Inner Giggler Productions
Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress
Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.
That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”
The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.
The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.
“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”
For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.
Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.
Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.
“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”
On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”
In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.
Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”
His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.
At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.
His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.
The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.
Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.
It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:
“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”
“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”
“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”
“Barbra will always love me.”
As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.
Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”
Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.
He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”
Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.
In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”
He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.
“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”
Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.
At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”
He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.
“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”
Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!
We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.
Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.
Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.
Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.
Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.
Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”
Are we living up to this commandment?
Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.
I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?
Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.
“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”
If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.
Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.
This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?
As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”
Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.
Where the Boys Aren’t
A Step Into Secular
Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags.
“I got some clothes, this plaid shirt, two for $5, this leather jacket just $20,” says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the Chasidic world he comes from. “I didn’t know what to buy, my roommate went with me, he told me what’s nice,” he says, fingering a sweater gingerly.
Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid, born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community.
But now he’s entering the secular world.
In September, he shaved his beard, left his parent’s home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment.
“I found it on craigslist,” he says with pride, referring to the online classified site.
His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the Charedi world transition into secular society.
No one knows how many American Jews have left the ultra-Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.
While the organized Jewish world doesn’t usually think of Chasidic dropouts as “Jews in need,” outsiders can’t begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.
Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness — and sometimes drug abuse.
“People who have decided to make this transition don’t have a place to go,” says Hella Winston, the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005).
Chaim isn’t using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from ultra-Orthodoxy to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn’t happen overnight.
A year and a half ago, he says, “I heard there was such a place as a public library,” where he could find a computer and Internet access.
“I didn’t know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen,” he says, smiling in embarrassment.
He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized “it’s not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community.”
Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his Chasidic world.
Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays.
“I’d changed in my mind a long time ago,” he says. “Something pushed me away, I don’t know what.”
He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn’t know how to begin studying for the test.
In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher.
She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-Chasidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class.
This summer, Chaim passed his exam. He’s in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn’t gone on a date yet — “Socially, I’m very awkward,” he admits — but says he’s looking forward to that, too.
The transition can be difficult.
Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his Chasidic community.
“He had nowhere to go,” Winston says. “America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it’s important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost.”
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees.
“Missing their families [is a major problem],” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (University of California Press, 1999). “For most people in the Charedi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.”
And when they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, Heilman says.
A support system like Footsteps didn’t exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago.
She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families.
“I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,” Schwartz says. “I wanted an education.”
She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got a bachelor’s degree.
But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former Chasidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born.
Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills.
Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and an anonymous donor, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City.
More than 200 former Chasidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities.
Many of the former Chasidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Jewish identities.
Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003, along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says “a very complicated and lonely process,” and she wishes Footsteps had been around.
The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays.
“My son is very aware he is Jewish, the environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised,” she says.
In November they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers.
“The people who come don’t go to synagogue, they’re not religious,” Deutsch says. “We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros,” or Shabbat songs they grew up with.
“For some people the singing brings up bad memories,” she admits. “But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, now that it’s gone, there’s a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life.”
Lieberman War View Triggers Backlash
Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness
Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.
In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.
Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.
Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?
Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.
No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.
Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.
What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?
Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.
Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.
They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.
Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.
After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.
He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.
Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”
Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.
David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”
Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.
“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.
Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.
Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.
Indifference Enables Moscow Shul Attack
‘One People’ Adopts Novel Plan on Book
Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei knew his congregants at Westwood’s Sinai Temple loved reading when about 20 of them braved the evening rush hour last November for an event at the University of Judaism (UJ) celebrating the 1939 talmudic novel, “As a Driven Leaf.”
“This was sandwiched in between two major adult learning weekends,” said Schuldenfrei, still amazed two months later.
The novel by the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg is currently being read at two dozen local synagogues in the new “One People/One Book” program, an attempt to broaden Jewish communal learning by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. It joins other Jewish book group gatherings at the Skirball Cultural Center and Orange County’s Bureau of Jewish Education.
The “One People/One Book” plan is for synagogue members to meet and discuss “As a Driven Leaf” in small groups at least four times between last November’s opening at the UJ and a closing event on May 24 at Milken Community High School.
