Gifts for literarily everyone: Holiday book guide

As Chanukah approaches, there is a plentitude of gift-worthy titles from recently published books. Some are elegant, some quirky, some comforting, but all of them are suitable for one or another of the readers on your list.  


Michael Feinstein, an American maestro in his own right, celebrates the Gershwin songbook in a sumptuous memoir, “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs” (Simon & Schuster: $45).  (As I sing the praises of Feinstein’s beautiful book, I am listening to the recording of the author’s performance that accompanies it, a delightful companion piece.) Feinstein spent six years working with Ira Gershwin, and he writes not only with a unique personal knowledge of the Gershwin brothers but also with the ardor of someone who recognizes the enduring power and importance of their music. “I deeply care about doing what I can to help keep the Gershwin name alive,” Feinstein explains. “Why? Because my life would be poorer without their legacy, and it gives me immense pleasure to look at the face of someone discovering a Gershwin song for the first time.” At this self-appointed task, Feinstein succeeds magnificently.  

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at

The illusion of a solution

Of all the incendiary books that have been written about Israel over the last year or so, none is quite as fiery as “Israel: The Will to Prevail” by Danny Danon (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).

Danon is a young activist in the Likud Party and serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset. He agrees with the various critics and commentators on the left on only a single point: “We are now at a critical juncture in our brief but momentous history,” Danon writes, “and our very survival is once again at stake.” Unlike Peter Beinart or Jeremy Ben-Ami, however, Danon rejects the notion that the United States (or, by implication, American Jews) is entitled to tell Israel how to conduct its affairs.  

“Israel must take firm hold of its own destiny, with a ready willingness to act decisively on its own behalf,” he insists. “[H]istory shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are not only better for Israel but for world peace as a whole.”

Lest anyone mistake his political colors, however, Danon pointedly insists on using the words “Jewish communities” and “residents of these communities” in place of “settlers” and “settlements.” The West Bank, of course, is referred to as Judea and Samaria. “The Jewish people’s claim to Israel,” he writes, “is older and stronger than any other people’s in the history of the world.” Indeed, Danon presents his fierce little book as nothing less than “a road map for Jewish victory — achieved with or without backing from her allies.” 

Danon insists that it is in the strategic best interest of the United States to support Israel, by which he plainly means the hard-line policies of Likud. “It’s an unfortunate fact that Israel has grown more distant from the United States,” he writes, “and I believe this puts both our countries in peril.” And he cites President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as advocates of what he calls “the growing acceptance in the United States and abroad of a left-wing, so-called progressive position on Israel” and “a one-sided view of Palestinian aspirations.”

“Discomforting behavior continues to come from the White House, which makes Israelis wonder whether the United States is really on our side,” Danon writes, “and strengthens the case that we must be confident to take matters, when necessary, in our own hands despite world or U.S. opinion.”

Nowadays, of course, the demarcation between left and right is blurry. Who, after all, would disagree with Danon’s assertion that “Israel’s experience with Gaza demonstrates the folly of those who say that the only pathway to peace involves handing over our land to the Palestinians.” Yet Danon also insists on salting his prose with fighting words — “our land” is a phrase that simply ignores the fundamental question of where the boundary is to be drawn between Arabs and Jews. Even when he claims that he “actively welcome[s] a healthy debate on the subject of Israel and the United States,” it is hard to discern where “healthy debate” leaves off and “criticism that demonizes Israel” begins.

The conclusion he reaches is that Israel cannot afford to take the risk of a compromise with the Palestinians: “Over and over again,” he complains, “Israelis are exhorted to concede more and more, while the Arabs are only asked to stop incitement and killing.” And, crucially, he argues that “any manufactured claim to a Palestinian state” is trumped by the inevitability that “such an entity would be a serious and ongoing threat for Israel.”

Danon calls instead for “a three-state solution,” an antique approach to peace-making in the Middle East that would assign sovereignty over the Palestinians to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Clearly, his plan is not likely to succeed, and I suspect that’s the real reason why he advocates it: “Before we can make the three-state solution a reality,” he warns, Israel must be afforded “real recognition” by the existing states, and “Israel must take on and defeat those who are against us — Hamas, Hezbollah, and others.” 

