Tuesday, November 22
American Jewish Committee and Temple Beth Sholom join with various Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Sikh organizations for a special Orange County-wide interfaith Thanksgiving service, celebrating the diversity of America’s cultures and faiths. The themes of hunger and homelessness will also be addressed, and participants are encouraged to donate to Orange County’s Second Harvest.
7 p.m. Free. Wallace All Faiths Chapel, Chapman University Campus, University Drive, Orange. (949) 660-8525.
Wednesday, November 23
Now at the Jewish Artist Network (JAN) Gallery is the group show, “Chance,” an exhibition of abstract paintings “for peace and the future.” The seven exhibitors will donate 20 percent of sales to the purchase of art supplies for underprivileged children.
Through Nov. 28. 8 p.m.-midnight (Tues., Thurs. and Sat.) or by appointment. 661 N. Spaulding Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 230-8193.
Thursday, November 24
What’s with Jewish guys wanting to be rappers? One more group for your, um, listening pleasure is Chutzpah, which recently released an eponymous CD. That is, if you can get over the hip-hop posturing and the disturbing image of the hairiest white guy we’ve seen in a basketball jersey.
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Friday, November 25
Opening this week is the Hammer Museum’s “Masters of 20th Century American Comics” exhibition. The extensive show features in depth views of works by 15 of the most celebrated American comic strip and comic book creators, including Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine), R. Crumb (Zap Comix contributor) and Art Spiegleman (“Maus”).
10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7041.
Surprise: Raichel Is All About Love
A New Blend of Chick-Lit Sleuth
“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte” (Red Dress Ink, $17.95)
Like her protagonist Sophie Katz, Kyra Davis has skin the color of a “well-brewed latte.” That’s why she has spent a large portion of her life fielding comments about her ethnicity.
There was her supervisor at a clothing store, for example, who asked about her Star of David necklace, since how could Davis be Jewish when she looks black? Or all the times people have assumed she’s Puerto Rican and lecture her on taking pride in one’s heritage when they discover she can’t speak Spanish.
“Occasionally, when people ask me where I’m from, I’ll make up some country in Africa and act really offended if they say they never heard of it,” Davis said.
Growing up black and Jewish has paid off for the 32-year-old Davis, whose debut novel, “Sex, Murder and a Double Latte,” manages to address issues of race and religion while blurring the lines between mystery and chick-lit fiction. “So many books with ethnic characters don’t make it in the mainstream,” said Davis, who will be reading at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 24. “But here, I’ve got this biracial protagonist and I’m thrilled that publishers are opening their minds. Of course, Sophie is both Jewish and black, so I guess she’s doubled her market.”
Davis, who signed a four-book deal with her publisher, joins a small-yet-growing group of new chick-lit authors like Laurie Gwen Shapiro (“The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and Elise Abrams Miller (“Star Craving Mad”), who write about distinctly Jewish characters. Due out next month, Davis’ novel stars mystery writer and frappuccino addict Sophie Katz, who’s convinced that someone wants to kill her by re-enacting scenes from one of her books. To complicate matters, she’s dating one of her murder suspects — a dashing Russian Israeli who likes making l’chaim toasts in bars. And, of course, Sophie’s mother piles on plenty of Jewish guilt as her daughter plays sleuth. “What is this, you’re discovering bodies now? Why can’t you live a nice, normal life like your sister?”
Margaret Marbury, executive editor of MIRA Books and Red Dress Ink, says she had been searching for the “perfect chick-lit mystery but most I saw either had too much mystery and too little girl stuff or vice versa. Kyra’s book has the perfect balance.”
Marbury, who rejects most of the hundreds of manuscripts she reads every year, adds that she’s “really picky about female protagonists. But the major draw of Kyra’s book was her main character, Sophie. She’s real, multidimensional, sympathetic and incredibly funny.”
In a telephone interview from her San Francisco home, Davis, gregarious and effusive, describes a rags-to-riches saga that bears some striking similarities to J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame. Like Rowling, Davis was a single mother with a precarious financial situation when she began writing her novel.
“My life was falling apart and I wanted to get lost in a fictional world,” she says.
Born to a black father and a Jewish mother, Davis primarily grew up in Santa Cruz. Raised by her mother and maternal grandparents, “we were a High Holidays kind of family,” she says. “But I’ve always felt at home in the Jewish community.”