“Every synagogue is sort of coordinating this in a different way,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “In some synagogues, it’s just lay people studying.”
Steinberg’s well-received book is a fictionalized portrait of Elisha ben Abuyah, a dissident talmudic scholar in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The “One People/One Book” study guide mixes the book’s ideas with Torah texts.
“This book lends itself to so many profound themes,” Diamond said. “Modernity vs. tradition, forgiveness and repentance.”
The board’s president, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox B’nai David Judea Congregation, worked last year to develop “One People/One Book” with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of the Reform congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood. The new learning program came after the board held annual interdenominational “Meeting in Torah” study nights for six years, but interest in that waned.
“For the first couple of years, it was very novel,” Kanefsky said. “Over the course of years, it became one part of the landscape.”
The new “One People/One Book” program replaces the one night of annual “Meeting in Torah,” with its opening and closing gatherings and smaller synagogue discussion groups.
“This way, we have two of those everyone-coming-together events and the four study groups in between,” Kanefsky said.
At Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, people are absorbing the book in clusters.
“We are reading the book in different settings around the congregation,” Senior Rabbi Laura Geller said. “Two different classes are including it in their reading, so it’s happening all around the congregation.”
Geller said she feels that her 50 to 60 congregants who are reading Steinberg’s book together are gaining “a deeper understanding of rabbinic Judaism. It’s putting flesh and blood on names. I also think that they are finding themselves in the book.”
Schuldenfrei said Sinai Temple will start discussing “As a Driven Leaf” in March, with the Conservative synagogue currently busy marking it its centennial anniversary.
Beyond “One People/One Book,” the Jewish community has other ongoing book groups.
The Skirball Cultural Center’s book group has an “Echoes of the Past” theme set around five novels and nonfiction books to be discussed at monthly meetings through June. The first meeting, on Feb. 14, will examine Australian writer Anna Funder’s “Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall” (Granta Books, 2003).
Skirball book lovers in March will read Brian Morton’s “A Window Across the River” (Harcourt, 2003), followed in April by Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” (Vintage, 2005). In May, the book group will read James McBride’s “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (Riverhead Trade, 2001) and in June Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” (Picador, 2005).
In Orange County, the Bureau of Jewish Education is in the midst of 30 weeks of Tuesday morning book club meetings around the women-driven theme, “Foundations: Making Our Wilderness Bloom.”
The bureau’s Web site lists six books anchoring the theme: Haviva Ner-David’s “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination” (JFL Books, 2000); “A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey” (State University of New York Press, 1999), by Merle Feld, and Kim Chernin’s “In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story” (Harper Perennial, 1994).
Also listed are the Rebecca Goldstein novel, “Mind-Body Problem” (Penguin, 1993); Anzia Yerzierska’s, “Bread Givers: A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New World” (G. Braziller, 1975), and Gina Nihai’s “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith” (Washington Square Press, 2000).
In addition, the Santa Monica Public Library is exploring Jewish books with its program, “Between Two Worlds: Stories of Estrangement and Homecoming,” meeting the third Tuesday of each month. It will start on Feb. 21 with Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language” (Penguin, 1990), followed March 21 by a discussion of Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (Penguin reissued edition, 2004). Scheduled for April 18 is the Andrea Aciman memoir, “Out of Egypt” (Riverhead Trade, 1996).
Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow
Save Darfur – I Mean It
“Do not stand idly by. Save Darfur.”
More than once a person has looked at this statement printed on the green wristband that I wear on my right arm. Usually, they read it unenthusiastically and then disregard it. But occasionally, someone asks what it means, and I am quick to respond with a brief description of what is going on in Sudan. I know many people couldn’t care less about my almost rehearsed plea to help to stop the genocide. Yet I will not stand idly by while so many others do.
There are so many issues and problems in the world. How does one know what to focus on? Why do we, in the United States, need to worry about this faraway region of Africa, which is just part of a larger continent of peoples who also need our money and support?