“Israel: The Will to Prevail” leaves me in   exactly the same place I found myself after reading books by his adversaries in the progressive wing of Zionism — it’s a locked room in which the doors and windows are only a trompe l’oeil on solid walls. How Israel and the Jewish people are to extricate themselves from our unhappy predicament remains unexplained.

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 Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht.

Re-examining Twain’s work, Clemens’ life

Ira Fistell is a familiar and even beloved figure in the Los Angeles radio market, where he long served as an exceptionally amiable, thoughtful and well-informed talk-show host on subjects ranging from politics and religion to vintage trains and Mississippi steamboats. Along with Dennis Prager, he was a host of “Religion on the Line,” a Sunday evening colloquy that brought clergy of various faiths together and proved that theological shoptalk could be compelling to a general audience.

One of Fistell’s passions, as his devoted listeners already know, is Mark Twain. Now Fistell has brought his expertise to bear on the life and work of Samuel Clemens in “Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain: Three Encounters” (Xlibris: $23.99), a wholly fascinating volume that can be approached as a biography, a work of literary criticism and a highly literate travel book.

“At first, I admired his adventurous life,” explains Fistell. “The more I became aware of the darker side of his life, however, the less I wished to stand in his shoes. If he enjoyed a public life filled with triumph and adventure, he more than paid for it in a private existence damned with adversity and tragedy.”

At the heart of Clemens’ life, according to Fistell, is “the paradox of public success and private disaster.” He may have “earned more money from his works than any other American writer of his century,” but he was bankrupt at the age of 59. He was famous for his depictions of the rural South and the Western frontier, and yet “he lived half his life in Eastern domesticity and a sixth of it in European cosmopolitanism,” a fact that can be discerned in “Tom Sawyer,” whose dialogue “is the vernacular speech of the Missouri frontier, while its narration is the diction of the educated sophisticate.” His literary efforts have always been both praised and damned, and even today the fact that he uses a crude word for African-Americans makes his masterwork, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” an object of controversy and censorship.

Fistell divides his book into three parts. First, he appraises Clemens’ literary production and reputation, thus providing his readers with a benchmark against which to measure the man himself. Then he offers a collection of essays “in which I try to make contact with the man by visiting the physical sites which were important to his life—his homes, the places where he worked, the places he visited, and his grave.” The third “encounter,” as Fistell puts it, focuses on “the processes of his mind” and the “emotional energy which drove him.”

Intriguingly, Fistell draws a distinction between Samuel Clemens, the flesh-and-blood human being behind the familiar byline, and Mark Twain, the literary persona that Clemens invented and embraced. “As I came to greater and greater familiarity with the man, I found myself liking Mark Twain more and more, and Samuel Clemens less and less,” Fistell writes. “Mark Twain exposed with devastating clarity the shallow, foolish, and corrupt values of the Gilded Age,” Fistell writes, “but Clemens could not escape from the materialism in his private life.”

The dominant factor in Clemens’ personality, according to Fistell, was guilt. Beginning in childhood with a “childish fear of divine retribution” and continuing throughout his life, his feeling of guilt “mastered him to the point of inability of function” and led him to a “philosophy of fatalism” that turned the lighthearted raconteur of “The Innocents Abroad” into the brooding author of what Fistell calls “that horrifying, powerful, bleak, destructive, dark, flawed masterpiece, ‘A Connecticut Yankee.’ ”

Still, Fistell credits Clemens (or, if we follow Fistell’s usage, Mark Twain) with achievements that surpass even the literary merit of his books. Thus, for example, “Huckleberry Finn” is not merely a “juvenile adventure story, which is probably the way most of us encounter it for the first time,” but also “a masterpiece of comedy” and, more important, “a magnificent and powerful novel of social satire and criticism having no peer in American literature in that field.”

“Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain” is, in a real sense, a daring enterprise. Fistell, after all, asks us to take another look at an author we think we know well—indeed, an author whose work we may not have opened since high school—and to entertain new and troubling insights about him.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Jerusalem, behind the veil of piety

Jerusalem is always in the headlines, or so it seems, but the same city on a hill has commanded the attention of the Western world without interruption since biblical antiquity.  That’s why Jerusalem is the subject of enough books to fill a library, the latest of which is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf: $35.00), a lively yet magisterial work that offers a fresh look at the city that three religions regard as holy.

