Bob Dylan on Feb. 6, 2015. Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Listen to Bob Dylan’s epic Nobel Prize award lecture

Bob Dylan waited over six months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature to give a lecture to the Nobel’s Swedish Academy — a requirement of receiving the award. But his talk does not disappoint.

The academy released Dylan’s nearly half-hour lecture in full on Monday. In it, the Jewish folk rocker dissects three of the many works of literature that have informed his view of the world over the years: “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Odyssey.” The whole thing is delivered in vintage Dylan rasp over a backing soundtrack of soft piano music — in other words, it should be immensely satisfying to most Dylan fans.

Listen to the speech on YouTube.

Bob Dylan on Feb. 6, 2015. Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Bob Dylan to accept his Nobel Prize in Stockholm

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan will accept his Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm.

The Swedish Academy will hand over the Nobel diploma and Nobel medal in a “small and intimate” setting with no media present, Sara Danius, secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Wednesday in a blog post.

Dylan is scheduled to give two concerts in Stockholm over the weekend, and the academy “will show up at one of the performances,” Danius wrote. She added that no Nobel lecture will be delivered.

“The Academy has reason to believe that a taped version will be sent at a later point,” she wrote, adding: “At this point no further details are known.”

If Dylan does not deliver a lecture by June, he will forfeit the $927,740 prize, though he will still be considered the laureate.

After the announcement in October that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan, who is publicity-shy, told the Swedish Academy that he would be unable to travel to Stockholm for the December ceremony to receive his Nobel Prize, citing “pre-existing commitments.”

Dylan’s prize was announced on Oct. 13 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The academy said later that after five days of trying to contact Dylan to inform him of the award, it had given up. Dylan acknowledged the prize two weeks later.

On Tuesday, the Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum announced that the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa has officially opened to qualified researchers. The archive includes documents and other items that chronicle 60 years of the musician’s career.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman and raised Jewish in Minnesota, Dylan wrote some of the most influential and well-known songs of the 1960s. His hits include “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

Dylan, 75, was the first artist seen primarily as a songwriter to win the literature award, a fact that has stirred debate in literary circles.

Book on 8-year-old Warsaw Ghetto boy wins Jewish literature medal

A critically acclaimed novel told in the voice of an 8-year-old boy in the Warsaw Ghetto is the winner of the 2016 Sophie Brody Medal for achievement in Jewish literature.

The award for “The Book of Aron: A Novel,” by Jim Shepard was announced Sunday night at the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting, a four-day conference being held in Boston.

Honorable mentions were awarded to “After Abel and Other Stories,” by Michal Lemberger; “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” by Primo Levi and edited by Ann Goldstein; “The House of Twenty Thousand Books,” by Sasha Abramsky, and “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel,” by Dan Ephron.

The medal, funded by Arthur Brody and the Brodart Foundation, is named for Sophie Brody, a philanthropist and leader of the United Jewish Federation. Past winners include Boris Fishman, Yossi Klein Halevi, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, and Nathan Englander.

In his eloquent, heartbreaking work of fiction, Shepard offers readers an unlikely narrator, Aron, a young, misunderstood boy from an impoverished Jewish family who ends up in the Warsaw Ghetto. As Aron’s life descends into further misery of ghetto smuggling and thievery, he comes under the wings of Dr. Janusz Korczak, a real-life Holocaust hero who saved orphan children and sees beyond the misery of Aron’s existence.

Shepard, a professor at Williams College, is an award-winning author of six novels and collections of stories.

Of other Jewish interest at the gathering of 10,000 attendees, including librarians, educators, authors and publishers, was a speech by the popular fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Mizrahi, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish Syrian family in Brooklyn, spoke about his upcoming memoir that reveals the challenges he faced as a gay young man attending Jewish day school and the creative path he followed to break away from the community’s conservative environment. Mizrahi is the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York.

The  American Library Association also announced the winners of its prestigious literary prizes in children’s and youth literature, including the Caldecott and Newberry awards. Noted author and artist Jerry Pinkney is the 2016 recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton award for lifetime achievement.

Children’s writer David Adler, known for his many books on Jewish subjects and historical figures, received the Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) award for “Don’t’ Throw It To Mo!,” illustrated by Sam Ricks.