The answer is simple, really. We have witnessed genocide before. And by the time the people of the world took notice, there were 6 million Jews dead.
Knowing this should give us, as Jews, all the more reason to make a difference in Darfur. The Holocaust was tragic, unfair and a huge test of faith both to Jews and to other religious people. Today, there is absolutely no reason to watch another community suffer the same way we did.
The truth is that the way in which the government of Sudan and regional leaders are dealing with economic, political and ethnic-based conflict is disgusting. The Arab-Africans and non-Arab Africans are fighting over water and land, letting scarce resources and ethnic hatred push them into a Civil War that they cannot end on their own.
Why should we make Darfur our problem? Why shouldn’t we? Where does society come off in thinking that refugees, and the diseased, and the starved, and those harassed by the Janjaweed can save themselves? Since when has stopping mass murder been put on the to-do list of the world unless we as citizens make it so?
Some 400,000 people have died since February 2003, when all this began. And about 100 more die everyday. More than 2 million have been forced to leave their homes.
Why are 80 percent of Darfur children under the age of 5 suffering from severe malnutrition? Why are women and girls being raped? Why are children getting abducted and watching their villages burn to the ground? Why are water supplies being poisoned?
Because no one is stopping it.
What can we do?
First, pass on the information.
Write to your newspapers and your aunts in Idaho. Buy a bracelet; wear it proud. Wear a T-shirt. Give a T-shirt. Take every opportunity you have to tell a neighbor or a classmate. Volunteer with Jewish World Watch to educate more people about the conditions.
If every person in America knew about this genocide, something would be done about it.
Do not wait for a movie to come out years from now about how awful it all was. Don’t you dare. Because now you know. And you have no excuse.
Do not stand idly by. Save Darfur.
Laura Donney is a freshman at the Hamilton High School Academy of Music and a volunteer for Jewish World Watch (“> firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Developing Reputation
Rice Weaves Rich Tale of a Young Jesus
“Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95).
Biblical fiction is a perilous business. Having committed not one but two such indiscretions in my time — a 1993 novel titled, “In the Shade of the Terebinth,” and a year later another called, “The Gospel of Joseph” — I know that many authors try to avoid the pitfalls of the genre by approaching the biblical tale from an odd or indirect angle. This is most often done through subsidiary characters, thereby shedding light on the story that everyone knows by telling a tale that no one does.
Anne Rice’s new novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the first, according to its author, in a projected three- or even four-novel “autobiography” of Jesus, will have none of that. She tackles her story head-on, framing it as a first-person narrative of the thoughts and fears of a 7-year-old Jesus en route from exile in Egypt to his family’s home in Nazareth.
From the first page, this is a Jesus bewildered by the unusual powers he discovers in himself. He can make it snow; he can raise the dead — all of which is material Rice has drawn from the so-called apocryphal gospels, third or fourth century collections of legends and sayings that are often focused on Jesus’ childhood. Most of all, he is haunted by a recurring sense that family members know something about his origins and identity that they’re not yet able to tell him.
“An angel had come,” Rice has her central character muse, “an angel to my mother; and no man had been my father; but what did such a thing mean?”
That, in a nutshell, is Rice’s story, the outlines of which are familiar to most readers, Christian and non-Christian alike. What is not so familiar is the rich tapestry of first century Jewish and family life into which she plunges her characters.
Often pictured in Christian iconography as solitary figures, lost in a unique and incommunicable holiness, Rice’s “holy family” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by contrast, is part of a large, boisterous, affectionate Jewish clan, living a full, observant Jewish life together, full of rituals and prayers and the rhythm of the holy day feasts.
“Finally, the Sabbath was upon us. It came so quick. But the women were ready, with all the food prepared ahead of time, and it was a feast of dried fish that had been plumped in wine and then roasted, together with dates, nuts I’d never tasted before, and fresh fruit from the farmland around us, as well as plenty of olives and other splendid things…. We said our prayers of thanksgiving for our safe homecoming and began our study, all together, singing and talking and happy that it was our first Sabbath in our home.”