Montefiore comes by his interest in Jerusalem in a unique way.  He is descended from the family of Moses Montefiore, one of the great Jewish benefactors of Jerusalem in the 19th century, and the windmill that his ancestor bestowed on the city is still one of its iconic sights.  “I feel I have been preparing to write this book all my life,” the author explains. “Since childhood, I have been wandering around Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem’ is my family motto.”

Of course, the London-based Montefiore is best-known for his lush biographies of Joseph Stalin, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and “Young Stalin.”  Perhaps that’s why he chose to characterize his new book, rather fancifully, as a biography rather than a history. Indeed, he previews his own personification of Jerusalem when he quotes Amos Oz at the very outset of his book: “Jerusalem is an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover and lover to death, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, a black widow who devours her mates while they are still penetrating her.”

Montefiore fully understands how Jerusalem figures in the Abrahamic religions — “A history of Jerusalem must be a study of the nature of holiness,” he concedes — but he insists on tearing aside the veil of piety and revealing the contradictions and conflicts that abound in the long history of the Holy City.  “This is a place of such delicacy that it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine — always a sensual, living woman, always a beauty, but sometimes a shameless harlot, sometimes a wounded princess whose lovers have forsaken her,” Montefiore writes. “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice — in heaven and on earth.”

Significantly, Montefiore disclaims any intention to write about “God in Jerusalem,” and he astutely refers any reader in search of such a book to Karen Armstrong’s “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.” Rather, he declares his mission to “pursue the facts,” which is certainly an understatement.  His effort begins in distant antiquity — a period for which his only source is the Bible itself — and the principal narrative ends in 1967 because, as he explains, “the Six Day War essentially created the situation today and provides a decisive stop.”

Along the way, he provides a rich, provocative and often surprising overview of Jerusalem’s long history, always directing the reader to colorful details and incidents, always writing in the supercharged prose that is his trademark, whether his eye falls on Jerusalem during the Jewish War (“Spymania and paranoia ruled Jerusalem the Holy”) or the Islamic conquerors and rulers of Jerusalem (“His enemies taunted him: ‘Yazid of liquors, Yazid of whoring, Yazid of dogs, Yazid of monkeys, Yazid of wine-swoons’”), or the Crusaders who set up a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land in the late Middle Ages (King Baldwin IV, a leper, “had to endure a variety of treatments — blood lettings, oil-rubs in ‘saracenic ointment’ and enemas”).

His own ancestors figure in the tale he tells.  When the British financier Moses Montefiore visited Jerusalem in the 1820s, the city was “fallen, desolate and abject,” according to Montefiore’s wife, Judith.  The experience transformed Montefiore: “He left as a reborn Jew, having prayed all through his last night there,” recalls the author. Montefiore became one of the city’s great and enduring benefactors: “Jerusalem’s Jews welcomed them ‘almost like the coming of the Messiah,’” the author explains, “but begged them not to give too much because the Turks would simply cripple them with higher taxes after they had gone.”

“Jerusalem” ends with a brief epilogue that reflects upon the unanticipated and unintended meaning of the victories of 1967. “[T]he possession of Jerusalem gradually changed Israel’s ruling spirit, which was traditionally secular, socialist, modern, and if the state had a religion it was as much the historical science of Judaean archaeology as Orthodox Judaism,” he writes.  But the entry into the Old City created a consensus that had not existed the day before. “Religious and nationalistic Jews alike shared the conviction that they must energetically embrace the exciting mission to rebuild and forever keep the Jewish Jerusalem.”

By this point, Montefiore has reminded us in fascinating detail that changes of sovereignty are commonplace in the history of Jerusalem; indeed, a cycle of conquest has been endlessly repeated since the Babylonian Conquest.  So we are hardly surprised when he shows that something as unremarkable as an archaeological dig in contemporary Jerusalem was capable of causing riots that resulted in 75 deaths and 1,500 injuries, yet more proof that “archaeology is worth dying for in Jerusalem.”

