Richie, who lives and writes in Warsaw, brings a mastery of Polish history and politics to her book, and she allows the reader to see how the Warsaw uprising is linked to the other and more famous events in the history of World War II. Above all, she reveals the crucial motive of the Polish resistance in taking on the Nazis before the Red Army entered Warsaw and installed a Communist regime in place of the Polish government-in-exile that had taken refuge in London during the war.

“They fought in order to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state,” Riche writes. “With the Red Army moving inexorably towards Warsaw, the decision was made to take a stand in the capital city, for the Poles to push the Germans out themselves, and to greet the Soviets as equals. Surely then the rest of the world would heed their call for independence, and put pressure on Stalin.”

Richie’s narrative of these events is rooted in scholarship but expressed with color, clarity and impact. She has an eye for the telling detail: “Despite his vegetarianism,” she pauses to tell us, “Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decide that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans.” The Red Army was assisted in its victorious counter-attacks against the Wehrmacht by the riches of the Lend-lease program: “American Jeeps whizzed around Byelorussia, and Studebaker US6 trucks were used to launch Katusha rockets; at the same time Russian soldiers feasted on Hershey’s chocolate and wieners stamped ‘Oscar Meyer – Chicago.’” At the same, time she paints on a vast canvas that sprawls across 738 pages and depicts events and personalities both great and small.

The dominant note in “Warsaw 1944,” of course, is horror.  The Germans were no kinder or gentler when it came to the Poles than they were with any of the their other victims, and Richie finds herself compelled to describe atrocities that will break the hearts of readers who already know what the Germans were capable of doing in Auschwitz and at Babi Yar.  And the heroic resistance of the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 was no more successful than the efforts of the ghetto-fighters had been in 1943.

“The general mood in the units of my group is pessimistic and bitter because of the lack of weapons for the past eight days,” wrote one despairing Polish fighter. “We fight alone with no help from our quartermaster nor from the Allies.”

The death toll of the battle for Warsaw was modest when compared to the number of Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Some 18,000 soldiers in the Home Army died in battle, and another 150,000 civilians were casualties of the fighting. The political goal, of course, was not achieved, and Poland passed from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination for another half-century. Indeed, the whole episode has been mostly overlooked. “The destruction of Warsaw was one of the great tragedies of the Second World War,” the author insists. “And yet, after 1945, the Polish capital’s terrible ordeal virtually disappeared from history.”  

Richie, to her credit, has restored that ordeal to the place of honor in the pages of history that it richly deserves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).

Financial planning for a move to Israel

What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Q&A with Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom has succeeded in striking an important chord in all of us — the intrinsic human desire to discover what lies beyond, the need to believe that the way we conduct our lives matters and that “the end is not the end,” after all, but another beginning. These intertwined themes are evident in most of Albom’s best-selling books, which have sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages, each time rendered in an accessible style that belies the profound message his stories carry. 

Albom spoke with the Jewish Journal about his much-anticipated novel, “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” which Publishers Weekly has hailed as “another winner from Albom.” 


Jewish Journal: I’ll start our interview with the opening sentence of “The First Phone Call From Heaven”: “On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.” 

Your decision to marry the most extraordinary event, a phone call from heaven, with the most ordinary act of unwrapping a box of tea bags, is an authorial act of genius that immediately draws the reader into the story. Did that come to you easily or after many edits? 

Mitch Albom: I could not have asked for a more precise reaction to that line — the most extraordinary thing and the most ordinary. It’s amazing how people skip right over that, and so I thank you for recognizing that. You don’t just start a book anywhere you feel like starting. 

I spend a lot of time thinking how to begin my books, because it puts me in the frame of mind I want to continue from. If I don’t start well, I never land where I want to go. I spent forever trying to figure out the first line of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” because it was such a big thing in my life. By the time the paragraph was over, you knew he was dying and teaching a course on the meaning of life. 

In “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” one of the themes is that miracles interweave themselves within every day of our lives. I thought it was a great juxtaposition to have that extraordinary thing (first call from heaven), with a mundane thing of life (opening a teabag). I thought, ‘OK, that works, that’s good.’ Usually, if I labor over it too long, then I have to throw it out because that means I’m forcing it. When it comes quickly, as that one did, I stick with it.


JJ: “The First Phone Call from Heaven” offers readers an added bonus, a page-turning mystery interwoven with fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell’s relationship with his deaf wife and how it led to the invention of the telephone. Was it difficult for you to make that leap into the realm of history and mystery?

MA: It was an accident. I was a fifth of the way into the book when I looked up how the phone was invented. The more I researched, the more fascinating the story of the telephone became. When I read that Bell’s first phone conversation was, “Come here, I want to see you,” I thought that paralleled my story. 


JJ: You mention that each of your books taught you something, “both in the writing and in the reaction.” What did “The First Phone Call From Heaven” teach you?

MA: The human voice and its preciousness. My mother suffered several strokes and lost her ability to speak. Once I lost that voice, I lost the biggest part of her, the essence. So, I created this story, which was the reverse of that; you get the voice back, even if you don’t get the body. 


JJ: If you could get one call from heaven, who would you like to be on the other line?

MA: I’d want it to be one of those phone calls where I could say, “Can you please pass the phone and give it to somebody else?” Because there are about 20 people I’d want to talk to.

But, the most interesting conversation would be with Morrie, because he died before one word of “Tuesdays” was written. I’ve always wondered whether he’d be happy that his words are now taught in schools all over the world. 


JJ: Did you work hard to master this accessible voice that makes your stories universally loved or did this style come to you naturally, perhaps because of the columns you write?

MA: Probably a bit of both. “Tuesdays” was a unique experience, because I wrote that book to pay for Morrie’s medical bills, and I plowed right into the idea without knowing what kind of book I’d make. While Morrie was still alive, I went around New York to find a publisher. Most said no, thinking it would be boring and depressing. I said, “I know I’m learning something very special and unique,” but I didn’t have the story fully formed in my head. When somebody finally agreed to publish it, I felt like I had done what I set out to do — pay his bills. 

After he died, I struggled with the beginning. Then I went to the attic and got out some of my old stuff from college. I found a stack of papers I’d turned in to Morrie; I took about eight classes with him. In the ’70s, a term paper had a specific style — didactic and stripped down. I thought that might be the way to approach writing this. Almost like a term paper. Any time I was being too maudlin or flowery, I’d edit myself. I thought, I don’t care how short it ends up, the story will tell itself. It served me well.


JJ: The transient quality of time looms large in your books. You mention that before writing “Tuesdays” you were “a harried, ambitious sportswriter who never spent five minutes thinking about mortality.” You are a sports writer, a radio host, a lyricist, pianist, producer, director, playwright and a philanthropist to boot. With all this on your plate, has your relationship with Father Time changed in the last 16 years since “Tuesdays”?

MA: The truth is, I don’t do anything full time. I still write for the newspaper, but mostly out of loyalty because they believed in me long before I was well-known. I’m happy to be a voice of the community — this is my home; this is where I live. And I’m off a few months a year from my radio program. So I’m not as impressive as you make me out to be. 

I do a lot but keep things in their place and protect what’s precious to me. I get up and turn on the coffee maker, say a few prayers, come down to my little office and write. I don’t take any phone calls; I don’t read any newspapers; I don’t watch the news; I don’t turn on the television. There’s no input of any kind between that cup of coffee and the three hours of creative writing I have in me each day. Then, I come back upstairs and turn the phones back on and begin my life.

To answer the question about my relationship with time, I’m very aware of our mortality and very grateful to be alive. I don’t take any of that for granted. One common behavior of almost everybody in America is that we take time for granted. So, if my books can be a bit of a reminder of the importance of time, then maybe there’s some value to them. 


JJ: Although you never portray death in a negative light in your book, I imagine it might still be difficult or depressing to write about.

MA: I don’t feel that I write about death. I use death as a reflector of life: time, family relationships, faith, finding meaning in your work and this one about miracles. So, there’s no reason for me to be depressed. 


JJ: Tell us something about Mitch Albom that will surprise us.

MA: I’m a huge Elvis Presley movie fan, the early movies. They’re corny, but always happy, and reflective of an innocent time. Every now and then Elvis picks up a guitar; it’s not even plugged in, and he starts playing and it manages to work.


JJ: You were raised by observant parents, attended Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Penn. How does Judaism inform your writing?

MA: That’s an interesting question. Some of the earliest stories and storytelling I was exposed to were biblical stories with a message, as opposed to just entertaining. I must have gravitated to those stories early on. Even Yiddish proverbs always have a point about life. Almost everything that you hear through Judaism has some kind of message. 


JJ: When you get to heaven, what would you like to hear God say to you?

MA: I would want to hear God say, “You were pure of heart and you did things for the right reasons.” 

Dora Levy Mossanen is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels “Harem,” “Courtesan,” and T”he Last Romanov,” which have been translated into numerous languages.  She is a regular contributor to the Jewish Journal and the Huffington Post. Her widely anticipated novel, “Scent of Butterflies,” will be released in January of 2014.

Herschel Grynszpan: ‘The Boy Avenger’

Like stills from a film noir, the black-and-white photographs of a 17-year-old boy named Herschel Grynszpan that have come down to us — police mug shots, newspaper photos, a souvenir snapshot taken at a Paris street fair — capture the various faces that he presented to the public during the fall of 1938, when he boiled up out of a noisy Jewish neighborhood in a backwater of Paris and demanded the attention of the astonished world.

L’affaire Grynszpan, as his case came to be known, starts with a single act of violence behind the locked gates of the German embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938, when he fired five shots at a Nazi diplomat. Nowadays, when Grynszpan is remembered at all, it is because the Nazis seized upon the assassination as a pretext for Kristallnacht, the pogrom that marked the sudden and ominous escalation in Hitler’s war against the Jews. But it is also a story replete with shock and scandal, mystery and perplexity.  

Precisely what transpired inside the ornate German embassy in Paris on that day remains a puzzlement, but even more baffling is the black hole of history into which Grynszpan has fallen since the end of World War II. Herschel Grynszpan was briefly famous, and it was his fame — or, as the Nazis saw it, his infamy — that accounts for the trove of historical detail that is available to us today. We know how much he weighed, how tall he was, and how much money his family received in welfare payments because he was investigated by both French and German police officers, and he was examined by physicians, psychiatrists and social workers in the service of the French criminal courts and later by their counterparts in Nazi Germany, all in the greatest and most intimate detail. Grynszpan, still only an adolescent, was questioned by the famously efficient interrogators of the Gestapo and even by Adolf Eichmann, a self-styled expert on Jewish affairs in the Nazi bureaucracy and one of the masterminds of the Final Solution.

Today, however, Grynszpan remains a mystery, an irony if only because Grynszpan was among the most famous inmates of the Nazi concentration camp system. Perhaps the most vexing aspect of the Grynszpan case is the fact that he has never been embraced as the heroic figure he earnestly sought to be. His fellow Jews, suffering through the catastrophic aftermath of his act of protest at the German embassy in Paris, “generally disapproved of it as useless, dangerous and a great disservice to Jews everywhere,” according to Gerald Schwab, one of the principal investigators of the Grynszpan case. One of Grynszpan’s own attorneys, richly paid to defend him in the French courts, dismissed him privately as “that absurd little Jew.” Hannah Arendt pronounced him to be “a psychopath” and, even more shockingly, accused him of serving as an agent of the Gestapo. Jewish armed resistance against Nazi Germany is much studied and celebrated, but Grynszpan remains without honor even among the people whose avenger he imagined himself to be.

The effacement of Herschel Grynszpan, who wrote and spoke so ardently about his deed to lawyers, judges, politicians and reporters in the months and years following his arrest, would have broken the boy’s heart. His prison journals, which were carefully preserved and studied by both French and German authorities, reveal that the lonely and frightened adolescent yearned not merely for attention but for a place of consequence in the saga of the Jewish people. “He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him,” writes Don DeLillo of Lee Harvey Oswald in the novel “Libra,” but the same words surely apply to Grynszpan. “The name we give to this point is history.”