Prague’s longtime chief rabbi leaves colorful and controversial legacy

When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. 

The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, told JTA that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, told JTA in an email.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. 

By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek told JTA.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. 

But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, told JTA that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur, a machzor and others. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”


After the fall

Perhaps no single Bible story is quite as familiar as the fateful encounter in the Garden of Eden between God, Adam and Eve, and that damned snake, an episode that entered Western theology as “the Fall.” It may appear to be a kind of biblical fairytale, but Ziony Zevit reveals the remarkable richness of meaning that can be extracted from the spare text in his new book, “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?” (Yale University Press, $30), a model of biblical scholarship that is also wholly accessible to the general reader.

Zevit, distinguished professor of biblical literature at American Jewish University, was attracted to the subject by the questions he heard from his students, young and old: “Why is it called ‘the Fall’? What is the Fall? How bad was Eve’s sin? Why did God curse humanity? What is ‘original sin’? Why is the story in the Bible at all? Did it really happen, or is it a myth?”

His book is rooted in academic expertise, but it is also enlivened by Zevit’s wit and good humor. He explains that his work was encouraged and informed by conversations with, “a chatty fellow in a kosher take-out Chinese restaurant, my barber, as well as with personal friends in business, crafts, and trades.” His sources include ancient texts but also jokes and camp songs, and he points out how the notion that human beings are deeply flawed passed from Genesis into Christian theology and thence into our collective unconscious: “One need not be a confessing member of any church or Christian denomination to accept as appropriate some attitudes toward human nature engendered by the concepts of the Fall,” he explains. “They are ubiquitous throughout Western civilization.” 

Zevit reaches all the way back to biblical antiquity to explain not only the origins but also the enduring influence of the Garden of Eden story. The author of the original Hebrew text, he writes, did not necessarily embrace a “negative assessment of humanity or the physical world,” which is precisely the moral burden that the story carries today. “Neither Adam nor Hawwa [Eve] is ever singled out in prophetic texts as a source for Israel’s misfortunes or for the miscreant actions of any other people.” Indeed, it is only in the writings of Paul that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge becomes the original sin.

But Zevit encourages us to put aside much of the modern theological baggage and approach the story as it was understood in ancient Israel. The Israelites did not see the characters in the story as “embodiments of ideas such as truth, virtue, or cupidity,” nor did they interpret it as “a veiled account of a historical event or process.” For them, he insists, “the Garden story was a tale about real people, the primeval progenitors.” 

As he guides us through the text, Zevit suggests what each word and phrase in the biblical text likely meant to its author and his original audience. He calculates the imagined physical location of Eden as “a landscaped artifact in a high mountain valley near the western edge of the Ararat mountains range.” He draws from ancient Egyptian and Babylonian art to show us what Eden and its denizens looked like in the mind’s eye of the biblical author. But he also suggests that God’s punishment of Adam and Eve — man must labor for his bread, and woman must bear children in pain — can be seen in modern terms.

“Where once life had been lived, now life was lived and evaluated,” he argues. “God’s sentences were, in essence, introductions to what we in the twenty-first century call existential guilt. They were God’s way of demonstrating what it meant to know good and bad, to distinguish between proper and improper. They were the aftertaste of the fruit.”

Zevit’s book, so artful, charming and informative, can serve as a guided tour through the opening pages of Genesis, a textual excursion that conjures up vivid sights and, at the same time, allows us to see the world in which the Bible was written through the eyes of its authors and first readers and listeners. Above all, it is an exercise in exegesis that casts an entirely new light on the ancient text. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright). Kirsch will lecture on “Many Gods But One Judaism” at Temple Isaiah on Dec. 18, at 8 pm.

Eight books to light your Chanukah season

The early arrival of Chanukah coincides with Jewish Book Month, which suggests a convenient shopping list for gift-giving. Here are eight books I am planning to give this year to the book lovers among my family, friends and colleagues. Some of these books already have been reviewed at greater length in these pages over the past year.