Though her grandmother always thought that her granddaughter should be a writer, Davis originally wanted to be an actress. After graduating high school, she opted to pursue fashion marketing and merchandising and spent some time in New York before returning to San Francisco to study business and humanities at Golden Gate University. She married, had a son and found a job as a marketing manager of an upscale sports club.
In 2001, Davis filed for divorce and felt her life had “become a Woody Allen joke. I had all these plans and none of them worked out,” she says. “I was a single mother afraid of losing the house my grandfather built.”
When Davis began to write, she knew she wanted to create “escapist fiction” but considering her state of affairs, “definitely not romance. I had all this anxiety and that lent itself to writing a murder mystery,” she says. “Just take all your pent-up stuff and kill people off on the page.”
Davis consulted a few books on fiction writing, worked during her lunch hours and late at night and after two years of labor, had a completed manuscript. Her mother covered the expense for a writing conference and Davis traveled there to pitch her book. Davis soon found an agent who swiftly secured a deal at Red Dress Ink.
“It’s an American dream story,” Davis says. “But it never would have happened if I hadn’t gone through all these challenges. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have written this manuscript if my life was going well.”
Now that she no longer needs a day job, Davis plans to write two novels a year and stay home with her 5-year-old son Isaac.
While she of course hopes that her books will be successful, more importantly “this whole experience has taught me that I have the strength and ability to get through some really bad stuff,” she says. “I can pursue my passions and dreams and demonstrate it for my son so that one day, he can do it, too.”
Kyra Davis will be at Borders-Brentano’s booth No. 201 on Sunday, April 24, at noon, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. For more information, visit www.kyradavis.com or www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks/.
Mother’s Life No Longer a Mystery
The Many Lives of Lev Nussimbaum
“The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House, $25.95).
Lev Nussimbaum lived as though life were theater, inventing an identity, dressing the part, shifting scenes, seeking audiences everywhere. He thought he could keep rewriting the ending, believed he could talk his way out of anything including his Jewish past, but ultimately he could not.
Nussimbaum was born in Baku in 1905, the son of a Russian Jewish émigré who made a fortune in the oil business. In a case of hiding in plain sight, he later on became known as Essad Bey, a well-known writer of books on Islam and global politics, and then Kurban Said, a novelist whose best-known work, “Ali and Nino,” published in 1937, is still in print.
Tom Reiss spent seven years trying to untangle the threads of this most unusual life. His new book is a richly detailed biography that’s also a memoir of his quest and an uncommon view into the Holocaust era. “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House) makes for fascinating reading.
From childhood, Nussimbaum daydreamed of the East, of Turkish warriors, Persian princesses and Arabic architecture. After the Russian Revolution, he and his father fled from Baku to Turkestan and then across the desert in a 50-camel caravan, finally arriving in Constantinople and then Paris. They moved to Berlin, where he secretly attended high school and university simultaneously, “cramming his head full of the mysteries of the East,” as Reiss writes.
At a time when many European Jews were interested in Orientalism, Nussimbaum went a step further and converted to Islam. He enjoyed dressing in full regalia, and was celebrated in literary and intellectual circles for his work, publishing 16 books — including biographies of Lenin and Stalin — before the age of 30. As Essad Bey, he married a Jewish heiress, and when their marriage fell apart in the late 1930s, the story was reported in tabloid newspapers around the world.
He died in Positano, Italy in 1942 at age 36, while under house arrest; although the courtly gentleman was known by townspeople as the Muslim, his Jewish identity was suspect. He was impoverished, unable to collect royalties due on his books. One of the remaining mysteries of his life is why he went to Italy — and offered to write a biography of Mussolini — and then chose to stay there, when he might have had a chance of escaping to the United States or elsewhere. He’s buried in a cliffside cemetery in Positano, the tombstone set to face Mecca.
It’s no surprise that researching a life as unusual as this one would entail remarkable adventures. Reiss, who was dogged in his research and reporting, traveled to 10 countries, interviewing a range of relatives, publishers, aged childhood friends of his subject in Baku, others who claimed to know another author of “Ali and Nino.” Doors seemed to open to Reiss at unexpected moments, yielding gifts.