Montefiore’s conclusion is characteristically quirky.  “When they are not in conflict, Jews, Muslims and Christians return to the ancient Jerusalem tradition of ostrichism — burying their heads in the sand and pretending the Others do not exist,” he writes. “By the bile-splattered standards of Jerusalem, this ostrichism is a sign of normality — particularly since the city has never been so globally important.”

Such shoulder shrugging is an occupational hazard among those of us who love to read and write about history.  The more things change, we know, the more they remain the same.  “For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic,” writes Montefiore, “and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.”  Precisely because Jerusalem is holy, ironically enough, it has always been — and remains — a battleground.

Montefiore returns to Amos Oz for an idealistic proposal: “We should remove every stone of the Holy Sites,” Oz once wrote, “and transport them to Scandinavia for a hundred years and not return them until everyone has learned to live together in Jerusalem.”  But Montefiore knows that messianism of any kind is futile and, in any case, 100 years is only the blink of an eye in Jerusalem’s long history.  His final word, then, takes the long view.

“Jerusalem, so lovable in many ways, so hate-filled in others, always bristling with the hallowed and the brash, the preposterously vulgar and the aesthetically exquisite, seems to live more intensely than anywhere else,” he writes. “Everything stays the same yet nothing stays still.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.  He blogs at

‘Jerusalem’ — ancient symbol, modern struggles

Blood has been spilled yet again in the streets of Jerusalem in recent days, and so there is a certain urgency that inevitably attaches itself to “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). Carroll himself declares the theme of his book to be “the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires.”

Carroll, of course, is the author of the best-selling “Constantine’s Sword,” a masterful history of the troubled relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism. The author adopts the same confessional tone — and the same genius for alloying solid historical data with his own deep thinking — in “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” This provocative book will not please every Jewish reader, if only because Carroll insists that Jerusalem is no one’s exclusive or eternal possession, but it is so provocative and illuminating that it should not be overlooked by anyone who cares about the future of Jerusalem.

Carroll calls Jerusalem “the magnetic pole of Western history,” and he looks back over 20 centuries to describe how our civilization has been shaped and, in some ways, distorted by its symbolism. Like Karen Armstrong’s “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths” (1996), Carroll’s book approaches Jerusalem as a point of connection between contending faiths and cultures, but he is rather less optimistic than Armstrong about the outcome: “A fight over territory has been made into a self-hypnotizing struggle for the cosmos, which can never be resolved,” he observes. “In this way, Jerusalem’s ancient themes live on.”

From the outset, he confronts us with the unavoidable fact that Jerusalem is defined by its diversity. “The city is home to thirty religious denominations and fifteen language groups which use seven different alphabets,” he points out. “In the past one hundred years, more than sixty political solutions to the city’s conflicts have been proposed by various national and international entities, yet conflict remains.”

Precisely because of these frictions, Carroll declines to side with the Israelis or the Palestinians on the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem. He suggests that both sides “may have painted themselves into a deadly corner from which only one may yet emerge alive, but they did not create the corner.” Rather, he blames the stresses of colonialism and anti-Semitism for fashioning what he calls “an unthreadable needle.” And he sees a terrible symmetry at work: “If Israelis and other Jews use a word that translates as ‘catastrophe’ to define their trauma, so do the people who were displaced by the longed-for Jewish return,” he writes. “Shoah and Nakba: the synchrony of language expresses the mirroring of loss and grief.”

Carroll was ordained as a Catholic priest and writes from the perspective of his faith, but he has a sure sense of the crazy-making culture of contemporary Jerusalem. He appropriately credits the pop song “Jerusalem of Gold” as “a modern psalm.” He singles out the YMCA across the street from the King David Hotel as “the perfect twenty-first century Jerusalem institution — a Christian organization headed by a Jewish chairperson and a Muslim CEO.” And he is capable of expressing himself in provocative but illuminating ways, as when he acknowledges the bond between Jerusalem and the Jews: “Jesus was not a Christian,” he observes in passing. “As a Jew, Jesus loved Jerusalem.”

Carroll does not confine himself to historical narrative or contemporary observation. He reaches all the way back to the Big Bang in his musings on the origins and workings of religion, and he shows how the arc of human civilization can be illustrated by a single object: “Jerusalem is built around a rock,” he explains. “For us, the rock is the point. Mythologized as the navel of the universe, and the birth bed of Adam, it came into history spattered with the blood of human victims. As such, the rock ties Jerusalem to the deep past of religious sacrifice.”