As we observe the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we ought to pause and recall the 17-year-old boy who was among the very first Jews to fire a weapon in defense of the Jewish people during those dark years. “For three lines in history that will be written about the youth who fought and did not go like sheep to the slaughter,” insisted the martyred ghetto fighter Dolek Liebeskind, “it is even worth dying.” Yet the search to find examples of Jewish resistance has failed to acknowledge the exploits of Herschel Grynszpan.

At the end of the short, strange and turbulent life of Herschel Grynszpan — a life tainted by rumors of sexual scandal for which Herschel himself was the source — we are left with two ineradicable facts. Only weeks after the prime ministers of England and France had trembled before Hitler in Munich, Grynszpan walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat, an “act of counter-violence” in explicit protest against Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. And, three years later, the same young man, alone and abandoned in a Gestapo cell in Berlin, succeeded in denying his Nazi captors the opportunity to justify the mass murder of the Jewish people in the show trial they had planned for him.

For these two acts of courage and defiance, the young man paid with his life. If Jewish armed resistance deserves more than “three lines in history,” then we are obliged to remember Herschel Grynszpan and to regard him as the hero he sought to be. 

Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. Excerpted from “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” by Jonathan Kirsch. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Kirsch. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corp. 

The art of feeling Sholem Aleichem’s unforgettable legacy

Never underestimate the enormous emotional power of a piercing narrative voice, one that can decimate and exhilarate the reader, often simultaneously.  Listen to the eloquence of Israeli author David Grossman recounting his early experiences reading Sholem Aleichem, one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature:

“From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave.  I was eight, and within a few months had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time — the children’s stories, the writing for adults, and the plays.  When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me.  Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu?  Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mender.  Or his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman?  What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different landowner each day of the week?  About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?”

Grossman continues luring us back in time with him:

“I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before.  I read like someone entering a foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land.  In some sense, I felt that I was coming home.  And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way — the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the way of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers.”

If you had never heard of Sholem Aleichem, and did not know that he was born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, where he endured a traumatic childhood and married into fabulous wealth, only to lose it all and then become a phenomenal success as a Yiddish writer after abandoning Russian and Hebrew, you would still be seduced by Grossman’s prose to want to know more.  Grossman’s writing is an intoxicating brew of personal entanglement and fierce intellect feeding upon each other on the written page.  His early exposure to Aleichem’s and the wonderfully complex and flawed characters who littered all of his pages once really existed and were now dead forever; as was the intimacy of the shtetl and their way of life.  Grossman was able to finally realize that the Jews in these stories were actually connected to him, and now they were gone, perhaps explaining his mother’s perennial sadness and now his own.  He writes poignantly of the brutal starkness of this realization:

“It struck me all at once.  Suddenly.  The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people.  They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chaveleh and Lily and Shimek.  On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakarem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me…It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust.  And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.”

Cynthia Ozick is equally compelling on Sholem Aleichem.  She believes he found a way to reveal the Jewish soul with all of its harrowing complexities and contradictions.  She believes Aleichem was able to capture the essence of Jews forced to confront the tumultuous forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that spread through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the 19th century.  She points to Aleichem’s most famous creation, Tevye, as the embodiment of a Jewish man who was intelligent, loving, generous and open, without needing to be overly sentimental or heroic.  Tevye dealt with pogroms, crushing poverty, incessant fear and family troubles by talking intimately to an accessible God, but one whom too often seemed overly distracted.  Tevye, says Ozick, is never optimistic; he is too much at home with the worst that can happen.  But she reminds us that he is not overcome by despair: “He is too much at home with Scripture and with the knowledge of frailty, mutability, mortality.”  Ozick reminds us that this great Yiddish writer spoke Russian to his own children but found the Yiddish language exceptional in its ability to allow him to be simultaneously satirical and cynical and soft-hearted and sad and ironic and irreverent while addressing God in long monologues that eventually were watered down sufficiently for the American stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There isn’t one passage in “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95), Jeremy Dauber’s new biography on Sholem Aleichem, that approaches the personal pathos of Grossman or Ozick.  Dauber’s strengths lay elsewhere. 

Dauber has written a comprehensive account of Aleichem that holds your attention and is meticulously researched, but comes up short.  Dauber, who was educated at Harvard University, and then Oxford, is still a young man; at least a generation younger than Ozick or Grossman, and this perhaps explains the distanced lens with which he seems to view his subject; one feels as if he is watching him from afar instead of standing beside him.  Dauber is a professor of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University and has written elsewhere about his idyllic childhood, his wonderful parents, and his delightful wife and son.  Oddly, his seemingly charmed life does not serve him well here.  When he discusses Jewish history and anti-Semitism and the struggles of Jewish men who were repeatedly victimized and restricted from almost all avenues of advancement, he does so without tapping into the trauma and burden and shame and remorse such struggles wrought.  This is surely a supreme victory for Jews of his generation in America at this time, but it does seem to blur his vision when trying to find Aleichem’s pulse.  Aleichem’s life was not charmed; it was fraught with illness, the loss of a child in his twenties, poverty, virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence, the loss of his mother while still a child, and constant worry about his family’s future as Jews contemplated and disagreed about the various issues of their time.  Was there a place for them in the larger Gentile world?  What would happen to their traditions and religious faith if they traveled too far? 

Aleichem’s father, the merchant Nochem Rabinowvich, was a traditionally observant man but entranced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He allowed his son to attend a secular school in Tsarist Russia, where the young boy fell hopelessly in love with Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  Sholem Aleichem remembered being teased at school because he was Jewish, and although his academic record was stellar, he remembered bitterly years later a certain professor who would often remind him that the “Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.”

Aleichem set out to reinvent Yiddish literature into serious literary art.  He was turned off by the work of Shomer (pen name for Nokhem Meyer Shaykevich), who wrote highly melodramatic tales he felt were low brow, and he felt he could create stories that were more sophisticated and still accessible to the 11 million Yiddish readers in Europe two decades before the Nazi decimation.  Many Jews and Gentiles alike viewed Yiddish as mere gibberish and less than a cultivated language worthy of respect, and he set out to change that perception.  Readers responded with great enthusiasm, and when he traveled to various cities in Europe he met throngs of fans who waited at the railroad stations for him to get a chance to see him and hopefully to hear him read aloud. 

Dauber patiently takes us through the evolution of almost all of Sholem Aleichem’s characters and shows how they were often created in response to what was happening in Aleichem’s life at a particular time.  He introduces us to Motl, the cantor’s son who loves to make mischief and emigrates to America where he is a “happy orphan.”  We meet Menakhem-Mendl, the ever-striving, never succeeding businessman who writes his wife letters of his pursuits and waits for her replies, which are usually admonishments for his foolish ventures.  Like this one: “To my dear, learned, and illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!  First, we’re all well, thank God.  Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows!  You’re throwing away rubles like last week’s noodles, money-schmoney, eh?  I suppose it grows on trees over there…”  We hear echoes in these stories of the struggles Sholem Aleichem faced brought to life in these characters.  Like Motl, Aleichem went to America a “happy orphan’ and struggled in a land where he never really felt at ease.  Like Menakhem-Mendl, he felt the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law when he lost much of their inheritance in the Odessa stock market, forcing them to struggle financially for years.

Dauber expertly traces for us the evolution of the Tevye stories, which began in 1894 and continued over a 20-year period.  He created Tevye the Dairyman based on a man he actually met.  Tevye was a rural Jew hauling logs from the forest and hoping to save up enough money to buy a cow.  In the initial Tevye story, he is described as “a healthy Jew, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair, his age is hard to guess; he wears heavy boots…”   Tevye is a talker and speaks using a unique blend of parable, a bit of Torah, and a mixture of high and low art.  He speaks frequently in long monologues.  Dauber offers an insightful analysis as to why the monologues worked so well for Tevye, claiming “The monologues’ an aggressive genre, in other words: the speaker satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of the listener, who lies helpless beneath the constant, punishing pressure, physical and psychological, of their breathless, unceasing delivery.  Think of the classic stand-up comedy, the monologic art par excellence: I killed ‘em.  Unsurprising, then, that monologue and comedy — with Sholem Aleichem as Exhibit A — have often been claimed as the Jewish counterattack to history’s depredations; This is how Jews fight back, with, you know, a really vicious one-liner.  More vociferous forms of opposition may be impossible, but you can talk at the problem, around it, suffocate it or minimize it or redefine it in a torrent of words.”

But first, Jeremy Dauber, you have to feel it.

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

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.”

United and divided: Inside ‘Like Dreamers,’ Yossi Klein Halevi’s extraordinary new book

The stirring scene that opens “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, $35), is a flashback to the night of June 6, 1967, when the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces crossed the no man’s land from West Jerusalem and approached the Old City, a sacred place that had not been under Jewish sovereignty for nearly 2,000 years.

“They changed the history of Israel and the Middle East,” Halevi observes. But Halevi has not written a hagiography of those courageous young men. Some of them were secular kibbutzniks and some were religious Zionists, a fact that strikes Halevi as emblematic of the tensions that have reshaped Israel during the half-century that followed what is now known as the Six-Day War. Their story, he insists, is really about “the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.” In that sense, “Like Dreamers” is as much about the future of Israel as it is about what the author describes as “Israel’s most transcendent moment.”

Halevi is a journalist, memoirist and commentator with a unique perspective on both Jewish history and the destiny of Israel. Born in Brooklyn, he was an early follower of the late Meir Kahane, a member of Kahane’s controversial Jewish Defense League and an activist in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he gradually moved from the far right of political Zionism into Orthodoxy and ultimately emerged as an advocate for rapprochement among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as he advocated in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.”

Today, at 60, Halevi lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His byline is familiar to readers of many publications, among them the New Republic — where he holds the position of contributing editor — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine. He is much sought after as a commentator on the Middle East, and he brings a hard-edged, highly realistic perspective to his work. To his credit, he refuses to mythify or idealize the people whose exploits he is writing about, and yet he is capable of showing how seemingly ordinary men and women are capable of doing great things.

Thus, for example, Halevi is quick to point out that all of the main characters in his book are Ashkenazim — Jews of European ancestry — even though nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population today is of Middle Eastern origin. And he emphasizes that the seven members of the 55th Brigade whom he interviewed over a period of 10 years are markedly unsentimental; he is impressed by their “faith in human initiative and contempt for self-pity,” and “their daunting quest for solutions to unbearable dilemmas that would intimidate others into paralysis.” Above all, their feat of arms in 1967 — which united Jerusalem as an Israeli city, taking what had been ruled by Jordan — can be seen as an augury of the problems Israel still must resolve: “To a large extent,” he writes, “Israel today lives in the partial fulfillment and partial failure of their contradictory dreams.”

Halevi uses the biographies of those seven Israeli soldiers as a device to tell a much larger tale about the influences and pressures that shaped them. Avital Geva, for example, grew up on a kibbutz that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist movement with distinctly Marxist values.  “Avital and his friends had been raised to revere the Soviet Union as the ‘second homeland,’ ” he explains, and he reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned on the front page of the movement’s newspaper. By contrast, Yoel Bin-Nun was a member of a religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva, and when he confided his “deepest longing” to a girl of his acquaintance, it was to see the construction of a third Temple.  “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he answered.

Halevi allows us to see the conflicting Israeli views of the Holocaust barely 20 years after the liberation of the camps. Some native-born Israelis were astounded by and contemptuous of the survivors, whom they called sabon — the word for soap, a reference to the notion that corpses were rendered into soap. Only when Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, met the survivors who had founded Kibbutz Buchenwald did he come to see that they were worthy of his respect: “They’d survived through not passivity but constant alertness,” Achmon came to realize. “Sabon: what jerks we were.” But Halevi reminds us that one of the enduring victories the 55th Brigade achieved was to “[replace] skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.”