Reiss found the woman who took over the publishing company (after the Jewish owners were expelled) that published much of Nussimbaum’s work in Vienna. She had gone to see Lev in Positano, and returned with six small leather notebooks in which he had handwritten his final and unpublished work, “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love.” She kept them in a closet for more than 50 years and presented them to Reiss, who was then able to fill in many gaps in the story. Another great discovery was a box of letters, recording a correspondence between Nussimbaum and Pima Andreae, an influential Italian salon hostess who tried to help him in Positano. Nussimbaum was a man who never wrote a boring letter. Theirs was an intellectual love affair, and she was his last link to the outside world. He reveals his deep sadness that in the end he could no longer protect his father, who ultimately died in Treblinka.
Reiss was drawn to Nussimbaum’s story during a trip to Baku in 1998, on assignment for a travel piece. A friend recommended “Ali and Nino” as a useful guide to the city. The author named on the cover was Kurban Said, and Reiss learned there was some disagreement as to Said’s true identity. At the same time, he happened to pick up one of Essad Bey’s early books in his hotel, a memoir and history titled “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” and he immediately saw connections between the two works.
As he got more involved in tracking down the truth about Nussimbaum, the 40-year-old Reiss came to see his subject as a character he had been waiting his whole life to meet, as he said. Reiss is the grandson of German Jews who left in the 1930s, although many relatives remained trapped in Europe; his mother came to the United States in 1948 as a French Jewish war orphan. In his early childhood years, Reiss lived among relatives in Washington Heights before his family moved to Texas and then Massachusetts. The book is dedicated in part to his late great-uncle Lolek, an émigré who would have been Nussimbaum’s contemporary and regaled him with stories of his adventures.
Offhandedly, Reiss refers to himself as a novelist.
“That’s how I write,” he said, “through the experiences of individuals. I think of myself as a novelist who must write the truth.”
He added that he has been obsessed with facts since childhood.
If there has been a theme to Reiss’s books and articles — he wrote about neo-Nazis in Dresden for The Wall Street Journal, a book called “Fuhrer-Ex” on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe — it has been “trying to find the back door into the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe,” he said. “I’ve always tried to find a way of seeing it that pulled me away from the clichés of the era.”
“In some ways, I’m very attracted to the assimilated Jews of Europe,” he said. Reiss has come to see assimilation as a profoundly creative act, particularly in Nussimbaum’s case.
“He was a Jew being forced to become anything else but a Jew,” he said. “Forced to assimilate all the other cultures of the world as a way of running away from being Jewish.”
In talking about his subject’s capacity for self-invention, Reiss sees Nussimbaum “as an unusually American character for a European Jew.”
Over the years, in his different guises, he rewrote his autobiography several times, another quality that strikes Reiss as American.
The multicultural Nussimbaum didn’t write directly about Zionism but one of his last published works, “Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World,” published in 1936, was co-written with Wolfgang von Wiesl, a leading Zionist who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-hand man. In Weimar Berlin, Nussimbaum found a number of other Jewish writers who “sought refuge from the new political realities in esoteric vistas on sympathetic Orientalism.” They saw the Jews as mediators between East and West.
Working on this project has influenced the author’s view of history.
“It made me see the whole early 20th century as one continuous tragedy beginning in 1905 and ending in 1945,” he said. “It was a disaster that began in Czarist Russia, for Jews and for everyone else.”
Did Reiss like his subject?
“I grew very attached to Lev, as often happens with a biographer,” he said. “I grew defensive of him in an odd way and went through stages of being disturbed by his disguises and choice of friends. Over time I grew to not exactly admire him, I grew deeply sympathetic. I guess that means I like him.”
“He feels like a friend who you would want to shake, to come to his senses,” he added. “But what does it mean to come to one’s senses if living in Nazi Europe. If he was crazy in behavior, most people were much crazier. There’s something inspiring in him — he’s someone who creates ways of escape even if in the end it’s just imaginative.”
Reiss, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two daughters, still has the last notebooks and correspondence. His hope is to find an institution, perhaps in the United States or Israel, interested in creating a collection. He could see the letters published as “one of the most interesting 20th-century correspondences.”
To Andreae’s practical questions, Lev would often respond with fantastical tales, drawn from the invented life he lived.
“Up until his last letter,” Reiss said, “he thought he could save himself.”
Artists Converge After ‘The Passion’
‘L-Words’ in a J World
The 2000 book “Best Lesbian Erotica” includes Jewish writer Joan Nestle’s short story and its provocative, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination title referencing sex with World War II pinup Rita Hayworth.