Nor does he regard Jerusalem merely as a place on the map. He ranges back and forth across the centuries, touching on the Crusades, the Reformation, the voyages of Columbus, the Great Awakening, the Civil War, the Eichmann trial and much else besides, always using the shimmering idea of Jerusalem as a theological polestar and thus allowing us to see quite another kind of “feedback loop.” Thus, for example, he points out that both the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem were copies of classical Greek architecture: “That biblical resonance makes Lincoln’s temple an echo chamber, as the lost voices of this long history bounce off one another.”

Carroll’s eloquent words apply equally to his own book. He closes with a little sermon on “good religion,” and he insists that “the touchstone to which every consideration must circle back is the essential role of religious self-criticism, now made urgent by the new human vulnerability.” Even as we ponder his earnest words, however, the echoes of Jerusalem’s tragic past and troubling future are ringing in our ears.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Slavery, seen by a descendant of slaves

Alan Cheuse is probably best known for his savvy and engaging book reviews on National Public Radio, but he is also an accomplished novelist and essayist. His latest book, “Song of Slaves in the Desert” (Sourcebooks, $25.99), is a Great American Novel in the most profound and important sense — a novel about the human experience of slavery in the American South.

The title is borrowed from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the novel itself opens with a burst of lyricism — the night flight of a family of slaves and the stone with enigmatic markings that they carry with them. “What hands had passed it along from time through time,” muses the author, “until it lay in the palm of a man sprawled on his back on the desert floor between the town and the river?”

Cheuse excites and gratifies the reader’s curiosity, both in the opening passages and throughout the saga that unfolds across the pages of his novel. Thus, for example, he allows us to understand that the stone links a family of African American slaves to their distant homeland, and he passes the narrator’s duties back and forth with a charming character named Nathaniel Pereira — “sandy-haired, blue-eyed, with a handsome bent nose” — who stands in for the 3 to 5 percent of American slaveholders in the antebellum South who were Jewish.

Pereira, “a perfect Manhattan lad,” is sent by his father to inspect a rice plantation in the South — “I know nothing about rice,” he protests,

“[a]nd less about slaves” — and he quickly recognizes the irony of his task. “And it was only an hour or so after my arrival here on a delightful morning,” he reports, “that I, a descendant of slaves from Egypt and Babylon, witnessed my first trading in human flesh.” Indeed, the squalor of slavery turns out to be a harsh but crucial starting place for his moral education.

“Well, I’m glad you came down here from up North to learn some things,” says a slave named Isaac. “Because you got a lot to learn.”

Surprises and tensions of various kinds drive the story along. When Nathaniel’s cousin tells him that “we have recently had quite a revolution,” he is referring to the installation of an organ in the Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston. And when Nathaniel imagines the slave girl Liza on the auction block, we realize that his thoughts have nothing to do with buying and selling slaves: “Cinnamon and bonfire,” he rhapsodizes, “a bouquet of blood and wine.” But the parallel narrative, which follows a family of artisans from Timbuktu on their descent into slavery in the New World, is the more primal story in every sense, as when Cheuse describes the slave market at a place called Tambacounda.

“The traders led their entourage off to one side of the courtyard, where a long-bearded man with a book inscribed numbers with a reed pen,” goes the faintly biblical account. “His wives and many concubines stood behind him wearing fine silks, bands of gold and silver around their heads, singing quietly among themselves while their master went about his work of dispatching the goods presented to them by the traders.” The goods, of course, are human beings: “Zainab screamed and the girls wailed and before they knew it they lived apart from each other for the rest of their lives.”

The two narratives eventually entwine in the most urgent and heart-tugging ways. I will not spoil the bittersweet experience of “Songs of Slaves in the Desert” except to say that it is the work of a master storyteller. Now and then, for example, Cheuse pauses, muses out loud and offers an aside to the reader. Sometimes he enters the thoughts and dreams of his characters, sometimes he fills in the blank spots in their family history, and sometimes he simply addresses his audience: “Please remember,” he writes at one point, “no matter what you hear or see, these Africans are neither inferior people nor anything like animals, though you will see them traded, bought and sold as though they were.” Indeed, Cheuse deserves credit for affording his African American characters the dignity they deserve — they may be enslaved, but they are not reduced to the stereotype of slaves.