My sentimental favorite for Chanukah is Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).  Solomon approaches the Broadway musical from her perspective as a theater critic, journalist and scholar, but she also helps us understand the unlikely process by which the works of the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, first published in the 19th century, were artfully reinvented as a cultural artifact for American Jews in the 1960s, eventually transcending their Jewish origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. While Solomon does not avoid the controversies about the authenticity of “Fiddler” as a Jewish tale, her book is richly ornamented with Yiddishkayt, theater lore and cultural politics, all of which only deepen the reader’s appreciation for the familiar tunes. As for me, I played the Broadway cast album as I read “Wonder of Wonders,” and I took pleasure from both. 

The debut novelist who won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Literature is Francesca Segal, a young writer who was inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to tell a tale of star-crossed love set in contemporary London. In her prize-winning “The Innocents” (Hyperion, $14, paperback), we are introduced to the betrothed couple, a pair of Jewish Londoners who met in Israel while still teenagers and who seem to be fated to marry, but a shadow is cast over their romance by the bride’s cousin, a seductive woman with a lurid past who quickly catches the fiance’s eye and then his heart. It’s an age-old tale of temptation on the eve of marriage with Jewish 20-somethings cast in the principal roles.

Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday in Westwood

More than 100 James Joyce enthusiasts, performance artists and Irish descendants gathered at Westwood’s Hammer Museum on June 16 to celebrate Bloomsday. Taken from the name of Leopold Bloom, the assimilated Jewish protagonist in Joyce’s monumental book, “Ulysses,” the event celebrates the life of the Irish writer and relives the events of the day the tale is set: June 16, 1904.

With plastic cups of Guinness in hand, attendees warmed to the sounds of traditional Irish music played by the Sweet Set as they waited for the festivities to begin.

Stanley Breitbard, organizer for Bloomsday at the Hammer, says the event draws a wide demographic. “We get a very mixed crowd every year,” he said. “Academics, veterans, actors and people of Irish descent.”

A worldwide celebration established in 1954, Breitbard said the appeal of Bloomsday was understandable.

“He was the greatest writer who ever lived, and clearly I’m not the only one who thinks that,” he said.

Phil Hendricks, a Jewish man in his 60s, said it had been 20 years since he last read “Ulysses,” adding that it felt like a completely different book as he read in the Hammer’s courtyard. A sign of a timeless classic. Hendricks also addressed why Joyce would choose to make his protagonist a Jew in a predominantly Catholic country.

“The Irish themselves were outcasts amongst the British, so I think there is a similarity between them and the Jews,” he said. “The juxtaposition between Jews and Irish Catholics are very well known. Bloom was definitely more Jewish than he was Catholic.”

The buoyancy of the late afternoon hushed when attendees were asked to enter the Billy Wilder Theater, where a reading was performed by a host of Irish and American actors, including Jonny O’Callaghan (narrator in “Gangs of New York”) and James Lancaster (“Pirates of the Carribean 2”).

The seventh episode of the book, “Aeolus,”  was chosen to be read in full by nine actors. Introduced by Breitbard, the story unfolded with the Irish accents of O’Callaghan and Lancaster, which eased the process of imagining an early 20th century Dublin. The reading gave beautiful insight into Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, taking the listener right into the minds of the characters. A difficult narrative to follow at first, the story was peppered with humorous intervals, provoking laugh-out-loud responses from the standing-room-only audience.

Margot Norris, author and former president of the James Joyce International Foundation, intervened during the readings, providing insights into Joyce’s choices of syntax and literary devices. One of the questions she raised: Why would Joyce reveal Leopold Bloom’s Jewish heritage so far into the book, in the seventh episode?

Actor O’Callaghan told The Journal that it had to do with counteracting the blatant anti-Semitism of that era.

“I think it was revealed so late to get people to like him,” O’Callaghan mused. “You got to know and like the character. Then, when someone states what people are thinking, it lets the readers heal and all their walls go down.”

Richard Levy, 52, said Joyce may have been inspired by friends to make his protagonist Jewish.

“Joyce actually had a lot of friends who were Jewish and I think they had a big influence on him,” he said.

Levy, who lived and worked in Ireland for a year, says “Ulysses” can act as more than a book.

“ ‘Ulysses’ is actually the perfect map of Dublin when you visit,” he said. “It’s amazing how you can catch every street the book is set upon.”