The centerpiece of the book, of course, is the operations that took place on the night of June 6-7, 1967, when the 55th Brigade was assigned a mission that had been a failure when it was tried during the War of Independence, in 1948. A tactical map of the battle lines will come as a shock to anyone who has since visited Israel as a tourist and strolled through the streets of Jerusalem where, on that night, the trenches and minefields were laid out. At the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, the fast-changing situation on multiple fronts was under constant scrutiny, but at least one order was clear and unequivocal: “Be prepared to take the Old City,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commander of the central front, told Arik Achmon. “I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.

Exactly here, I think, is where we glimpse the unique importance of the battle for Jerusalem, and the various reasons why it was so consequential. For the battle-hardened officers of the high command, the taking of the Old City was a point of honor as well as a crucial strategic objective. For others, it was a religious undertaking with messianic implications: “Next year in Jerusalem,” sang a group of soldiers, echoing the closing words of the Passover seder. A student watching them provided a new lyric: “Next week in Jerusalem — in Jerusalem rebuilt.” For just about everyone, including the largely secular popular of the Jewish state, the strains of a new hit song called “Jerusalem of Gold” represented “the nation’s suppressed anguish for the Old City of Jerusalem.”

But Halevi presses on in his search for the layering of meanings contained within the taking of the Old City. The tensions within the 55th Brigade are now writ large in Israel — the divisions between the religious and the secular, the settlers and the kibbutzniks, and the arguments over whether and how to change the “facts on the ground” that were first established in 1967. We read of how the veterans of that fateful mission go on to live their lives, to reinvent themselves, to enter and leave relationships, to pursue careers and enterprises in civilian life, to endure illness and confront death, and Halevi shows us how the same urgent issues that stirred in their hearts and minds in the heat of battle remain the same issues that the whole nation confronts today, often with heartbreaking and even fatal consequences.

That’s why “Like Dreamers” is such a rich, complex and eloquent book, both challenging and enlightening, an extraordinary effort on the part of the author to capture a vast historical saga through the lens of the lives of seven flesh-and-blood human beings.  

“In their disappointment, some Jews had forgotten to celebrate, how to be grateful,” Halevi concludes. “It was a recurring Jewish problem, as ancient as the first Exodus.” His achievement in “Like Dreams” is his own ability to celebrate the courage of the men of the 55th Brigade, without for a moment overlooking the perplexing aftermath of their victory on that remarkable day.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Sinai Temple, together with the Jewish Journal, host a discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi on Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 481-3243 or visit 

‘The Friedkin Connection’: Living forward, looking back

In the prologue to his new memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin writes, “Life is lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”

As he looks backward on a career spanning some 50 years, the director perhaps best known for the iconic films “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973), gives the reader a plethora of delicious anecdotes but also conveys a sense of the vicissitudes involved with getting a film made in Hollywood.

“I wanted people to try and understand what my process was,” he explained in a recent interview, “and some of the obstacles I encountered along the way, and where I was successful and unsuccessful in dealing with them. In that way, I thought people might get a deeper understanding of the life of a film director.”

As illustrated in his book, it is a life of constant struggle against people who are trying to interfere with a filmmaker’s vision.

“From all of recorded history,” he observed, “there is the story of a creator whose work is constantly being undermined by a destroyer or a kind of devil. And that’s pretty much how I have viewed a lot of the people I’ve come in contact with making films. I haven’t made that many films, by the way. I think I’ve made less than 20 films in about 50 years of doing it. But, I always come up against the same barriers. There are people who don’t make films, but they’re in charge of the studios where films are made, and you get in their way, as they get in your way.” 

Friedkin didn’t set out to be a film director. He grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, the son of immigrant Jewish parents who fled the pogroms in Ukraine. After graduating high school, he went to work in the mailroom of a local TV station, and eventually progressed to directing live television. He never went to college and credits a writer at the station, Francis Coughlin, with exposing him to the world of books, art and other intellectual pursuits. 

Then, he had a life-changing experience. “It was fate, or God, that led me to see a movie called ‘Citizen Kane,’ and that inspired me to want to make films. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but whatever Orson Welles did to make ‘Citizen Kane,’ that’s what I wanted to do. And then, either fate or God put this story in front of me of the black man who was going to the electric chair in Chicago.”

The man was Paul Crump, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a security guard during an armed robbery. Believing the man to be innocent, Friedkin made the documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” which was instrumental in getting Crump’s sentence commuted to life in prison. (Crump was later paroled.) It also led to Friedkin being signed by the William Morris Agency and being hired by the famed documentary producer David Wolper, who brought the young director to Hollywood.

Friedkin ultimately delved into feature films. His first three efforts were “Good Times,” a musical spoof of various movie genres with Sonny and Cher; “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” an homage to old-time burlesque; and “Boys in the Band,” one of the first films to deal openly with homosexuality, about a birthday party attended by a group of gay friends and one supposedly straight man. The movie was well received by film critics.

Then Friedkin exploded on the scene in 1971 with “The French Connection,” about two New York City cops pursuing drug smugglers who get their product from France. It was second only to “Fiddler on the Roof” in grosses for that year and won five Academy Awards, including best director for Friedkin, who also won the Directors Guild and Golden Globe awards. The film has become legendary for its unique car chase sequence. 

Two years later, Friedkin made what many consider his signature film, “The Exorcist,” which depicts the demonic possession of a young girl. With some exceptions, it garnered rave reviews and has been re-released several times, earning a worldwide gross of more than $400 million.

In his memoir, which he will discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, Friedkin writes of “the roller coaster that is Hollywood, where dizzying heights are followed by gut-wrenching depths.” He chronicles the years following the heady success of “The Exorcist” as a succession of ups and downs, with some of his films being highly praised or finding more favor with age, while others have had disappointing outcomes. But, he stressed, they were the kind of films he would want to see, while the movies with mass appeal are of no interest to him.

“The film that I’m most proud of is this film ‘Sorcerer,’ he stated. “It was one of my least successful. And now, at the recent Venice Film Festival, on my birthday, Aug. 29, they ran a restored version of ‘Sorcerer’ that looks like it was made yesterday, and now it’s coming out again in theaters, in home video, and on television. The film was dead. It’s been raised like Lazarus.” The story concerns four fugitives who accept a job driving nitroglycerin for 200 miles over dangerous territory in South America for an American oil company.

He added, “I’m not interested in superheroes, somebody who puts on a spandex suit and flies around and saves the world. I wouldn’t be interested in either making that kind of film or watching it. … I’m way out of step with public taste, because the public flocks to that kind of film, films about vampires and zombies, and films that are video games.”

But Friedkin, who has lived through heart attacks and major surgeries, continues to make movies, and his latest film, “Killer Joe,” a dark comedy about a young man who is in debt to a drug dealer and who plans to kill his mother for the insurance money, has been welcomed by most film critics. 

Friedkin has also expanded his horizons to direct plays and numerous operas. A few years ago he staged Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson and Delilah” in Tel Aviv. And he starts rehearsals in January for a production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at the Geffen Playhouse.

He confesses to having mellowed with age and with his marriage to Sherry Lansing, a pioneer who, in 1980, became the first woman to head a major movie studio.

As for what he feels it takes to be a successful filmmaker in Hollywood, he cited “ambition, luck and the grace of God. I don’t believe talent figures into that equation at all. Sometimes it does. Sometimes very talented people succeed. Other times, very talented people don’t even get an opportunity. Without ambition or luck and the grace of God, it doesn’t matter how great your talent is.”

William Friedkin will appear on the Park Stage at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 29, 2 p.m. at West Hollywood Park, 647 N San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 659-5550 or visit

The Jewish Jane Austen

One of the remarkable things about Ruchama King Feuerman’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (New York Review of Books, $9.99) is the fact it is only available as an ebook in the NYRB Lit series.  Such is the fate of literary fiction nowadays, and it remains to be seen whether authors and publishers will find their readership in the world of digital publishing. 

Feuerman is certainly worthy of attention. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was published in a print-on-paper edition by St. Martin’s Press, and one reviewer hailed her as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new book is more nearly a thriller, although it is, like her earlier work, much concerned with romantic intrigue, too. 

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Feuerman now lives and works in Israel, where her new book is set.  One of the great pleasures of her novel, in fact, is her rich and vivid evocation of contemporary Jerusalem, and especially the people and places in Jerusalem that would not be out of place in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.” Her protagonist is Isaac — “forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side” before he sold his haberdashery, boarded an El Al flight to Israel, and put himself in service to a charismatic rebbe in Jerusalem. 

Isaac soon encounters an Arab man named Mustafa, a trash collector on the Temple Mount who is reduced to his low labor by a physical disfigurement with which he was born. “Satan is inside Mustafa,” his mother observed. “Expect seven misfortunes from a cripple.” And his sister warned him against marriage: “How’ll you kiss your bride?” she taunts, referring to his twisted and frozen neck.

Isaac also befriends a worldly young woman, Tamar, a motorcycle-riding redhead who is seeking advice from the rebbe on how to find a yeshiva boy for a husband. “I wish you a lot of luck finding the best,” says Isaac, though life usually has something else to say.” But, inevitably, Isaac notices that Tamar appears to be interested in him. “A man is a human being, not an angel,” he reflects as he tries to talk himself out of “another entanglement, more trouble.” Says Isaac: “The two of them together, it was like milchigs and fleishigs, meat and dairy; they just didn’t mix.”

Between these three points of contact — Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar — Feuerman tells a tale of human beings who seek to make connections with each other against all odds against and with no inkling of the consequences. From the outset, Feuerman manages to inject a note of tension into her narrative, and it carries us through the suspenseful story that she has chosen to tell.

Along the way, Feuerman displays a sharp eye for the rhythms of real life in Jerusalem. She knows, for example, that the lobby of the King David Hotel is a favorite venue for couples whose first meeting has been arranged by a matchmaker, and that’s where Isaac goes on “blind dates” with “a stream of Rochels and Leahs and Mindys and Yocheveds … a decade and a half of shidduchs.” 

The author is interested in the lives of the religious, both Jewish and Muslim, and when she allows us to glimpse the wider world of contemporary Israel, it is usually through their eyes.  When Isaac rides a bus down Jaffa Road, the passengers fix their eyes on a dark-skinned man with a backpack until he opens it and takes out a volume of Talmud. “Too much bus drama!” Isaac muses. “If only those foolish boys — and of course Peres — hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started.”

Mustafa, as it happens, makes a gift to Isaac that turns out to the fatal link between them.  He finds an interesting object in a pile of rubbish on the Temple Mount — to Mustafa, of course, it is called the Noble Sanctuary — and innocently presents it to Isaac, who brings the object to an Israeli archaeologist. The little red globe of clay turns out to be an artifact that may date from as far back as the First Temple, a rare and even revolutionary archaeological treasure. Mustafa regards the whole notion as blasphemous because he has been taught that the Temple of antiquity was pure myth. “Crazy Jews, he scoffed. Talking, always talking.” But the significance of his gift cannot be overlooked.

Indeed, the artifact turns out to be a crucial but also volatile object, one that is capable of transforming the lives of both Isaac and Mustafa. Here the author shows that she may be the Jewish Jane Austen, but she is also something of a Jewish Graham Greene.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1.

Kafka — demystifying the man behind the “Kafkaesque” mystique

Franz Kafka has entered our language as an adjective — “Kafkaesque” is applied nowadays to almost anything that strikes us as senseless or surreal — but the man himself remains obscure. Saul Friedlander’s short biography in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” (Yale University Press, $25.00), offers an intriguing effort to fill in the blanks of a famous but little-understood author.

Friedländer, of course, is a much-honored historian of the Holocaust, but he is also a man of letters, a native speaker of German — the language in which Kafka wrote — and, significantly, a deeply sensitive and reflective observer of the world in which he lives. (His memoir, “When Memory Comes,” is an account of his own experiences during and after the Holocaust, both courageous and sublime.) Above all, he feels a kinship with Kafka because both of them are products the precarious Jewish community of Prague.