The tale that Cheuse tells in “Song of Slaves in the Desert” has been told many times before and in many different ways. But he tells it with a kind of majesty and intensity that I found wholly lacking in, say, E.L. Doctorow’s “The March.” I think it’s a perfect choice for book clubs and reading groups because it offers so much to talk about. And for the Jewish reader who is preparing for Passover, the book can be approached as nothing less than a latter-day haggadah, a challenge to imagine that we were slaves, not in the Egypt of biblical antiquity, but somewhere much closer to home in both time and space.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

Once a sign, now an icon

“Icon” is a much-used word — and I am as guilty as anyone else of overusing it — but when it comes to the Hollywood sign, no other word will do. In fact, Leo Braudy’s fascinating new book, “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon” (Yale University Press, $24), is published as part of the “Icons of America” series, which includes artifacts ranging from the Liberty Bell to the hamburger to “Gone With the Wind.”

Braudy, a literature professor at USC, is one of our leading critics and historians, and a go-to guy for a sharp take on the semiotics of American popular culture. When KPFK news analyst Ian Masters wanted to discuss the significance of Bristol Palin’s surprising success on “Dancing With the Stars,” for example, he called on Braudy to explain it all. The same penetrating intelligence and deep-rooted knowledge of history, culture and politics is now brought to bear on the Hollywood sign.

“The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons,” explains Braudy. “Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself.”

As Braudy points out, the sign does not depict a human figure, like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, and it is not a unitary object like the Washington Monument. “[The sign] cannot be visited,” he observes, “only seen from afar.” The word “Hollywood” itself is ubiquitous and thus meaningless even as a place identifier; I have seen it used on restaurants, salons and health clubs all over the world. But the particular arrangement of outsized white letters on a chaparral-covered hillside, slightly disarranged in a way that is recognizable at a subliminal level of consciousness, “embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape.”

Braudy’s book is full of insight about an object that is always there and yet seldom intrudes on our consciousness. “Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object” — the sign was first erected as a temporary billboard to promote a real estate development called “Hollywoodland” — “the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is in fact a comparably recent phenomenon.” 

Even the fact that the sign now evokes movie-making rather than tract housing itself is something of a surprise. Braudy reminds us that Los Angeles was once a place where a rooming house might display a sign in the front window, “No Jews, actors or dogs allowed.” Even when the studios began to proliferate in Southern California, Burbank and Culver City were (and are) as important as Hollywood when it comes to actually making movies. But Hollywood eventually became “an emblematic center that held together a wide array of studios, stars, and all the other paraphernalia of movie-making,” and the sign came to embody the same powerful symbolic meaning.

The development called Hollywoodland was located in upper Beachwood Canyon on a site that had been used for a 1916 production of “Julius Caesar” starring Tyrone Power Sr. and a cast of 5,000 extras, including “five hundred dancing girls.” To publicize the project, starlets were recruited to pose in the bucket of a steam shovel with the sign in the background. But Braudy insists that some elements of the sign owed nothing to movie magic: “The lighting of the sign by 4,000 twenty-watt bulbs, another crucial element in its ability to be seen at a distance, may have been influenced by the ubiquitous wooden derricks in Los Angeles, otherwise an eyesore, that had for some time been rigged out with electric lights as part of publicity for the oil industry.”

Virtually every incident that touches on the Hollywood sign is the occasion for a wholly fascinating excursion in Braudy’s book. Peg Entwistle is the young woman who, according to conventional wisdom, committed suicide by jumping off the “H” on a lonely night in 1932. But Braudy offers nothing less than a scenario for a film noir when he calls into question every item of received wisdom in the tale. “Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?” he wonders. “Was this another crime cover-up so common in the corrupt Los Angeles of the 1930s?”

Not until after World War II was the word “LAND” removed from the sign, a facelift that allowed the sign to float free of its mundane origins and soar into the cultural heavens. “So, in one sense, in January of 1949, the Hollywood sign was born, or perhaps reborn,” writes Braudy.  “Like a phoenix, it would have a few more rebirths before it became the icon we now see.”