The reading concluded with an excerpt from the episode read by Joyce himself – a 1924 recording made at HMV studios in Paris at the insistence of Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach.

After the event concluded, Breitbard weighed in with his own insights as to why Joyce made his main character a Jew.

“Joyce met Jews in Trieste, Italy, and they were the biggest role models and influences in creating characters for ‘Ulysses,’ ” he said. “I think he made Bloom Jewish to make him different from other Dubliners. He was the nicest character in the book, and a very sympathetic character.”

Eclectic Fare Reflects L.A.’s Vibrant Lit Scene

Author tours are not what the used to be, and bookstore closings are reducing the number of venues where you can meet writers face to face. But the offerings for this fall season turn out to be remarkably rich, diverse and likely to prove memorable — an encouraging sign of the sheer vigor of the literary scene in Southern California.

When Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer and single mother, signed up with a private military contractor to serve as a human rights investigator in Sarajevo, she thought she would be paid well to do good in a place where help was badly needed. As Bolkovac and her co-author Cari Lynn write in “The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice” (Palgrave Macmillan: $16), she found herself in an underworld of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and when she courageously revealed the truth, she was fired and physically threatened. Her account of wrongdoing implicates the United Nations and the U.S. State Department and paints a heartbreaking picture of how young women can be victimized by their supposed protectors. Cari Lynn will discuss “The Whistleblower” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15, at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmers Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles.

Janet Reitman has gone where others fear to tread in “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28), a critical history of the controversial organization and its founder, the former science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.  She calls it “America’s least understood new faith,” and she shows in colorful and sometimes shocking detail how Scientology was transformed from a self-help movement into a world religion and a cultural powerhouse, all thanks to its founder and his no-less-willful successor. Tom Cruise figures prominently in the book, of course, but there are plenty of other shocks and sensations. Reitman will discuss and sign her book at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.

Scott Wannberg.  Photo by Sheree Rose

If you ever shopped at the beloved, late Dutton’s Brentwood Books, then you knew the late Scott Wannberg, even if you were not aware of his reputation as a post-Beat poet of renown. Scott worked as a bookseller at Dutton’s and dispensed sage, if sometimes idiosyncratic, advice to thousands of us over the years. His oeuvre as a poet is considerable, if also slightly obscure: “It was a stream-of-consciousness kind of Chick Hearn-meets-Charles Bukowski narrative,” writer Rip Rense said, “about friends and current events, heavily laced with references to Sam Peckinpah movies and neighborhood dogs.” And Wannberg’s death last month came as a shock and a heartbreak. But I am confident in predicting that the memorial to be held at Beyond Baroque promises to be a suitable send-off — “a wild and wooly party to share memories, console, grieve, drink, dance and generally raise the roof in memory of the amazing Mr. Mumps” — and a memorable event in the literary history of Los Angeles. The party starts at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice.

You can lend your own voice to a marathon reading of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” at the Westside outpost of Libros Schmibros that has opened at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. The event is linked to a current Hammer exhibition of artwork by Ed Ruscha on the theme of Kerouac’s classic, and a new iPad application based on the famous book that has been released by its publisher, Viking Press. Libros Schmibros, a bookstore and lending library founded by literary impresario David Kipen, is headquartered in Boyle Heights, but the reading of “On the Road” starts at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.

England in the 19th century had the Bronte sisters, but we’ve got the Ephrons. Amy Ephron, for example, is a novelist (“One Sunday Morning” and “A Cup of Tea”), a digital publishing entrepreneur ( and a widely published magazine journalist. Her latest book is “Loose Diamonds … and other things I’ve lost (and found) along the way” (William Morrow: $19.99), a collection of vignettes that trace her life experiences from childhood and adolescence through marriage, parenthood, divorce and remarriage. The tales are variously charming, funny, poignant and even hair-raising, as when she finds herself spending an afternoon with Manson family alumna Squeaky Fromme. Ephron will speak about her book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, at Diesel, A Bookstore, at the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Brentwood.