“My family’s world was that of Prague Jews, belonging to a slightly younger cohort than Franz’s generation,” he writes. “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended some fifteen years before….  My mother’s first name was Elli (Gabriele), as was that of Franz’s eldest sister. And, like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps. All of these hidden links, discovered over time, may have added to my predilection for Kafka’s texts, beyond the appeal of their intrinsic greatness.”

As the author of commanding works of history on the Holocaust, Friedländer regards his own book on Kafka as “a small biographical essay,” and he acknowledges that he is approaching his subject as a non-specialist. But his modesty is unnecessary. He has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind.

To various Kafka scholars, Friedländer explains, the enigmatic author “appeared as a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more; in short, he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.” But the flesh-and-blood Kafka, he insists, aspired to none of these roles: “Kafka was no builder of theories, no designers of systems; he followed dreams, created metaphors, and unexpected associations; he told stories; he was a poet.”

Yet Friedländer concedes that Kafka’s work is illuminated by the facts of his life, and the biography serves as a companion and a key to the novels and stories.  After studying Kafka’s letters and journals, as well as his fiction, Friedländer concludes that Kafka’s family conflicts — and especially the lifelong tensions between father and son — prompted the writer to “[take] upon himself the role of toreador in a lifelong corrida, meant as the secret assertion of his own particular self.”

Friedländer is especially interested in how Kafka understood his Jewish origins and identity. His Hebrew name was Anschel; he went through the motions of a bar mitzvah, which his parents referred to as a “confirmation;” he was intrigued with Yiddish theater and Chasidic folklore and once participated in an audience with the Belzec Rebbe. But he felt as estranged from his father’s religion as he did from his father: “What have I in common with Jews?” the young Kafka mused. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe….”

The frail and sickly young Kafka, as Friedländer shows us, was afflicted by a sense of doom that finds expression in all of his writing. For example, Friedländer gives us a close and thoughtful reading of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” pointing out the “wanton sexual violence” that the doctor confronts but fails to prevent, the “shamanistic healing ritual” that unfolds during the “surreal night journey,” and he finds a dire meaning below the surface of Kafka’s narrative: “Uncovering the truth about oneself and about the evil at the core of mankind could have become the first step to redemption; in Kafka’s world, though, truth seems to open the gates of annihilation.”

Friedländer is perfectly willing to venture his own interpretations and explanations, but he quips that “Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka if all signs were easily accessible.”  Kafka himself acknowledged as much in one of the letters that he wrote to one of the women in his life: “You have no idea, Felice, what havoc literature creates in certain heads.” Yet Friedländer has succeeded in ordering the seeming chaos inside Kafka’s head, and his “Kafka,” although modest in length, is rich in meaning.

 Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the Newport Beach Public Library on September 19; at American Jewish University on October 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on November 1.

The mystery of the missing husband

While reviewing “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons (Plume Original), the bestselling author of “The House at Tyneford,” I was also reading Ralph Ellison’s, “The Invisible Man,” and the thought occurred to me that invisibility can take many forms that might have nothing to do with skin color.

Juliet Montague feels invisible in her suburban, conservative Jewish community.   Her husband vanished years ago, leaving her stranded with two children.  She is considered “Aguna,” or more correctly,  “Agunah.”  She is neither a widow nor a divorcée—according to Jewish law only a man has the right to grant a get, a religious divorce, to a woman.  Nevertheless, Juliet is chained to her marriage and forbidden to carry on with the normal activities of a vibrantly young, single woman.

But Juliet refuses to live by the suffocating rules of her society.  On her thirtieth birthday, when Charlie, a wealthy artist, offers to paint her portrait, she decides to spend her hard-earned money on the portrait, rather than on a much-needed refrigerator.   Besotted by Juliet, Charlie wends his way into her life, but Juliet is quick to remind him: “We are not like you….  Don’t be fooled by the electrical kettle …. The modern world hasn’t reached us yet. … You can come and eat strudel and everyone will be terribly kind… but you don’t belong.”  The truth is that Juliet doesn’t belong either, nor does she belong in Charlie’s “white studio,” with its “white walls.”  But that doesn’t stop Charlie from introducing Juliet to his artist friends and to a more exciting life, where laws differ from the ones she is used to.   And it doesn’t stop Juliet, the good Jewish girl, “who had never heard her father swear,” and whose mother is “bewildered by the appeal of excitement,” from being seduced by the rocking, rolling, boozing, drugging, and dangerously exciting art world of 1960s London.    

Charlie, recognizing that Juliet possesses an eye for art, invites her to run a gallery.  So begins Juliet’s effort to be noticed through a series of portraits artists in her circle paint of her.  Still, despite the “many Juliets” that emerge in these portraits, despite the recognition she garners in the art world, and despite finding love, Juliet will not feel noticed until she solves the mystery of her vanished husband.  “My husband never divorced me.”  Juliet ponders.   “So I was never really married at all.  I’m an adulteress.  Well, I don’t really know who I am.”

As she embarks on a quest to find her husband, the reader wonders whether the Juliet, who thinks: “There I am,  … Always about to fall; never falling,” will eventually tumble and fall, once she discovers the surprising mystery of her husband’s disappearance.

The story will especially resonate with many Jewish women who continue to suffer the shame and guilt of being agunot, and who, like Juliet, are left afloat in their quest to grapple with their identity.

Husband of terror victim pens memoir of quest to meet bomber

David Harris-Gershon, author of the forthcoming memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?,” is frank about the contradictions in his personality.

An admitted “natural introvert,” Harris-Gershon describes himself as “surprisingly good” at public speaking. In 2013, he won the GrandSLAM Storytelling Championship at the Pittsburgh branch of the Moth, a nationwide storytelling organization, with a tale of using unorthodox tactics to drum up support for Barack Obama by posing as a woman in adult romance chat rooms.

“I love being in front of an audience,” said Harris-Gershon, 39, who works as a Judaic studies teacher in Pittsburgh, “but it drains me.”

Nonetheless, Harris-Gershon maintains a very public profile as a liberal commentator on Middle East politics, blogging for the progressive publications Tikkun magazine and Daily Kos.

But with the publication of his memoir, Harris-Gershon delves into the deeply personal events — some catastrophic, some therapeutic — that have led to his political stance.

The memoir, due in U.S. bookstores on Sept. 10, begins with the Hebrew University bombing in 2002 that killed two of his friends and severely injured his wife, Jamie, who had shrapnel lodged in her body.

Harris-Gershon says Jamie is a “very private person” who preferred not to have her private ordeal immortalized in a book. So the memoir is not the story of her recovery but his own.

“Despite the fact that the book begins with the attack, her injury and her recovery, she understands that it is primarily a chronicle of my story and my experience — myself as a secondary victim,” Harris-Gershon said.

After the couple left Israel in 2003 after spending three years living in Jerusalem, Harris-Gershon began suffering symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including crippling anxiety attacks. The book delves deeply into his recovery process, including the traditional and innovative forms of therapy he tries.

Harris-Gershon describes watching a piece of shrapnel extracted from his wife’s body, noting the “opaque film of unknown fluids” on the twisted metal.

Much of his struggle is portrayed as extended dialogues between the author and himself, or with his therapist or inanimate objects — a playful literary technique that Harris-Gershon says reveals the influence of postmodern masters like Dave Eggers.

Ultimately, however, Harris-Gershon’s recovery was enabled not by conventional therapy but by an unprecedented encounter — one that led to a political awakening.

Spurred by an article in which the cafe bomber, Mohammed Odeh, expressed remorse for his actions, Harris-Gershon set out on a quixotic quest to meet the terrorist.

The memoir details Harris-Gershon’s unsuccessful attempts to meet Odeh, a member of Hamas who is being held in an Israeli prison. Blocked repeatedly by the thorny machinations of Israeli bureaucracy, Harris-Gershon’s search serves as a catalyst for a series of revelations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that range from the unjust policies of the British Mandate to the poignancy of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

The book culminates in a meeting between the author and Odeh’s family in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. Harris-Gershon describes the encounter as a “reckoning” that drove home the realization that Palestinians are, as he writes, “not monsters.”

The product of a Conservative Jewish upbringing in America, Harris-Gershon expresses bemusement that it took an act of terror for him to reach this epiphany.

“Growing up, I just thought of Palestinians as another enemy of the Jewish people,” he said. “I thought of them as a caricature of evil. And that is sadly common among American Jews.”

But struggling to understand the motivations of a terrorist and speaking with Odeh’s family, Harris-Gershon said, “made me understand their history and experience, their intense suffering, in ways that I had never understood before.”

Harris-Gershon says that in the wake of the encounter, he feels “transformed” and plans to continue to act on his newfound political beliefs, writing about Middle East politics and America’s role in the region.

“It may take the form of a new book in the near future,” he said. “My writing on this issue is definitely going to continue.”

‘Resistance’ was not futile

As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

A tale of a Golem, a Jinni, of love and of humanity

Every now and then a reviewer might have the luck of a novel landing on her table that is not only engrossing, imaginative and a pure joy to read, but also well-crafted and intelligent.   This is the case with Hellen Wecker’s debut novel, “The Golem and the Jinni” (Harper\Harper Collins Publishers).

Rotfeld, a Prussian Jew and “an arrogant, feckless sort of man,” approaches the fiendish Yehudah Schaalman, who “liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabalistic arts,” and places an order for a female golem.  The Golem is delivered to Rotfeld with an important piece of paper that holds the two required commands that will bring the Golem to life and destroy her, when her violent nature is provoked.   We are told that, “once a golem develops a taste for destruction, little can stop it save the words that destroy it.”

Rotfeld sails to New York, with his not-yet-brought-to life Golem safe in a nailed crate.  Despite Schaalman’s warning against awakening the Golem on the crowded ship, where it will raise suspicions, Rotfeld does so.  Tragedy strikes when Rotfeld dies before they reach their destination, leaving the Golem lost and aimless without her master.

At the same time, a Jinni, made of fire as all these creatures are, and imprisoned for a thousand years, is accidentally freed from his oil flask, finding himself in Lower Manhattan, in the shop of Arbeely, a Syrian tinsmith.  The Jinni is handsome and elegant, with a flippant arrogance about him that is reminiscent of Anne Rice’s the Vampire Lestat, minus the taste for human blood.  One wonders how long the imposing Jinni, with his face that glows as if behind a lampshade and the ability to melt iron, create metal figurines and light a cigarette with his bare hands, will succeed to keep his nature a secret.  The same is true of the Golem, with her extraordinary height, inhuman strength, and the power to read minds.  Still, it is inevitable that the two must eventually mingle with their neighbors and, soon enough, Arbeely, the tinsmith, and Rabbi Avram Meyer, who finds himself responsible for the Golem, slowly introduce and encourage their charges to step out into the dangerous streets of New York.  

The Golem and the Jinni are different in many ways, yet similar in that they are both outsiders with no need for sleep and ill-prepared for the world in which they have been transplanted.   The two, when they eventually meet, struggle to comprehend the ways of humans with “their constant sense of urgency.”  In the process, they pose all sorts of questions—philosophical, religious, ethical, cultural, and emotional—that will reveal a human world more puzzling than the fantastical worlds the Golem and the Jinni come from.  In one scene, the Jinni declares “that of all the creatures he’d ever encountered, be they made of flesh or fire, none was quite as exasperating as a human.”  And the Golem, as she struggles to understand why it is sometimes more polite to lie rather than state the truth and why it is not proper to take something away from someone and give it to a more needy person, asks: “If the act of love is so dangerous, why do people risk so much for it?”    Quite perceptive, wouldn’t you say?

The relationship between the Golem and the Jinni unfold against the backdrop of a cast of fascinating characters—the gossipy, kind-hearted Maryam, the ice cream man, Mahmud Saleh, whose sight has been tampered with by an evil spirit, Anna, in the bakery where the Golem works, Sophia Winston, whom the Jinni impregnates with his own spark of fire, Mathew, the orphan boy who forges a bond with the Jinni, and Michael Levy, Rabbi Meyer’s nephew, who falls in love with the Golem. 