This is the most persuasive aspect of the book: Jesus lives, sleeps, eats, argues, talks politics and prays with a gaggle of aunts, cousins and near relatives. I was instantly reminded of an Israeli friend in Jerusalem who, when I once asked him to lunch, responded laconically, “You can’t afford it. My family and I, we move in 30s.”
The degree of accuracy of Rice’s account of Jewish life in first century Palestine is less important than the considerable pains she takes to imagine Jesus in that vital cultural and religious context: praying in a synagogue, studying Torah, observing Shabbat, bathing in a mikvah, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
It’s a vitally important effort, and, perhaps, one of the most important services such fictional depictions of the life of Jesus perform for the reader. Such efforts situate Jesus in an authentically Jewish world and help us imagine him in it.
As such, they exemplify one of post-Holocaust Christianity’s most powerful, and salutary tendencies, the ongoing efforts to see Christianity as rooted in ancient Judaism, in common sources, in particular the Hebrew Scriptures and in a vital and living relationship with the Jewish people.
Contemporary Christians are only too aware that the imagination may be religiously misused to catastrophic effect. As the medieval Passion plays or the Oberammergau festival amply demonstrate, it is not a matter of indifference whether Jesus is pictured as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan, or as divorced from or hostile to his people and culture.
All this is quite a departure for Rice, who for decades has built her career on New Orleans gothic and an epic series of best-selling vampire chronicles. As one reviewer quipped, “What is this? ‘Interviews With the Messiah’?” a reference to Rice’s best-known book, “Interview With the Vampire.”
Rice, of course, is hardly alone in her literary attraction to the life of Jesus. It’s worth noting that the publication of Rice’s “Christ the Lord” coincides with the release of another piece of Christological fiction, “Jesus: The Novel” (Zondervan) by National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin Jr. In fact, modern authors seem particularly drawn to the story of Jesus. Nikos Kazantzakis, Robert Graves, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, Anthony Burgess, the Yiddish writer Scholem Asch, Jose Saramago are a few of the major writers who’ve tried their hand at a Jesus novel or two.
Most of these novelists had axes to grind, however. Kazantzakis’ fiction, regardless of subject, is tormented by the dualism of flesh and spirit. Robert Graves’ “King Jesus” is less a study of the historical figure than a vehicle for the poet’s eccentric, though often entertaining, religious speculations.
Rice’s intentions are purer. As she puts it in her long author’s note at the end of the novel:
“The challenge was to write about the Jesus of the Gospels…. Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel…. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels … and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.”
One of the pleasures of this book — indeed, of this whole genre — is placing the bare bones of biblical accounts into the imagined context of the times, of the sights, smells and rhythms of daily life in the ancient world.
Rice is very concerned to get the details right.
“At last we began dipping our bread,” Rice’s young Jesus relates. “It was so good — not just a sauce but a thick pottage of lentils and soft-cooked beans and peppers and spices. And there were plenty of dried figs to chew after the hot flavor of the pottage….”
She can be more than a little obvious in introducing every possible political actor in Second Temple period Palestine to the child Jesus, as he and his large extended family make their way to Galilee. (Roman soldiers, marauders, brigands, Zealots — Can the group not manage to avoid a single known peril?) Nevertheless, she places Jesus, accurately, in a first century milieu of political instability, rebellion, lawlessness and Roman brutality.
“I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. They [the Roman soldiers] had said ‘crucify,’ and I knew what crucifixion was. I’d seen crucifixion outside Alexandra, though only with quick looks, because we wanted never, never to stare at a crucified man. Nailed to a cross, stripped of all clothes and miserably naked as he died, a crucified man was a terrible shameful sight.”
Finally, it is Rice’s sincere and generally well-informed attempt to place Jesus not merely in plausible first century surroundings but in the rich and vibrant Jewish world we recognize from the ancient sources that make her exercise especially worthwhile.
In view of the long and tragic history of the evils to which a misinformed imagination can be put, Rice’s honest offering is no small thing.
Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and his book War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans), has just been released.
Famous and Jewish