“Desire and passion are a very big part of my life. I am a Jewish woman and I refuse to give up that part of my territory,” said the 63-year-old author of short stories in the anthologies “Queers Jews” “The Oy of Sex” and “Friday the Rabbi Wore Lace.”
It is two decades of work from such writers that is being honored Sunday at the USC-affiliated gay and lesbian ONE Institute & Archives. The event celebrates ONE’s long-running Lesbian Writers Series and also coincides with the institute’s Feb. 29-April 10 photo exhibit, “Image from Sapphic L.A.’s Photography Community.”
Nestle is one of many Jewish lesbian writers with work catalogued at ONE, an archive similar to New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archive, which Nestle co-founded in 1973.
“I’m a secular Jew, but memory is how I live the history of the Jewish people as I know it,” she told The Journal.
Other Jewish writers to be highlighted at Sunday’s retrospective include Alice Bloch, Elizabeth Nonas and Robin Podolsky, an aide to state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles).
For writer Sarah Schulman, crafting stories about her sexual identity has isolated her from prominent publishers.
“It’s not because I’m Jewish, it’s the gay part,” Schulman said. “It’s very hard to know what I would do if I felt free. I’ve had so many problems with censorship that I write very defensively at this point.”
For a lesbian writer, she said, isolation also can be felt through Judaism’s family-centric institutions.
“Women are supposed to reproduce the Jewish culture,” Schulman said. “It’s one of the few cultures that has no role for single people.”
Nestle said Schulman seeks, and deserves, popular acclaim that older Jewish lesbian writers like her are not as drawn to.
“She has a sense of entitlement that is perhaps much more healthy than mine,” Nestle said. “I’ve never been really bothered by competing identities but I don’t expect my work to be ‘mainstream.'”
“20 Years of L-Words!” will be held Sunday, March 28 , 2
p.m.-4 p.m. ONE Institute & Archives, 909 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. For
more information, call (213) 741-0094 or visit
In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors
In between schmoozing with kids for his acclaimed Fairfax High documentary "Senior Year" in 1998, filmmaker David Zeiger hung out with the funny old guys who did lunch with his dad on Tuesdays at the Mulholland Tennis Club.
The result is his new doc, "Funny Old Guys," which captures the lively interaction of a dozen Jewish octogenarian TV writers who kibitz and kvetch over Cobb salad and chicken soup.
The Algonquin Round Table it isn’t. Instead, the guys reminisce about working for shows from "Bonanza" to "The Brady Bunch," tell off-color jokes and argue about subjects such as the early days of TV to the state of their prostates. The film takes a serious turn when one of the guys gets cancer.
David Shaw, a veteran of 1950s TV dramas, and Frank Tarloff ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") describe how they met at age 12 while living on the same street in Brooklyn. They became writers when Shaw came out to Los Angeles to visit his brother, novelist Irwin Shaw, met Irwin’s writer friends and then told Tarloff, "We’re funnier than they are."
But the youths didn’t have artsy ambitions. "Like all the guys, they grew up poor, the sons of immigrants," Zeiger told The Journal. "There wasn’t money for medical school, so they became writers to make a good living."
Zeiger’s dad, Irv, a businessman, the only non-writer at the weekly meetings, met the guys at the tennis club in the 1960s. "But I didn’t pay any attention to them, because I kind of saw them as ‘old farts,’" says Zeiger, 52, who was more interested in counterculture politics.
When he rediscovered the "Guys" in 1998, he says he "had an epiphany that these were the guys who had created the TV shows I grew up with. I also wanted to learn how they were facing life’s biggest challenge: The End."
Zeiger and "Guys" will appear at a Museum of Television and Radio screening on Sept. 4. For more information, call (310) 786-1000.
‘Big Brother’s’Jewish Castoff
A Trivial Pursuit
You don’t plan to become a trivia writer, it just happens. The next thing you know, you’re a one-woman trivia carnival, packing up your trunk of battered almanacs and dictionaries and moving on to the next show.
"Goodbye, guys," you say, because you’re often the only female on the team. "And who stole my Bartlett’s?"
This was the case last Friday, as I wrapped up a five-week stint on my fifth game show since moving to Hollywood.
What is "career stagnation"? You are correct.
I’ve never met a trivia writer that wants to be a trivia writer. Some of us want to be screenwriters, others comedians, sitcom writers, novelists. We’re like actors who came here to play Hamlet and end up playing the bellhop in "Hotel Sodom 6." Trivia is our porno. We tell ourselves we’ll never do another one; we’ll never go back, but the lure is too much. Game shows beckon.