It is an imaginative coup to bring the Golem and the Jinni together and through their freshly innocent point of view give life to the immigrant Jewish and Syrian communities of New York in 1899, with their all too real human dilemmas.  And against my own better judgment, I began to hope that the Golem and the Jinni, despite their warring natures, would find love and happiness together and settle in this alien, human world.

But Yehuda Schaalman, in search of the “formula for something called the Water of Life,” makes his way to New York and to the Golem he created.  With his spells and incantations, the man for whom “the fires of Gehenna had long been a foregone conclusion,” wreaks havoc on all of their lives and in the process churns up a flood of unexpected events.

It is a mark of Wecker’s deft touch that the meeting of all these characters and the closure of the story does not feel contrived, but rather inevitable in this fantastical story that is rendered with such precise emotional analysis and detailed sense of place that one is readily engaged, involved and invested.

Jews and dogs, unleashed

“The Elephant and the Jewish Problem” is the punchline to a hoary old Jewish joke, the point of which is that there is a Jewish perspective on every subject imaginable.  The same point is made in a remarkable work of scholarship, “ [For more reviews, visit


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” (

What is Judaism in a ‘post-ethnic’ world?

The ongoing public conversation about the future of American Judaism is embodied in a small library of recent books, many of which have been considered here. None of them, however, offers quite the same potent brew of courage, clarity, passion and expertise as Shaul Magid’s “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society” (Indiana University Press, $40), a scholarly but also visionary book about what it means to be a Jew in America today.

Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, received his ordination in Israel, completed his Ph.D. at Brandeis University, and later served as the rabbi of Fire Island Synagogue. Along the way, his religious life ranged from Charedi communities in Brooklyn and Jerusalem to a collective founded by students of the charismatic Chasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, all of which means that he is uniquely positioned to perceive and understand the subtleties and complexities of Jewish history and destiny. He focuses on “Jews who happen to live in America,” which is something quite different from “American Jewry,” and he wonders “how much ‘America’ is in American Judaism” and “[h]ow much ‘Jewishness’ [has] changed in contemporary America.”

The cutting edge of his analytic method is the assumption that we live in a “postethnic” era, that is, a time where ethnicity is no longer “the primary anchor of identity.” For American Jews, according to Magid, “post-Judaism” implies more than assimilation and acculturation; rather, it means that “the age-old strategies Jews deployed to meet the challenges of survival of both Jewishness and Judaism become largely inoperative.” Jewishness and Judaism itself, he argues, “have become liquid categories” and he boldly raises the heart-shaking and mind-bending question of “whether Jewishness can exist beyond Judaism.”

What makes “American Post-Judaism” so compelling is Magid’s insistence on digging deeply into his subject and his candor in revealing and examining what he has found. The “Jewish collective” in America is “in a state of collapse,” he writes, but he insists that we can be hopeful about the process if we are only courageous enough: “The Jewish collective in America will survive; it will just look different than before.”

Familiar aspects of contemporary Jewish life are viewed from a fresh perspective. He cites Chabad (which he spells “Habad”) and the Kabbalah Centre of Rabbi Philip Berg as examples of “contemporary Jewish mysticism in North America,” and he singles out the Jewish Renewal movement founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as the third example, but he singles it out as the only truly American innovation: “a Judaism whose theology and metaphysics are born from America’s intellectual spiritual tradition of pragmatism, democracy, and theological pluralism.” Precisely because Jewish Renewal draws on so many sources, he characterizes as “post-monotheistic — an amalgam of nature religions, Far Eastern non- or polytheism, Transcendentalism, Jungean and neo-Jungean psychology combined with a strong reading of the Jewish mystical spiritualism of Kabbala and Hasidism.”

Magid is equipped to write knowledgeably and critically about the many variants of Jewish theology and practice in America, but he also understands how to hot-wire an abstract idea to an artifact of popular culture. Thus, for example, he reminds us of a quip by Schachter-Shalomi, who characterized “The Jewish Catalog” as “the ‘Mishna’ for Jewish Renewal.” According to Magid, “The Jewish Catalog” — a Jewish version of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” a counterculture classic — is that and much more, “a kind of Mishna or, if you will, template for post-halakhic Judaism.”

Similarly, Magid drills deeply into the publications of ArtScroll, which produces not only a line of elegant prayer books and learned commentaries, but also a series of biographies of Jewish sages and heroes. He sees in these titles an unwritten but also unmistakable agenda: “ArtScroll offered an alternative to the dominance of Jewish nationalism that emerged from the widespread influence of Zionism in postwar America,” he explains. “While ArtScroll generally refrains from entering the web of political controversy … it is a fact that many of the sages seen as the inspiration for this project were outspoken critics of Zionism, even openly anti-Zionists.” When ArtScroll refers to “the Nation of Torah,” Magid argues, the phrase “suggests, as many haredi anti-Zionists did, that Israel is a nation only on the merit of the Torah, thus disqualifying any nationalism not founded on the strict adherence to Torah values and Jewish law.”

The marketplace for religion, rather than the marketplace for books, is what’s really at work here. “ArtScroll and Habad filled the vacuum of an American Jewry ready for a ‘useable nostalgic’ Judaism,” the author writes. Yet, ironically, they were innovators, too. “They falsely believed they were protecting something old when, in fact, they were creating something new.” 

If Jewish Renewal seeks to redefine American Jews, he suggests, so does Chabad, Modern Orthodoxy, the ba’al teshuva movement, and other Jewish institutions that regard themselves as guardians of tradition.

Magid is a kind of Jewish futurist. “The Holocaust and Zionism have arguably been the glue that has kept American Judaism intact since the Second World War,” he sums up. “This will not likely be the case in the next few generations.” The whole point of “American Post-Judaism” is to provide us with charts of the troubled waters ahead: “Historians, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and text scholars should be paying attention to what is already a fascinating, exhilarating, and yes, frightening turn in the history of the Jewish people.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).  Kirsch will be featured in conversation with Louise Steinman in the ALOUD public lecture program at the Los Angeles Central Library on Tuesday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information, visit

Yiddish: The enduring language

Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes in the opening pages of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (Wayne State University Press: $34.95), the academic study of Yiddish is a fraught subject precisely because it is loaded with memories of suffering and loss.

“To study Yiddish is, it could be said, never neutral…because languages are by their very nature highly charged phenomena even after the best efforts to purge them of their politics,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains. “Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Yiddish studies, in which the language becomes a proxy for its absent speakers.”

“Choosing Yiddish” is not an exercise in nostalgia or pop culture, and its contributors consciously distance themselves from the “kitchen Yiddish” of family usage. Rather, it is an academic colloquy on how Yiddish is studied in colleges and universities as a living language. “Early in the twenty-first century, Yiddish increasingly functions as an important form and forum of exchange in the marketplace of ideas,” the editors insist, “and the revived study of Yiddish language and culture represents one of the most innovative shifts in the academy today.”

One cannot think about Yiddish, of course, without recalling its murdered readers, writers and speakers. Shiri Goren, for example, contributes a kind of literary eulogy on the life and work of David Vogel, a native Yiddish speaker who made a principled decision to publish only in Hebrew but left behind an unpublished Yiddish manuscript when he was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz — “a testimonial narrative,” writes Goren, “created on the verge of catastrophe.”  For Goren, the choice of language is full of meaning.

“Crucially for a writer whose existence was synonymous with in-betweenness, Yiddish also metaphorically functioned here as a mediator between German and Hebrew,” explains Goren, “serving as a medium that allowed Vogel enough distance for distinct artistic creation.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Yiddish found a foothold in America. “Before World War I, no other city in the world hosted a larger Yiddish-speaking intellectual community than New York,” Tony Michels writes in an essay titled “The Lower East Side Meets Greenwich Village.”  And Jeffrey Shandler, in “Prelude to ‘Yiddish Goes Pop,’” points out that the academic study of Yiddish is now such a sober enterprise that “it is a challenge (but also a delight) for scholars today to engage, sometimes to rediscover, Yiddish as vulgar,” by which he means the “raucous Jewish lore” that can still be found in books ranging from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” to Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch.”

The Yiddish scholars whose work is collected here refused to characterize Yiddish as a dead language, but they are painfully aware that it lives only in the margins of the contemporary Jewish world. “Small pockets exist where Yiddish is still spoken as an everyday language, both in the Haredi/Black Hat Orthodox communities and among a few hundred other Jews dedicated to keeping Yiddish alive,” acknowledges Sarah Bunin Benor. “Yet, for most American Jews, Yiddish is a ‘postvernacular language,’ a source of nostalgia, crystallized in the form of jokes, tshatshkes (keepsakes), refrigerator magnets, and festivals.”

Indeed, one notable and highly significant fact about “Choosing Yiddish” is that not a single word of Yiddish is reproduced in Hebrew characters (as opposed to English transliteration) except in photographic plates.  This is clearly a conscious choice, because it allows non-Yiddish-speakers like me to fully understand the argument that is being conducted among scholars, but it also reminds us that we are locked out of the more intimate conversation that can only be conducted in what was my grandparents’ language, but not my own. Thus are we reminded that one goal of the contributors to “Choosing Yiddish” is to lure non-Yiddish speakers back into the mamaloshen.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Perspectives on occupation: Lessons from Israeli society

The argument over Israel’s presence in the territories beyond the Green Line has recently come to focus almost exclusively on security issues, but there is literally no aspect of life in Israel that is not affected by its settlement policies. Indeed, the Jewish identity of Israel, and even the prospects for its continued existence, are called into question.

So, there is much to ponder in the pages of “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation: Lessons From Israeli Society” (Oxford, $99), a collection of essays edited by Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell, both professors at Tel Aviv University. The book has been published simultaneously in English and Hebrew, and it comes at an especially awkward moment — even as Israel once again elects a government that envisions the occupation as a permanent condition.

I realize that “occupation” is a blunt and conclusionary word. Bar-Tal and Schnell acknowledge that “[m]any members of our Jewish society in Israel and abroad, and even some members of the international community, may reject our premise that the territories are occupied.” But the scholars who have contributed to the collection insist on calling it by its rightful name. The occupation “is analyzed harshly,” Michael Walzer explains in an illuminating foreword to the book. “[T]he writers are, all of them, enemies of the occupation.” Ultimately, the book is less concerned about the future threats of occupation than about how it already has distorted “every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

“This occupation began, in my view, with a just war,” Walzer writes. “But the justice of the Six-Day War does not justify what came afterward. The decision to hold the territories that the Israeli army had seized during the war (which then included the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank) might have been defensible if the land had simply been ‘held’ until Arab rejectionists were in place, as they eventually were, by Arab negotiators. But that is not what happened.”

What actually happened, according to “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation,” was a fundamental redefinition of the identity and destiny of the Jewish state. Thus, for example, Israeli leaders characterized the territories as “a peace card” in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, but Yigal Alon, then serving as minister of labor, issued an order that forbade the state survey office to publish official maps that depict the 1949 cease-fire lines. “This act, which accompanied the process of determining Israel’s secure borders along the River Jordan and across the Gaza Strip,” Schnell writes, “reveals a methodical attempt of the ruling powers to incorporate the new territory within the borders that annex the territories to the State of Israel.”

The whole debate, as the contributors show us, has grown only more acrimonious — and more consequential — because Jewish settlement in the territories is regarded as a matter of divine right by some Israelis and an existential security issue by others. Here, for example, is where the choice of language takes on profound political implications. “[O]ne of the conditions for creating support for the emerging solution of this conflict,” Tamir Magal, Neta Oren, Daniel Bar-Tal and Eran Halperin, write, “is convincing the Israeli leadership and the public that the West Bank is occupied and has been held for many years in violation of international laws and moral standards to which Israel claims to subscribe. …”

The contributors to the book — mostly Jews, but also some Arabs — are, like the editors, academic scholars, and their areas of expertise include psychology, linguistics, law, economics, political science, anthropology and geology. The text is often highly technical, but even if the lay reader finds some passages a bit challenging, those passages reward the reader with detailed information and in-depth analysis that are mostly missing from media coverage. Indeed, it is not too much to say that anyone who holds an opinion on the occupation, one way or the other, ought to read “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation,” to test his or her own opinions.