“The Hollywood Sign,” not unlike the sign itself, achieves something far more elevated and expansive than its ostensible function. It is not just a history of a famous object on the Southern California landscape; rather, it is an artful, illuminating and absorbing meditation on a place, an era, an industry, a cast of unlikely characters and a zeitgeist. For that reason, like Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” or “City of Quartz” by Mike Davis, it is an instant classic that belongs in any collection of books about Los Angeles.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Crossing UFOs and sacred texts in a whodunit

Starting with its beguiling title, “Journal of a UFO Investigator” by David Halperin (Viking, $25.95) is an enchantment from beginning to end, a coming-of-age story that is also a kind of whodunit and, above all, an eerie adventure tale set in the subculture of flying saucers and space creatures.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the fact the David Halperin brings to his first novel everything he has learned about myth and legend over a long career as a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.  Halperin, for example, has written extensively about the visions of Ezekiel, whose description of fiery wheels has long been interpreted as an account of an early visitation by a spaceship.

The story that Halperin tells opens on the day in 1966 when 13-year-old Danny Shapiro reports a sighting to his friends and fellow adolescent “UFO investigators.” The search for a plausible explanation draws young Danny into a mysterious text, an even more mysterious death, and then into what appears to be a deadly pursuit across time and space. “Riddles chased mysteries, were chased by enigmas, around and around my brain,” is how young Danny explains it all to himself.

Ultimately, Danny finds himself transported to an otherworldly place— or is it?  “I felt weirdly light, as if I were going to sail off into space at any time,” he observes. “Colored shapes streamed through the black sky above us. A flotilla of glowing objects, like the one that stopped over my house and hurled itself down upon me.”  But then the author offers the hint of a more worldly explanation: “Like the gas station signs, the evening before my mother’s heart attack, when my father drove us home from a picnic in the country and I lay with my feet in his lap and my head in hers, and I watched the blazing disk of Gulf and the red star of Texaco and the winged, bloodred horse of Mobilgas stream through the sky window. I was safe then and happy. For the last time.”

So the world of “UFOlogists” and sci-fi fans turns out to have something in common with the workings of the human imagination that also produced the sacred texts, or so we may conclude from “Journal of a UFO Investigator.” Indeed, Halperin eventually puts his characters into the modern Middle East, where the mythical “Men in Black” are taken to be Zionists rather than agents of some intergalactic conspiracy, and where a flash of light in the night sky turns out to be exploding land mine. “[W]e pick our demons,” observes Danny, now older and wiser, “and build our worlds around them.”

Halperin never fully explains the strange fate that befalls Danny Shapiro.  He invites us to believe that Danny has traveled through time and space on a mind-boggling journey, but he also permits us to conclude that we are witnessing nothing more than the overheated imagination of a tormented adolescent.  “I used to think, if I researched them, investigated the sightings, learned the physics of how they fly, I might be transported with them into the skies,” writes Danny in his last word on UFOs. “Last summer I was transported. I flew, I really did, to Israel and back. But then I crashed. I’m still digging myself out of that wreckage.”

At one point in the novel, Danny is using a microfilm reader at the local library to investigate previous sightings, and he holds his hand above the flickering screen. “My hand then took on a ghostly appearance, not invisible exactly but transparent, as though my bone and flesh had become unreal,” he recalls. “The only things real were the letters and words of the long-forgotten stories, shining upon my skin.”

At that ethereal moment, the author offers us a glimpse into the world of magic that he has conjured up with such power and mastery.  David Halperin spent his academic career in the study of ancient religious texts, and now that he has he turned to writing fiction, he is still in the thrall of words on the page.  Thanks to “Journal of a UFO Investigator,” his readers will be, too.

Jonathan kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The City of Lights at its darkest hour

Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sight-seeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the Fuehrer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors” and former cultural correspondent for the New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour.  He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” muses Riding. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” said Jean-Paul Sartre many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” writes Riding, “the options – and dilemmas – faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.”  Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain.  Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ and P. G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theatre.  The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.”  Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.”  One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” wrote the French writer Jean Cocteau in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account.  Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.”  Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

The art and mystery of the Ketubah

“The Marriage Artist” by Andrew Winer (Holt, $26.00) opens with a shocking scene — a young woman and her suspected lover are found dead on a New York sidewalk. Was it a crime committed by the woman’s jealous husband? A lover’s quarrel that ended in a murder and then a suicide? Or perhaps a double-suicide? 