The money is pretty decent. And technically, we’re still in show business, working on studio lots with producers and television executives. Words we write do appear on television. We may be on the slag heap of Hollywood writers, but at least we’re making a living.
Everyone’s path is different, but here’s how I accidentally became a trivia writer. A comedian friend recommended me for a job on a comedy game show, I wrote a sample of jokes and questions and was hired. The joke-writing aspect of that job rescued it from the taint of trivia.
After that, I began getting referred to other shows, "straight" Q&A type shows. I was usually broke at the time and thought, "it’s only a month" or "it’s only four months." I was always grateful for the work, but felt a little like I was entering what my dad calls the Dr. Faustus Pawn Shop, where you sell your soul and hope they pay you enough to buy it back.
What is a typical day in the life of a trivia monkey? You get a quota, meaning you have a certain number of questions to write each day. Topics vary from the "meat and potatoes" categories of science, history and geography to the "chick" categories for which I’m usually brought in — pop culture, art, fashion — although, for a chick, I do write my fair share of sports questions. Nicknames are my bread and butter. If you see a question about "White Chocolate" or "The Mailman," it was probably mine.
In game show argot, some questions get "killed." They aren’t interesting enough, they’re too hard or too easy. A question might be deemed "too Jewish" or "too female" or even "too ethnic." An example of this was a recent big-money, multiple-choice question I wrote asking the surname of the title character in the best-seller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The answer: Schwartz. The verdict: too Jewish for network prime time.
There are speed demons who finish their quota and run off to meetings or auditions. Others practically move in, sleeping on the office couch and toiling in the trivia mines until all hours, fueled by Red Bull, Red Vines and takeout. Either way, trivia is nothing if not draining.
As in all jobs, there are those who have been institutionalized, who get defeated when a question dies, crying, "My questions are like my children." This is just sad. Still, losing perspective can mean gaining dignity. If you think about how silly the shows are, how small our part is in them, how trivial trivia can be, you will be paralyzed staring at a list of state mottos and wanting to hoist yourself out of the window of the writers’ room.
Wait. There are no windows. Game show security is so stringent these days that writers are usually sequestered in windowless rooms. All documents that aren’t used are shredded. Tensions run high, and the people at the top take it very, very seriously. See above adage about losing perspective to gain dignity.
Cheesy trivia books and "fun fact" Web sites are frowned upon. Even at our low level, we strive to think our occupation requires some modicum of creativity. Never, ever let anyone see you with Trivial Pursuit cards. That is the last refuge of trivia scoundrels.
Occasionally, while crafting a question about Rodin or "Road Rules" or Rhode Island, a debate will break out in the room. We’ll put down our quotas for the eternal question about which of us will "make it out."
I maintain the grudgingly positive attitude that I’m lucky to have a skill that pays the bills and doesn’t involve saying, "Hello, I’m Teresa. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about your long-distance plan?"
If you want to feel that you matter, that you have something to say, that your life has meaning, you can’t always find that where you work. For some things, you’ve just got to phone a friend.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in “The Teresa Monologues,” April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.
Of One Mind
Joel and Ethan Coen, the quirky auteurs of “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” are groaning.
They are recalling a recent viewing of their first feature film, “Blood Simple” (1984), a stylish, noirish tale of murder in Texas, which is being reissued in theaters today. “We cringed through the whole movie,” admits Joel, the elder brother, who is tall and thin, with tousled long hair and a scraggly goatee.”It was a bizarre and interesting exercise,” adds Ethan, who has freckles, round spectacles and a closely clipped red beard.
When an impending DVD release led to the restored director’s cut of “Blood Simple” not long ago, the unconventional Coens did exactly the opposite of what one might expect: They made the movie a bit shorter. “We cut out all the boring parts,” they say, in stereo, with twin shrugs. They also did some re-editing, remixed the sound and added some music they couldn’t afford when they were just a couple of tenacious Jewish kids from Minneapolis shlepping their first film around to festivals in order to find a distributor.
“Blood Simple” put the brothers on the map (Ethan quit his job as a statistical typist at Macy’s), and the Coens went on to write, produce and direct a series of off-center, ironic, unsettling fables peopled with vividly drawn cartoon characters.
Though Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, their work is so enmeshed that even the actors can’t say who does what. It’s been said that a typical exchange after a take involves Ethan saying, “Joel,” to which his brother replies, “Yeah, Ethan, I know. I’ll tell them.”