Turner Classic Movies was running a Cary Grant mini-festival not long ago, and that’s all it took to remind me of his iconic role in American movies. Now we can hear about him from someone who knew him intimately. Dyan Cannon recalls her fairytale courtship and rocky marriage in “Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant” (It Books: $25.99), and the book is richly populated with other members of the Hollywood aristocracy of the golden age, ranging from Noël Coward to Audrey Hepburn. Cannon will make a personal appearance to present and autograph her memoir at 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 26, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

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

Moroccan murder mystery weaves web of deception

From the opening passage of “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” by Joseph Braude (Spiegel & Grau: $26), we suddenly find ourselves in an atmospheric scene right out of “Casablanca” — an empty alleyway in the storied Moroccan city, a morning mist, a warehouse where the deep silence is suddenly broken by a squad of soldiers and detectives, and the sight of a mutilated corpse.

“Rather than refer to the murder victim by name,” Braude writes of Lt. Rashid Jabri, the investigator in the case, “he always called him ‘al-Marhum,’ Arabic for ‘he who has been granted mercy.’ ”

“The Honored Dead” may read like an elegant Levantine version of hard-boiled detective fiction, but it is a rich and wholly remarkable work of nonfiction by an American journalist of Iraqi Jewish descent. While spending four months as a reporter embedded in the Judiciary Police of Morocco to report on “the intersection between authoritarian states and the masses they patrol,” Braude was eyewitness to a criminal investigation that penetrates the innermost secrets of a tumultuous Arab country.

Braude allows us to see the Arab world through knowing eyes. The shantytown of Casablanca, as he points out, is the home of “the country’s finest athletes, a handful of Arab movie stars and some of the region’s best-loved vocalists — not to mention a few of the world’s most deadly Al-Qaeda fighters.” Among the cops with whom he spends his time, however, the same neighborhood is known as “the beating heart of crime and vice.” One crime in particular is the focus of “The Honored Dead,” the brutal murder of a homeless man in a Casablanca warehouse that turns out to carry a rich variety of political, cultural and historic subtexts.

As an Arabic speaker, Braude is aware of details that would escape most American writers — the “vowel-snipped Moroccan slang,” for example, and the headlines in an Arabic newspaper: “Hollywood-Style Bank Robberies Roil Casablanca.” He allows us to see that a man who has slashed open a sheep’s stomach in the livestock market has committed “a crime of cosmic proportions” in the eyes of the police precisely because Islam, like Judaism, requires that animals be submitted to ritual slaughter. “It is a crime against the Moroccan people, a crime against Islam,” a cop tells him. “It is as if we are all his victims.”

But it’s also true that Braude’s protective coloration can be thin and treacherous. Because he speaks Arabic with an Iraqi accent, a cab driver hails him as “my Iraqi brother” and declares his solidarity with Saddam Hussein: “God destroy the enemies of Iraq, the enemies of the Arab and Islamic nation: the Americans, the Jews, the effeminate among the Arabs!”

A police lieutenant, by contrast, knows that he is Jewish and American: “Our distinguished brother is visiting from America,” he says of Braude. “Kindhearted people. Universal Studios. Disneyland!” The cop asks why Jews seem to love Morocco. “The answer, not short, is a mystery to many Moroccans,” the author writes. “I break off a little piece of it: ‘The late king, Muhammad V, God have mercy on his soul. He saved Morocco’s Jews from the Nazis.’”

All of these strands and more besides are woven together in the crime that is the centerpiece of “The Honored Dead.” The killer is an Arab with connections to the “security apparatus”; the victim is an Amazigh, that is, a member of the North African ethnic community that is known in the West as the Berbers; and the owner of the warehouse where the murder took place is a Jew whose family has been accused of trafficking in gold, silver and hashish. As Braude penetrates ever more deeply into the case, he comes across “a kaleidoscope of confusion” that touches on satanic magic-working, sexual scandal and “a lewd, dark story” about the victim and his murderer.

“What does it mean when an obscure, marginal, individual life brings together so many disparate elements of his society to mark his death?” muses Braude as he struggles to understand the explanation that the cop offers. “The story line he builds is tangled and weird. Maybe it’s so weird that it actually happened.”