So, from the very first page, the novel presents itself as a mystery, a romance and a ghost story, and the author is adept at weaving all of these narrative threads into a single compelling tale.  But what stamps “The Marriage Artist” as something especially memorable is the author’s use of the ketubah — the traditional Jewish marriage contract, a work of art as well as a legal instrument — as a symbol for the “mysterious repetitions” that are present in every marriage, whether it turns out to be happy or sad, fruitful or blighted.

A man named Josef Pick, whom we first encounter as a boy in Vienna in the turbulent 1920s, is “the Mozart of Marriage Contracts,” an artist who composes and illuminates the ketubot with uncanny genius. “Love may be pure, but marriage is not,” says Josef’s grandfather, who is also his mentor. And so, the old man explains, “the most crucial ingredient – in any ketubah worth its sale – is mystery.”

A parallel narrative focuses on Daniel Lichtmann, an art critic in contemporary New York, and his wife, Aleksandra, whose death we witness on the opening page. He has mysteries of his own to solve, most of which focus on the artist whose career he has championed and who ends up a corpse on the sidewalk next to his dead wife. Daniel’s odyssey carries him across both time and space as when he follows the clues from New York to Southern California.

“Daniel felt like some brooding German émigré who had just arrived, fresh from Hitler’s Reich, amid the palm tree-packed Pacific Palisades,” writes Winer.  “But even the Palisades and the rest of Los Angeles had its share of sorrow.”

As the author flashes back and forth in time, we descend through the circles of hell that can consume a human life. “This Jew insists he is to be married to a woman with a visa to Palestine – but he could not produce her name for us!” says a Gestapo officer who encounters Josef and the woman he has arranged to marry at their first meeting. “I would have to put this Jew on last night’s train to Dachau if I wasn’t so curious to see his bride-whore – because only a whore would marry a man who didn’t know her name!”

Inevitably, the two narratives will intersect, and we are drawn through Winer’s extraordinarily rich and artful book as if it were a thriller. And, in fact, there are moments of horror and heartbreak in “The Marriage Artist” if only because the author has imagined some of the ways in which men and women in contemporary America are linked to those who endured the nightmare of history during the Holocaust.  “Jewish America — it clings to the ghosts of six million Jews so it will not feel alone,” observes one of almost spectral figures who lead Daniel toward the truth he seeks.

At the heart of the matter, then, “The Marriage Artist” is a meditation on human relationships.  We are shown more than one troubled family in intimate detail, and Winer confronts us with the demands and disappointments that afflict husband and wife as well as parent and child, the toxicity of sexual infidelity and even deeper forms of betrayal.  Thus, for example, the death of his wife — and the death of his marriage — reduces Daniel to despair.

“Perfect understanding of another person was a delusion, he had come to believe; the struggle to attain it was sheer vanity, the result of self-love gone awry: a person felt they were so worthy of another’s perfect understanding of them that they would do anything – marry, take lovers, divorce, and fight and fight and fight – to bring someone else to it,” writes Winer. “What a waste of life!”

Yet the despair is ultimately transmuted into something like redemption.  At a stunning moment, Daniel comes upon yet another ketubah, and by then he has discovered what he needs to know in order to recognize its significance: “[I]t was the triumph of love, or rather of love’s innocence (and this was the biggest surprise – how had the artist done it?), that made the piece sublime.”  Exactly what Daniel has discovered, of course, is something that should not be explained in a review because it is the reward that awaits the reader.

At one point in “The Marriage Artist,” Josef Pick looks back at the turning point in his young life when he first picked up the calligrapher’s pen. “Hardly more than a decade later, when everything he knows will be gone forever – this life of his, the people in this room, Vienna itself really – he will look back on this moment and marvel at how randomly a life gets made,” writes Winer. “His life will seem as if it could not have been any other way.”

Precisely the same words can be used to describe how a novel like “The Marriage Artist” gets made.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at