Their odd, distanced, outsiders’ view apparently comes from growing up Jewish, with Orthodox grandparents, in the icy American heartland, which is depicted in the Oscar-winning “Fargo” as a flat, frozen wasteland, occasionally broken by a tacky pancake house or a motel.
Everything about life in the suburbs outside Minneapolis was banal, they insist; the brothers, whose parents were university professors, amused themselves by making Super-8 films or watching kitschy programs on TV. While their sister went off to become a physician in Israel, they escaped to New York, where they worked odd jobs, bummed money from friends and scraped together the funds to complete “Blood Simple.”
The irreverent Coens are notorious among journalists for refusing to answer questions, but they perked up during a Journal interview when asked about the preponderance of unusual Jewish characters in their films. There is Bernie (John Turturro), the gay Jewish con man from “Miller’s Crossing”; the Clifford Odets-like playwright (also Turturro) afflicted with writer’s block in “Barton Fink”; and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran of “The Big Lebowski,” who insists he cannot do this or that because he is shomer Shabbes.
Joel says the idea for Sobchak began as he was thinking about his Orthodox maternal grandparents and about an observant actress who once asked him if she would find work in the theater if she could not perform on Friday nights. “We wanted to explore the idea of someone in modern society who cleaves to all those rules,” Joel says. “The whole idea of this loose-cannon, gasbag Vietnam vet” proclaiming himself religious was rather funny and ironic, Ethan suggests.
As for “Barton Fink,” the brothers began the script as an antidote to their own writer’s block. While penning “Miller’s Crossing” in 1990, they could not finish the script. Instead, they paced, chain-smoked, telephoned friends, but nothing seemed to help. So they simply started another screenplay. “[It] washed out our brain, and we were able to go back and finish ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ ” Joel told The New York Times.
Adrift in a World in Which God is Hidden
It is remarkable how many great Jewish American writers first came to the public’s attention through a volume of short stories.
Philip Roth’s first book was “Goodbye, Columbus.” Allegra Goodman’s was “Total Immersion.” Earlier this year, Nathan Englander published “For the Relief for Unbearable Urges,” an inventive series of stories set against Jewish history and Orthodox life, and the book rocketed onto the New York Times best-seller list.
The best new book of Jewish short stories — better than each of the above books — was published last year, received glowing reviews in papers such as The New York Times (“intense, often searing…the writing soars”), the Chicago Tribune (“splendid…extraordinary stories”) and the Houston Chronicle (“stories that absolutely shine”), and then sank out of sight.
Ehud Havazelet’s “Like Never Before” (Anchor Books, $12.95; Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $23.00) is being republished next month in paperback. It is an occasion for the rediscovery of a remarkable volume of interrelated stories that portray the members of a Jewish family over a 30-year period. Adrift in a post-Holocaust world, untethered by the traditions that previously sustained them, they struggle to find themselves and each other, missing more times than they connect.
The first story — “Six Days” — begins with an idyllic scene of almost Edenic serenity. Shabbat eve; after services and a family meal, Max Birnbaum, a Polish-born Jew whose father (like his father before him) is a rabbi, walks through Queens with his young son, David. It is the early 1960s.
They walk by stores, by local landmarks, through nearby neighborhoods, talking to each other quietly, greeting the people they pass by, sometimes not returning home until after midnight.
Their favorite spot is an overpass from which they can see highways going east, west, north and south. Together they watch the stream of red taillights heading away. “From here,” Max Birnbaum tells his son, “you could go anywhere, anywhere on earth.”
It is a scene of infinite possibilities, a future unlimited, a portrait of closeness between parent and child — a Shabbat that redeems the prior six days.
But like a camera expanding to a wider angle, Havazelet also provides a glimpse of David’s view of this scene — and it is a picture of resentment at the weight of the past and the prison of the present. As they walk through the Italian section of Queens, David “kept his eyes averted, aware of their Shabbos clothing.” He is embarrassed by his father good-naturedly distributing “Good evenings, how are yous, as if he knew these men.” He is stung by the “amused smiles all around, at him stuck with his father.”
As the story progresses, the gulf between Max and David’s worlds becomes even clearer. Max teaches at an Orthodox yeshiva, living in an ocean of books, translating manuscripts, lecturing to serious young men who are future rabbis. David, playing with his baseball cards, watches his father at work and disdains the students, who do not seem American to him. Trying to enter the world of his son, Max takes David to a Yankees game — David excited by each nearby foul ball, his father unable to understand the game.