To their credit, the contributors call both Arabs and Jews to account on moral issues, too. “The consequences of the occupation, for both sides, are not only pragmatic but also moral,” Marcelo Dascal, a philosophy professor, writes. “[T]hey deepen and expand the animosities between the adversaries through their daily contact; they reinforce the most heinous features of the stereotypic perception of each other; and they reciprocally delegitimize their moral, intellectual and cultural values as human beings.”

The arguments of the men and women who contributed to this courageous book may be rejected by some readers, but their motives cannot be impugned. “We hope that the book will instigate a vivid, courageous and comprehensive debate over its premises,” the co-editors write. “Even though we recognized that the occupied people suffer more from the occupation than do the occupiers, we dedicate this book to all the Palestinian and Israeli children who suffer because of the occupation — they all deserve a better future.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Jewish Journal Book award announced

The making of a memorable book requires the skills of an alchemist. Every author starts with the raw material of his or her own experience and expertise, but it can take a certain secret ingredient — passion, vision, inspiration — to transform the dross into gold. That is a fair description of what Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman have accomplished in “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered,” published last year by Lyons Press and reviewed in these pages on Dec. 21, 2012.

Because the Stermans possess precisely that alchemical genius, the Jewish Journal Book Prize for 2013 is awarded to “The Rarest Blue,” the second-annual prize given in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance.  This award is presented each January to an author or authors for a book published during the previous calendar year, and it includes a $1,000 honorarium.

“The Rarest Blue” starts with a 2,000-year-old mystery: How did the Israelites make thread a blue color known as tekhelet that they were required by the Torah to wear on their fringed garments? The formula for making the blue dye was lost in the early centuries of the Diaspora, and generation after generation of observant Jews have been unable to comply with the biblical commandment. “And now we have only white,” the compiler of the Midrash complained in the eighth century, “for tekhelet has been hidden.” Ironically, it was only during the era of the scientific and industrial revolution that the biblical secrets began to emerge. And now the Stermans have revealed how to make what they called “the sacred, rarest blue.”

An age of broken glances: On ‘Why Love Hurts’

Each time I officiate at a marriage, I perpetrate a small fraud. I read the ketubah, the marriage contract, in its original Aramaic and then I read the “translation.” The translation is actually a confection of sweet-spun phrases about creating a home of warmth, openness, and commitment based on mutual emotional support. The original Aramaic, on the other hand, mostly explains financial obligations the husband owes the wife in case of divorce, and the property the wife brings to the marriage. In other words, the Aramaic is legal and the English is therapeutic. When the rabbis drafted the ketubah in the first centuries of the Common Era they neglected to include quotations from Maya Angelou.

Yet the more comforting translation, with its echo of pop music promises, is what the couple — and the daters they were before — thought they were getting, not transactions but transcendence, less the assurance of financial stability than the wild endorphin circus of new love. The couple heard the fusty, older/wiser warnings but clung tightly, and appropriately, to the exceptional character of their love. When prenups or family quarrels intruded on the bubble, it felt less like reality than an unwonted violation.

For most couples, the little fraud is emblematic of a bigger one. Romantic love is a foreshortened story: the princess is carried from the tower or awakened with a kiss. The prince shines, full of dash, bravery, and brio. The story stops before that same princess spends her days working and childrearing, and they both realize she actually prefers sleeping late to a princely, wakening peck on the cheek as the kids run off to school. In the tower there were no soccer shuttles or bills to pay. Fairy tales end at the beginning because the ending is not so enchanting. Even in the age of perilous sea voyages and daring rescue on horseback, romance too quickly ebbed. So how long can we expect it to endure in the rapidly accelerated age of texting, sexting, and tweets?

The path to love is strewn with paradox. According to most studies marriage benefits men more than women, yet men are less inclined to marry. The same qualities — beauty, power, wealth, wit, charisma — which make a partner attractive may render them unsuitable as a mate. Romantic failure, which used to be blamed on the other person’s inadequacy, is now an arrow to the heart of self-esteem. As for healing from the wound? There are almost as many books about romantic healing as there are diet books, and for the same reason. When no single cure works, you can count on endless suggested treatments. Often the pain endures whether one is the breaker or the breakee — as Iris Murdoch said, “jealousy lasts forever — bad news for the young.”


I read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts with both personal and professional interest. As a divorced rabbi who meets with hundreds of singles and couples, I hear the same promises and plaintive cries: “Why can I not meet the man I seek?” “Why are men incapable of commitment?” “What is wrong with me/her/him?”

Why Love Hurts looks at the social conditions that affect our romantic lives. Illouz’s book is full of arresting ideas about love in our time, even as it staggers under some academic prose and doctrinaire commitments. Hers is the book of a sociologist. What we might see as personal traits, she enlarges to social trends. You think your boyfriend is a jerk; Illouz may agree, but sees him as succumbing not to selfishness alone, but also to a widespread pathogen.

Illouz draws the contrast between an age in which choice was limited to one’s social class or village, to the modern era, when no one is, in theory, off limits:

Pickiness, which seems to plague the entire field of romantic choice, is not a psychological trait, but rather an effect of the ecology and architecture of choice: that is, it is fundamentally motivated by the desire to maximize choice in conditions where the range of choice has become almost unmanageable.

Modern romance is like dinner in Beverly Hills, always looking over one’s partner’s shoulder because someone important or alluring might enter the room. Who can commit in an age of broken glances?

Add to that uncertainty the promise of self-realization, the idea that all of us should be changing, progressing, improving — and throughout our lives. This is the Heraclitus theory of personality — you never meet the same person twice. Solidity is staying in place and in Oprahville we must all grow. The ideal self is not a stable self but rather one that can perpetually create itself anew, be reinvented tomorrow. As Illouz writes, “The cultural ideal of self-realization demands that one’s options should be kept forever open.” By definition romance involves commitment and limitation. The ever-expanding self requires boundarylessness. No surprise then that the marketplace has become a mess.

Of course if you fashion who you are, you also bear the consequences. Individuality and autonomy place the burden of one’s fate on oneself. Fault lies not in one’s social conditions (although parents still come in for a proper beating) or what Henry James called one’s “envelope of circumstances.” In a world of individuals, when romance is less about social station than interiority and emotion, if you don’t accept me, it is all about me. Illouz points out that when Jane Welsh first rejected Carlyle in the mid 19th century, he assumed it was his financial woes and not his personality. (To be fair, Carlyle thought quite well of himself.) In the marketplace of choice, with outsized emphasis on the individual, we assume an acceptance or rejection says something essential about our very self. We are more likely to feel the way Bridget did in the bestselling Bridget Jones’ Diary:

When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you do or see reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts which adds up to you got stamped “REJECT” by the one you love.

Rejection is not new. Shakespeare knew of the “pangs of despised love.” But the deeply personal wound, Illouz believes, is largely a product of modern social arrangements.

Marriage keeps slipping down the statistical slope. Without the societal assumption that everything leads to marriage, there is a paradoxical pas de deux: each person acts as though commitment is not part of the opening negotiation, the man because he does not wish it and the woman because she does. The calculation of how to pressure, when to pressure, to coax, to cajole, or to strategically retreat can lead romance columnists to sound a little like von Clausewitz. And that those same writers view the whole enterprise, with men skittish and evasive, and women strategic, has led to a flourishing of aquatic imagery, with reeling, hooking, baiting and (at times) gutting — clear signals that all is not well in the land where there are “always more fish in the sea.” Dating seems less The Little Mermaid than Jaws.


As love has shifted from a social enterprise to the individual, Illouz writes, we have learned to evaluate according to categories that are intangible, like “sexiness” which (unlike beauty) was not a marker in an earlier age. These categories entail a relentless disenchantment of love. In high school, savvy teens already know that attraction is only a rush of chemicals in the brain, or nature’s way of fooling us into reproduction. We study love as if it were botany, abandoning poetry for pathology. When we seek to understand the overwhelming emotion that drove Shelley to write, “Its passions will rock thee / As the storms rock the ravens on high,” by shoveling infatuated undergrads into MRI machines, their temporal lobes may be illuminated but little else is. Something has been lost.


The infamous internet dating profile requires a still greater intellectualization of love, with lists of categories and attributes. Modern love: science abetted by a checklist. There are few things more essentially unromantic than a multiple-choice exam.

Mass entertainment, so much more pervasive and potent than the romantic novels that sent Emma Bovary over the edge, teaches us the lesson of perfect, temporary bliss. When at the end of Ghost Patrick Swayze ascends to heaven, his soul at peace, leaving Demi Moore to tearfully wave goodbye, I recall leaving the theater thinking that I pity her next boyfriend. He will have to compete with an angelic Patrick Swayze. And then it hit me — so will the boyfriends of every woman in the theater. Not that people are so literal, but the repeated images of beautiful human beings speaking laboriously polished lines with carefully directed expressions and accents cannot help but make the guy beside you, well, a bit of a shlub. Especially if within you lurks the suspicion that he was on the shlubbish side to begin with. Besides, the qualities that promise dependability are rarely the same as those that dazzle.

Illouz explains that she has written this book primarily for women. Therefore in some deep way it is about men. In an epigraph to one of her chapters, she quotes Julian Barnes from Love, etc.:

I book that marriage therapist, naturally.

We last about 18 minutes. I explain that basically my problem with Stuart is getting him to talk about our problems.

Stuart says, “That’s because we don’t have any problems.” I say, “You see the problem?”

Men. Is the problem of love the problem of men? Illouz struggles with two consistent tensions. First is her commitment to feminism, which teaches that “power,” in her words, “must be tracked down and expelled from intimate relations.” But as everyone who has ever been in love knows, power — the having of it, the losing of it, the renouncing of it, the reclaiming of it — is the delicate heat without which the soufflé flattens. If you cannot be powerless in love you cannot know bliss. Tracking down and expelling power from intimate relations is simultaneously blindly authoritarian and sweetly naïve. The French proverb has it right: “In love there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek.” Illouz acknowledges the reality of power imbalances and male/female differences, but there is a schoolmarmish, vaguely censorious undertone, suggesting they shouldn’t really be there if all was well with the world. (What to make of this? “Instead of hammering at men their emotional incapacity, we should invoke models of emotional masculinity other than those based on sexual capital.” In other words, I suppose, since men are actually romantically stunted, let’s encourage them to be good fathers and cry at sad movies. Workable on the page, but I doubt this epicene ideal is going to persuade in the bedroom.)

The second tension is her commitment to Marxist analysis, which erases the individual. It pushes the puzzle of sociology to the brink: if this is all about society, then is the individual a helpless agent of larger forces? “The widespread literature of Mars and Venus is nothing more than an attempt to understand in psychological terms what is in fact a sociological process,” she writes.

Illouz tries to qualify the conclusion that individuals don’t matter but she is too subtle and too smart to miss the complexity of the questions. And she is surely correct that something large is going on when romantic disappointments are soothed by “hooking up,” and sex, instead of being the volcanic core of romantic mystery, is reduced to a form of advertising.

We have learned the lesson from DVRs and Netflix that everything can be revisited, nothing is lost, nothing should be missed and it is easy to live alone and have needs provided for. The essential human need, to love and be loved, suffers from each technological boost to the energies of autonomy. Into this jaded and self-sufficient world, what chance love?

Why Love Hurts is not an easy read but it is an important book. Illouz does not pine for an earlier world. Modernity brought untold blessings to us all. But even its greatest goods come with serious costs. She quotes literature, as if uneasily aware that artists have done much of her sociological work before she got there. But she doesn’t address the spiritual condition of human beings, which does not change — that yearning for something greater than ourselves. Having lost classical faith, people often seek its substitute in romance. But as Borges taught us, falling in love is creating a religion with a fallible god. Sooner or later the worshipper will be disappointed and be forced to readjust expectations.