“Tangled and weird” only suggests the tightening coils of tension and suspense that play out in “The Honored Dead.” As we follow the author through the intricacies and contradictions of the murder investigation, nothing is ever quite what it seems. For example, when the police introduce Braude to one of the witnesses — a book peddler called Sharif — a friend of the murder victim named Bari cautions Braude by reciting an enigmatic Arab proverb: “When the crow is your guide, he will lead you to the corpses of dogs.” This, too, is baffling until Bari explains: “His purpose is not to guide you but to mislead you.”

Nor is the warehouse murder the only intrigue in Braude’s book. The author pauses to fill in his own colorful background, which included a period of service in cooperation with the FBI on anti-terrorism cases and an arrest for international smuggling when he tried to retrieve looted antiquities that had been taken from the Iraqi Museum. “Like Bari, I’m wary of law enforcement, too,” he explains. “Not long after learning what it feels like to go after people, I learned what it feels like when people go after me.”

Raymond Chandler once confessed that he never really understood the plot of “The Big Sleep.” To Braude’s credit, the Chandleresque web of mystery that he weaves in the pages of “The Honored Dead” is ultimately untangled, and we are shown with shocking clarity how many extraordinary meanings can be read into a seemingly ordinary murder.

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

Jewish Children’s Book Awards: Winning literature tackles complex issues

After taking a look at the latest award winning literature for Jewish youth, one could easily conclude that the time has come to put aside K’Tonton and All of a Kind Family, and get real. Many of the winners and honor books recently awarded either the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award (by the Association of Jewish Libraries) or the National Jewish Book Award (from the Jewish Book Council) tackle subjects unheard of in Jewish children’s literature when author Sydney Taylor was alive.

Winning writers explored a variety of complex subjects, including the Holocaust, life under Romanian communism, 9/11, Argentinean Jewry, post traumatic stress disorder and the war in Iraq, sexual abuse within the Orthodox community, and the intricacies of the Leo Frank case. Rest assured however, that these subjects appeared in the categories of “Older Readers” (grades 4 – 7) and “Teens” (grades 8 – 12) and were not covered within the younger picture book category. Picture book themes remain the same as always: colorfully illustrated folklore, retold myths, explorations of Jewish religious practice, and a smattering of historical fiction.

The following are descriptions of some of the noteworthy winners and honor books:

Picture Book Award Winners: Illustration meets new heights  

The picture book, or “younger reader” category of the Sydney Taylor Award was awarded to noted folklorist Howard Schwartz and illustrator Kristina Swarner, for Gathering Sparks, (Roaring Brook Press) a handsomely illustrated lyrical gem based on a sixteenth century teaching about tikkun olam: repairing the world. When a quizzical child asks her grandfather where all the stars come from, he lovingly relates a tale about fragile vessels carrying light and sailing across the sky. It is the job of the human race to “gather the sparks” and restore them to their proper place by doing acts of kindness and love. The book is a beautiful melding of art and words, and a lovely reinterpretation of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. It would make an especially treasured gift from a grandparent to a grandchild.

The National Jewish Book Award for the best illustrated book goes to The Rooster Prince of Breslov, a famed folktale retold by Ann Redisch Stampler and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, both local LA authors. Great fun to read aloud for the witty dialogue and quirky artistic style, this story of the young prince who has everything but suddenly rips off his clothes, yells “cock-doodle-do” and begins behaving like a rooster, is a crowd-pleaser. Yelchin’s inventive gouache illustrations provide delightful hints of the story’s progression on each page. Jewish Book World magazine gave it a starred review calling it “a beautiful retelling of the Yiddish folktale by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that infuses the humorous story with deeper meaning… The author’s endnote confirms that the book is meant as a coming-of-age story in which the prince learns that compassion and good deeds make him human.”