The story concludes, at the end of Shabbat, with the men coming out from shul “to praise God’s world and ask his blessing for a few more days of good fortune and peace.” But it is a world that includes only the older generation, not the new one. David and his friends have left the service in the middle, running to play outside before it is over. They are present but absent at the same time.
The title of the story has become ironic. At the beginning, it refers — obviously — to the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. By the end, it has become a metaphor for an immense separation between a father and son, between two generations — one living in the religious traditions and rituals of the past, and the other in the new, secular American world — the other six days.
In “Lyon,” Havazelet flashes back to 1943, to Vichy France, when Max Birnbaum (then “Maxim Birnboym”) is a teen-ager, sent to France with his brother, Rachmil, on an undercover mission to collect money to smuggle Jews out of Poland. The mission’s sudden ending, and Maxim’s two-sentence report to his mother — “It’s me, Mother, Maxim. Rachmil is gone” — captures the horror of the Holocaust in a single incident.
The story also provides a contrast with David’s later rebellious, self-absorbed youth, spent in an alliance with Arnold Leibowitz (“acknowledged titleholder of biggest troublemaker in the history of the Mid-Queens Hebrew Day School”) and neighborhood baseball games that David seeks to win at all costs (he “didn’t like to play fair unless he was winning and could make a show of it”). David grows his hair “as long as he could without inciting outright war” with his father, and, by age 17, is absorbed in drugs and drinking.
“The Street That You Live On” shows David several years later, seen through the eyes of his wife, Maura, in a marriage that at first seems ideal. They “had read the same books in college, liked and were now embarrassed by the same bands.” Maura is comforted by David’s self-assurance and his assurance to her that “nothing would ever happen to them.” But their marriage is changed irrevocably by a seemingly unconnected event.
“Pillar of Fire” picks up after David’s divorce from Maura, at the lowest point in his life. Literally and metaphysically lost, he meets two young girls who are replicas of his younger self. They need a ride, and he sets out with them in his car. The trip that follows ends with an epiphany that is all the more remarkable because Havazelet, through an astonishing literary device, makes it happen simultaneously to both David and the reader.
In the succeeding stories, life contracts rather than expands; misunderstandings accumulate; distances grow. David remains caught up in anger and resentment, the tension with his father increases, and his mother is powerless to bridge the gap. In a heartbreaking story devoted to her (“Ruth”), she concludes that “despite everyone’s good intentions, in her own experience, love hurts more than it heals.”
But from these family portraits, taken at various points in the characters’ lives, a fuller picture eventually emerges. David and Rachel’s tentative attempts, near the end of the book, to reconnect to each other, to redeem what remains of their family relationship, are juxtaposed to a picture of the Eden they surrendered — an old family photograph David finds after his father’s death. It is a picture taken long ago at a vacation resort — Max, Ruth, Rachel and David, together in a boat that wouldn’t stop rocking, as they try to balance themselves, laughing and afraid at the same time, caught by the camera just as they reach out to put their arms around each other.
God appears in this book mostly through silence. Max, reflecting late in his life that “any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child,” turns to God in his prayers and “requested guidance, solace…[and] asked, politely, for miracles.” They do not come. Ruth, lying terminally ill, concludes that prayers “for our loved ones, for the poor, the unprotected, the helpless about to be harmed…are for ourselves, finally, always have been, for our hurt, our fear, our constant aloneness.” For David and Rachel, God does not enter the picture at all.
Havazelet has written that, challenged by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” he wanted to write a book that was different from the American literature on which he was reared, with its portrayal of the open road, of grace under pressure, of heroic conquests and myths. Instead, he wanted to portray characters “whose failures, as often as successes…marked them as human and worthy, heroic in their own right.” Writing stories of people who had no moment of glory in their lives but who were heroic nonetheless, Havazelet has continued, and added to, a literary tradition that includes Chekhov and Malamud.
His book is an important contribution to Jewish American literat
ure. For the paperback publisher, publishing a book that in hardcover sold only a modest number of copies, it is an act of faith — a belief that the reading public, if given a second opportunity, will respond to a remarkable work of art. This is our chance.
Rick Richman is a member of Sinai Temple in Westwood.
L.A. Becomes Eclectic