The movie Quartet is based on a Somerset Maugham story that tells of a man whose wife publishes a book of poetry. He soon learns that all of London is talking about the work. In striking images, the poems describe a torrid affair. The husband grudgingly attends a party to celebrate his wife’s success and hears someone remark that such a book could only have come out of real experience.

He confronts his wife. She begs him to forget it, but he will not. Finally she confesses, yes they are based on reality. “Do I know the man?” he thunders. In a meek voice, she admits that he does and begs him not to go any further. But he cannot stop and demands to know who it is.

Finally in a soft voice, his wife answers, “It was you. It was you — as you were — all those years ago — in those happy days when we first met, and you loved me.” Her husband responds incredulously that the poems say that the lover died. He did, replies his wife. “The man that loved me died.”

The deepest magic of love is not first love but continuous love, which we know is not easy. But in our day even first love is not easy, either. Perhaps the title answers itself. Asking why love hurts is a little like asking why rain falls. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t love.

Who is a Jew?

When Theodore Ross was just a boy, his  mother took something away from him and never gave it back — his Jewish identity.

“If you have a tumor, you cut it out,” his mother tells him when he brings the subject up many years later. “Judaism was a tumor?” he asks. “Well, it can kill ya” she replies.

Looking back on the decision his mother made for him, Ross is compassionate. “For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity,” he writes in “Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself” (Hudson Street Press: $25.95). “She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.”

So Ross was raised as a Unitarian by his single mother, a physician from New York City who took a job at a hospital in Mississippi. Back in New York, the boy’s new faith was kept a secret from his father, who was not observant but embraced his Jewishness more warmly than his ex-wife did. “For years of my childhood in Mississippi,” Ross explains, “I lived a sort of double life: fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan, where I returned for holidays and summer breaks.”

Ross now sees himself as the victim of a “forced conversion” who suffered in adulthood from “a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.” The circumstances of his upbringing prompted him to ask a familiar question from an unfamiliar stance: “Am I a Jew?”

He knows enough about Jewish history to observe that the question is “as ancient as the First Temple and as contemporary as this week’s bestseller.” Indeed, his interest in his own Jewish heritage was sparked by an article he wrote about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico that introduced him to the distinction between forced to convert and willing conversion, in the wake of the Inquisition.

The Brooklyn-based Ross, a journalist of long experience, has written a confessional memoir, but it is cast in the mold of a journey of self-discovery across the American landscape, where he encounters Jews of every shade of belief and practice, from hip young urbanites who build their own sukkot to Lubavitchers who put on an impromptu dance show for a crowd of African-American kids, to the Schlep Sisters, a troupe of aging Jewish ladies who perform in a burlesque festival to the Yiddish songs of the Barry Sisters. 

The travels amount to a cavalcade of the varieties of Jewishness in contemporary America. He partakes of a traditional Shabbat dinner in Brooklyn: “To Orthodox Jews, their practice was not a form of Judaism,” he acknowledges. “It was Judaism.” But he also dines on pork ribs and a cheese-and-corn casserole at a barbecue joint in the company of a Reform rabbi in Kansas City. The rabbi, as it turns out, shuns the carbohydrates but gnaws with gusto on the ribs. “He was on a strict and complicated diet that involved herbal remedies and near-starvation,” Ross writes in a moment of profound irony, “and although meat was a departure from the regimen, allowed in my honor, there were limits to how much he was willing to cheat.”

But he is also drawn to theological inquiry and debate, soberly considering what Maimonides has to say to someone, like him, who is “not an atheist, at least not exactly,” but who frankly admits to his own “religious indifference.” He ventures into the most observant Jewish communities that he can find: “Most Orthodox would not consider me ba’al teshuvah,” he writes, “but I would argue otherwise, because I had in fact taken steps toward a level of observance that was new to me.” One Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn grants him the honor of a bar mitzvah by leading him phonetically through the blessings before the Torah reading. “The children joined us and had a high time pelting me with sucking candies, a symbolic stoning, [Rabbi] Klatzko explained, to remind me of the punishments for those who contravene their responsibilities as a Jewish adult.”

Ironically, he feels none of the “anxiety of identity” that prompted his mother to look on Jewishness as an obstacle to being “All-American.” He feels entirely at home as an American, and it is as a Jew that he sometimes feels like “an outsider, an imposter — someone acting the Jew.” But his book, so courageous and thus so challenging, is ultimately an affirmation. “The multiple layers of upbringing, education, culture, and class imposed on me through the course of my life only conceal the true Jewish nucleus, the atomic Judaism, the Jewish spark that persists despite all efforts to extinguish it.”

As Ross discovers, there is an expression for it in Yiddish: “pintele yid,” which he translates as “little point of a Jew.” He is willing to write honestly of his doubts, struggles and failings, but he is unwilling to cede his Jewishness to anyone else. “According to tradition and argument,” he insists, “that ‘little point’ is me.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Howard Jacobson, in retrospect and looking forward

Finkler QuestionSomething disturbs me about the way Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize winning author of “The Finkler Question,” navigates the rocky road of his fluctuating Jewish identity.  The British Jewish author, who lives in London, sometimes reminds me of the comedian Jon Stewart.  Both men seem wedded to a false sense of self that projects out into the world an aura of fake Jewish cool.  Almost 70 now, Jacobson has written many well-received comic novels that have intelligently and provocatively focused on love, sex, women, friendship and all matters Jewish.  Jacobson does not shy away from his Jewish heritage.  Like Jon Stewart, he embraces it, nervously sending out mixed signals of fear and shame alongside pride and defiance.  He is always first to make fun of himself before you do.  Jacobson’s characters are usually intellectually gifted secular Jewish men lost in the space between the ancient world of their beleaguered parents and the persistent displeasure of their non-Jewish wives.  Reading the determinedly feisty Jacobson can be deliciously captivating.  His frenzied prose is engaging and funny, but he often seems to stop himself from going beyond the comfortable terrain of high-level schtick.  It feels as if he is afraid of what he might find. This restraint seems purposeful and embodies many Jewish men of a certain age who have come to associate vulnerability with weakness, or what they might call a loser’s game.

Jacobson started writing late; he was almost 40.  As a young man, he studied at Cambridge under the esteemed literary critic F.R. Leavis.  He found the experience traumatic.  He writes, “I felt a fool the whole time I was there.  But I felt a fraud, too.  Not because my disposition took me in a non-Leavisite direction—I can’t claim to have been a Talmudic scholar in my native Manchester, but Talmudic criticism is in the blood of most Jews, and “Yes, but” is the principle on which the great Talmudic exegetes built their monumental edifice of commentary and counter-commentary.”  In other words, although Jacobson revered Leavis and his sophisticated theories about critical reading and writing, they had little to do with the reality he had experienced growing up the precocious son of working-class parents.   The world of his family was missing from Leavis’ curriculum, and Jacobson recognized he was out of place.  He was never going to be able to write a proper British literary aristocratic novel, except perhaps as farce.  He needed to embrace the world of his father, a man he describes as “a raucous market-man-cum-children’s magician, later a black-cab driver, a man who loved mirth, threw himself into good works and never read a book in his life.”  Once Jacobson freed himself from trying to be someone he could never be, he began to write feverishly about all sorts of Jewish preoccupations. 

His novels have a glaring Jewish intensity.  For example, in “The Finkler Question,” he writes about a 49-year-old Gentile named Julian Treslove who decides suddenly after being mugged that he possibly might be Jewish.  He certainly wants to be.  His two best friends are Jewish and he has always been fascinated by their unique take on things thinking “They always had something you didn’t, some verbal or theological reserve they could draw on, that would leave you stumped for a response….It was as though they spoke a secret language.  The secret language of the Jews.  In another of his fine novels, “Kalooki Nights,” Max Glickman attempts to put into words what it means to be Jewish stating “So we are an immoderate, overemphatic people, much given to exaggeration-so what?  I call it giving value for money myself.  You prick us so we bleed profusely.”  Jacobson’s Jewish characters are smart, funny, defensive, verbally gifted, and confrontational; desirous of acceptance and yet wary of it; much like Jacobson himself.

In his new work “Zoo Time” (Bloomsbury:  $26.00), 43-year-old Jewish Guy Ableman is an edgy writer living in London who is distraught by the state of the publishing world and fearful that reading is taking a permanent nosedive.  His publisher has just committed suicide and his agent is nowhere to be found.  He finds the new technological inventions like iPads and Kindle and apps disturbing interruptions that have simply made daily life more unpleasant and rude.  He is still turned on by his beautiful wife, Vanessa, but equally attracted to her well-kept and high-breasted mother, Poppy.  His marriage is stressful and argumentative, and he finds himself exhausted by having to continually deflect his wife’s anger.  She wants to write, too, and is jealous of his success and blames him for her own failures.  His obsession with his wife and her mother often overwhelms him.

Jacobson is exquisitely skilled at writing about women, even though most of it is charged with a palpable hostility.  He finds the tension between the sexes exhilarating, and he notices things about women other men never see.  For example, here is Jacobson’s Guy Ableman remembering the first time he saw his tempestuous wife when she walked into his family’s fine clothing store: “To this day I can remember everything Vanessa was wearing — the high black-patent shoes, minimal so that you go to see the arches and her instep; the paper-fine leather coat belted so tight that it did what I thought only a pencil skirt could do, which was to make a still point of tension of her behind, a tremulousness, as though some law of gravity or protuberance were being defied, the V of its fur collar like the vagina of a giantess; and pushed back a little from her red hair a Zhivago hat — Anna Karenina was who I saw (who else?) — the air from our fan heater winnowing its fine hairs, as though a Russian bear had stepped in out of the wind.”

“Zoo Time” is entertaining, witty, fast-paced, and clever.  Classic Jacobson.  But it is missing a certain emotional poignancy that was evident in “The Finkler Question,” which more penetratingly probed the chasm that exists between all Jews and Gentiles.

Jacobson is married now to his third wife, a Jewish woman whom he insists is a keeper.  He has said that he regrets that he wasn’t a better father to his only son, the child of his first brief marriage.  He is a tireless writer, and some readers may be familiar with him from his thought-provoking columns in the Independent where he muses on matters as diverse as Israel’s military policies to Kate Middleton’s recent exposure in France.  He is a strong advocate for Zionism and has written many heartfelt columns about his hostility towards portions of the new left who claim they can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, a position Jacobson scoffs at.  He has recently said that he has yet to write his memoir about his own angst-ridden childhood and is not certain if he is going to do so, since he is not sure he wants to reconnect with so much pain.  One hopes does make the attempt and gives himself permission to remove the comic mask.  That, too, is a form of Jewish liberation.

Atheists of the Book

Jews have long been called the People of the Book, but the fact is that we elevate words and even letters to the realm of the sacred. The name of God is so holy in pious tradition that we are not permitted to speak it aloud, and some of the glorious wordplay of Jewish texts, prayers and songs is the result of the effort to preserve a primal taboo. 

Even more intriguing, however, is what we dare to say aloud. “In Jewish tradition every reader is a proofreader, every student a critic and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions,” writes acclaimed Israeli novelist and public intellectual Amos Oz, and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, in “Jews and Words” (Yale University Press: $25).

The father-and-daughter collaboration is a source of some playfulness. “We have discussed and disputed topics relevant to this book,” they write together, “since one of us was about 3 years old.” Together, they ponder the miraculous role of words in creating and preserving the Jewish people across several millennia of history, and they offer a benchmark of Jewish identity that has less to do with genomes than with words on parchment, papyrus and paper. “We are not about stones, clans or chromosomes,” they insist. “Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline.”

The authors are quick to announce that they approach the subject from a nonreligious stance. “Both of us are,” they remind us, “secular Jewish Israelis,” a potent three-word phrase that rings with meaning in itself. But they refuse to cede the Bible and the Talmud to their fellow Israelis who are observant. “To secular Jews like ourselves, the Hebrew Bible is a human creation,” they write, and “[t]he Bible is … outliving its status as a holy writ.” But they also agree that the Jewish religious texts have long functioned as the root and anchor of Jewish identity: “In order to remain a family, a Jewish family perforce relied on words,” they write. “Not any words, but words that came from books.”

“Jews and Words” is the work of writers who are in intoxicated with language and in love with texts. Yet they are willing to recognize new meanings in old words, as when they use “text” as a verb to suggest our linkages with the distant past. “Like our ancestors, we are texted,” they declare. “And — if one further liberty with the English language is permitted — we are texted to our ancestors. We are the Atheists of the Book.” 

They are hot-wired to American popular culture: “Think of the Abraham-to-Seinfeld, or the Sarah-to-Hannah Arendt, proneness to argument,” they quip. They cite Philip Roth and Woody Allen, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, as readily as they turn to Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and the Pirke Avot. 

Even secularists, they remind us, are willing to entertain the subversive notion that truth and fiction are not necessarily opposites. “An archaeologist may worry that biblical accounts are mere ‘fiction,’ but we come from a different place,” they explain. “As readers, we know that it conveys truths. As secular Jews, we have no stake in the historicity of Moses or Miriam.” Storytellers may “invent plots and mess around with evidence,” they concede, “while telling us things about the universe and humankind that we recognize as genuine and profound.”

There are many ways to understand and use “Jews and Words.” It is a heart-stirring tribute to the enduring power of our religious writings, a spirited celebration of a certain kind of Jewish genius that has lasted just as long and a gloss on the Tanakh and the Talmud that allows us to approach the old texts from new points of entry. Above all, father and daughter, authentic and committed Zionists whose beliefs are the same as those of the founders of modern Israel, offer us a way of seeing ourselves not as the victims of history but the makers of history.

“The annals of the Jews contradict the facile assertion that history is written by the winning side,” they write. “Even when they lost, and lost terribly, the Israelites, and then the Jews, took great care to tell the stories themselves. They told their offspring bluntly and honestly all the bad things that had happened: sin and punishment, defeat and exile, catastrophe and flight. It is not a pleasant history, but it is consistently self-authored. To many children, it was — and is — a captivating, troubling, and ultimately exhilarating legacy.”

Leave it to Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger to pick exactly the right words.  Captivating, troubling and exhilarating — all three of these adjectives apply with equal force to “Jews and Words,” an important and invigorating contemplation of the shared experiences and values that have always defined the Jewish people.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Tracing Jewish genetics

The single most hotly debated (and often heartbreaking) issue of Jewish identity is whether and to what extent we carry our Jewishness in our blood. It’s a question that took on life-and-death implications during the Spanish Inquisition and again during the Shoah, but it still arises in Israel today when it comes to whether a man or woman is entitled to be married there or to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

For Harry Ostrer, a professor of pathology and genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it is question that can be answered by the science of DNA, as he explains in “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People” (Oxford University Press: $24.95).

“It was my effort as a medical geneticist to bring the benefits of contemporary human genetics to my own people and to understand my Jewishness,” he explains. “For me, the work with various aspects of Jewish genetics provided a new framework for thinking about Jews.”

Yet Ostrer himself acknowledges that early reports of his work in Jewish genetics prompted a fierce and combative response in some circles. One commentator, for example, declared that “Hitler would have been pleased by our findings.” Indeed, Ostrer’s stated purpose in recasting his scientific research into a book for a general readership is to “tone down the debate into a more thoughtful realm.”

The story begins with the observation that certain diseases seemed to occur more often in Jewish patients, an issue that was investigated in the early 20th century by anthropologist Maurice Fishberg. He found that diabetes was not “a racial disease” — contrary to the belief of some German doctors who called it Judenkrankeit, that is, a Jewish disease — but he pointed out that the condition then known as “amaurotic family idiocy” (now known as Tay-Sachs disease) “occurred almost exclusively among Jews.”

Fishberg, as it happens, suffered from many of the same misconceptions that have always plagued the subject of Jewish identity, including the notion that someone can “look Jewish.” He also concluded that “Jews were not a pure race but a racial composite, having mixed with surrounding populations during their long history,” a statement that hints at scientific truth, even though it relies on the unfortunate terminology of race. Fishberg had glimpsed something that Ostrer would later prove: “ ‘Looking Jewish,’ ” explains Ostrer, “should reflect the common geographic origin of contemporary Jewish people with evidence of a shared genetic legacy among themselves.”

While it is treacherous to treat the Bible as a work of history, it is true that the Jewish population of ancient Israel was dispersed by various foreign conquerors. Over two millennia of exile, the Jewish genetic profile came to include an “admixture with other populations,” as Ostrer writes. Diversity, rather than purity, is a fact of Jewish identity, both culturally and genetically. But Ostrer wanted to know if some genetic evidence links a contemporary Jewish man or woman to the Jews of biblical Israel.

The answer, as it turns out, is yes. He acknowledges the differences in various Jewish communities — Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Iranian and so on — but he points out that Jews around the world share a genetic heritage that points to a common point of origin in ancient Israel. “All of the populations, with the exception of the Indians and Ethiopians, had mitochondrial genomes that were of Middle Eastern origin.”

Some of Ostrer’s surmises are truly shocking.  He argues that the dating of genetic mutation “provid[es] to genetics what carbon dating has provided to archaeology and paleontology,” and suggests that the increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, Parkinson’s disease and hemophilia entered the Jewish genetic profile during or shortly after the reigns of David and Solomon.

On the yearnful aspirations of contemporary Jews who regard themselves as lineal descendants of David and Solomon, however, Ostrer is less encouraging. Indeed, he characterizes the effort to find a “Davidic Y-chromosomal lineage” to be “a flop.” And he warns that the search for one’s origins is not always an uplifting enterprise: “Some men will walk taller when they learn about shared ancestry with the Cohanim,” he warns. “Others will be surprised to learn about their ancestral skeletons in the closet.”

Ostrer acknowledges the sharper edges of the debate in Israel and the Diaspora over “who is a Jew” and what it means for the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. But he insists that it is wrong to assume that Jewishness is essentially self-defined as a religious or cultural affiliation. “The evidence for biological Jewishness,” he insists, “has become incontrovertible.”

“[T]he Jews can be said to be a people with a shared genetic legacy,” he sums up, “although not all Jews share the same genes, nor is having part of that legacy a requirement for being Jewish.”

Ostrer approaches the whole subject from a scientific stance, and he has something provocative but also important to say to any reader who has wondered about what it takes to be an authentic Jew. But there are some other consequential implications to his assertion that Jews carry “a 3,000-year genetic legacy,” if only because it soundly repudiates the claims of Ahmadinejad and his fellow thinkers in the Muslim world that Jews are only newcomers and interlopers in the place that was the site of biblical Israel.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

‘Jews and Booze,’ producers, consumers and some extortionists

Marni Davis had me with the title of her book, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition” (New York University Press: $32).  But the book itself, an academic monograph that is also highly readable, is an eye-opener.

Davis, a history professor at Georgia State University, focuses on the surprising subject of Jewish bootleggers during Prohibition in the 1920s.  But her monograph also offers some unaccustomed insights into Jewish attitudes toward alcohol — “the Jew drinks,” said one American rabbi in the 19th century, “but he knows when to stop” — and, especially, the liquor industry as a point of entry into American commerce and culture.

Prohibition, first enacted in 1919, was seen as a problem by the Jewish community. “American Jews had been fierce critics of temperance,” she reports, and for more than one reason. To be sure, “they sensed its underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance,” she explains, but they also acted out of economic self-interest: “Beer, wine, and liquor commerce had served as a source of both individual and communal upward mobility for American Jews since before the Civil War.”

Now, however, Jewish participation in the liquor industry was the target of anti-Semitic propaganda. Henry Ford, a relentless Jew-hater, propagandized that “the Jews are on the side of liquor and always have been.”  Davis points out that some old and hateful Jewish stereotypes were dusted off and some new ones invented by Prohibition activists: “the wealthy arriviste Jewish distiller and wholesaler; the Jewish saloon-keeper and liquor store owner who sold alcohol in impoverished communities; and, after the Eighteenth Amendment gained the force of law in 1920, the Jewish bootlegger.”

Davis reveals some Jewish traditions that will come as a surprise to most of her readers.  Jews were prominent in brewing, distilling and selling alcoholic beverages in ancient Babylon under Persian rule, and they played the same role in the Middle Ages, both in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Perhaps more familiar is the fact that distilling and tavern-keeping were among “the few occupations to Jews in the crowded and impoverished Pale” in tsarist Russia. When Jewish immigrants arrived in America in the 19th century, the business opportunities in the liquor trade— starting with kosher wine but quickly moving into beer, wine and spirits — represented what Davis calls “a powerful link between their past and their present.”

Business success opened the way for Jewish participation in American politics and culture.  Ben Dreyfus, the “wine king of Anaheim,” was elected to the city council and then the office of mayor of his adopted Southern California community.  Charles Fleishmann, a distiller in Cincinnati, served in the Ohio state senate.  And Cassius Tillman, a Jewish saloonkeeper in Natchez, Miss., served as town sheriff. At the same time, however, the Jewish presence in the liquor trade attracted unwelcome attention from critics who associated alcohol and the places that sold it with vice, crime and race-mixing. Even the iconography of liquor advertisements — the ads for the Rosenfield Bros. distillery in Chicago featured a bevy of alluring women, some scantily clad and some naked — was condemned in some circles on the grounds that “such images inflamed the lust of the ‘black beast rapist.’”

Putting aside such slanders, it is also true that the advent of Prohibition brought Jews into the underground economy of bootlegging, not only Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Moe Dalitz but also “the Bronfman family of Montreal, via Saskatchewan and, before that, Bessarabia.” Davis reports that “[t]he Jewish bootleggers [they] supplied ran so much Canadian alcohol across Lake Erie that locals referred to it as ‘the Jewish Lake.’”

Davis grapples with some of the most volatile issues in Jewish identity when it comes to the famous Jewish gangsters like Lansky and Dalitz, whose exploits are sometimes celebrated as “models of rough, devil-may-care Jewish masculinity.”  She wholly debunks the sentimental myth that has come to be attached to these “tough Jews” by pointing out, among other things, that “they regularly exploited Jewish merchants through extortion.”

She points out, too, that the Jewish community faced an awkward problem during Prohibition precisely because wine is so central to Jewish ritual. Negotiations were opened with Prohibition officials, and the result was that rabbis were authorized to distribute wine to their congregants, and licensed shops were opened where “Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes” was available for purchase.

Even Jewish observers, however, questioned whether the millions of gallons of wine that were purchased by Jews were actually for ritual use. “If these figures were a true index of Jewish devotion to the historical customs of their forefathers,” cracked one Jewish publication, “it would indicate a rapid growth of Judaism.” And Davis points out that “rabbis” of dubious authenticity “claimed new and enormous congregations filled with members named Houlihan and Maguire.”

By 1933, America’s troublesome experiment with Prohibition was over, and Jews re-entered the legalized liquor industry with even greater success. “The Canadian distiller Samuel Bronfman,” for example, “hit the ground running,” and so did Lewis Rosensteil of Schenley Distillers. But the damage that bootlegging had inflicted on the reputation of the Jewish community remained and needed to be repaired. “Bronfman and Rosensteil sought to further their respectability through philanthropy,” explains Davis, “and both men were effusively generous in their charity to Jewish organizations.”

Prohibition is shown to have both a dark side and a bright side in the pages of “Jews and Booze,” and it is to the author’s credit that she has produced a work of serious scholarship that is also witty, funny and smart.

“Commercialism Controlled by these Pagan Devils called Jews,” ran one racist tract, “Has wrought its curse to American Patriots.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at