Winning Books for Older Readers and Teens:  The Comic is King

Graphic novels seem to be at their peak of popularity. So if kids like comic book heroes, then why not offer a clever, headstrong, troll-fighting, 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl heroine?  Mirka, pre-teen protagonist of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams Books) by Barry Deutsch, is not only the finest Jewish comic hero since Benjamin Jacob Grimm (aka: “The Thing”), but also the star of the first graphic novel to win a Sydney Taylor Award. Spunky and strong-willed, Mirka holds on to her dream of fighting dragons and getting her sword, all the while battling wits with her misunderstood step-mother Fruma, and facing down an annoying talking pig. The artwork is stunning and the plot is entertaining and age-appropriate. The details of Orthodox Jewish life are seamlessly woven into the story, with tiny asterisks by the Yiddish terms for those who need to glance to the bottom of the page for help. This surprising hit for Deutsch, a political cartoonist from Oregon, is now appealing to a wide audience, which is surely unusual for the subject matter. When mainstream reviewers such as School Library Journal’s Elizabeth Bird, rave, “Without a doubt, this is the best graphic novel of 2010 for kids. Bar none.”, we know we can look forward to the further adventures of Mirka and her unusual family, and that another breakthrough has been reached in the genre of Jewish children’s literature.

The Sydney Taylor Award committee also honored another graphic novel entitled Resistance by Carla Jablonski, with art by Leland Purvis (First Second Books). It is the first of a trilogy and relates the story of two children drawn into the French Resistance in 1940 when they try to help hide their Jewish friend Henri from the German occupiers. This novel is intended for an older readership (7th grade and up) due to its subject matter, and it is compelling historical fiction about the Holocaust which will draw in many youthful readers.

Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid: A Graphic Novel of Dueling Jewish Folktales in the Wild West (Jewish Lights Publishing), by Steve Sheinkin, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and is also an admirable graphic novel for younger readers. It was reviewed favorably here in the August, 2010 issue.

Teens Can Handle Some Pretty Heavy Stuff

The gold medal in the Teen Category goes to The Things a Brother Knows (Wendy Lamb Books), by popular YA novelist, Dana Reinhardt. Reinhardt, a one-time Los Angeles resident who is married to Daniel Sokatch, CEO of The New Israel Fund, previously won an honor award for her first book, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, which delved into issues of Jewish identity, a Hassidic unwed mother, and adoption. This new book takes on the troubles of what appears to be posttraumatic stress disorder and how it impacts not just the returning soldier, but also the rest of his family. Teenager Levi Katznelson has a hard time dealing with brother Boaz’s return from war and the changes he sees in what used to be the local high school hero. Boaz won’t leave his room or ride in a car, and hardly speaks. His Israeli-American family are supportive, but struggle with how to help him. The suspenseful story of two brothers on the road to recovery told through Levi’s eyes, includes a variety of engaging characters, terrific dialogue, and leaves the reader thinking long and hard about the big issues of heroism, war and redemptive love.

The YA book that should win the award for “Biggest Buzz” within the children’s literature community is a powerful teen novel (based on true events) that takes place within a Hassidic community, written by the pseudonymous “Eishes Chayil”. It won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award and has been categorized as “bold”, “insightful” and “disturbing” along with quite a variety of superlatives. However, this is not one of those YA books that proud moms should be suggesting to their “reading above grade level” 10 year olds. Protaganist Gittel is getting married in Borough Park at age 18 to a good man that she has met only once in accordance with the customs of her community. But she can’t forget that she once witnessed something that became a terrible secret: her best friend Devory’s sexual abuse at age 9 that was perpetrated by her older brother. The story moves between the years 2003 and the present, as Gittel attempts to find some sense of justice for her friend by telling her story, hoping her insular community will accept the truth instead of hiding it. Exposing the truth becomes her attempt to understand what being a true eshes hayil really means. The Hasidic community is portrayed with honesty, warmth, and yes, humor. The anyonomous author (who may no longer be a member of the community) stated in a Tablet Magazine interview, that she feared her story will erroneously be assumed false, “written by some ‘self-hating Jew’ who ‘just wants attention.” Far from it; this author creates beliveable characters and writes beautfiully about moving events. No wonder the book world is buzzing—Hush is quite an engaging read whose brave heroine will empower young women of all faiths.

To see the full list of children’s book award winners see: and

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

Religion’s power in the face of death

Contemporary Bible scholars tend to look at religion as the object of study rather than the source of inspiration, or so we might conclude from their writings.  But something quite different can happen when they are confronted with the kind of life experiences for which religion has always served as a balm.

A fascinating example can be found in the latest book by Harvard professor James L. Kugel, “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (Free Press: $26.00).  Kugel is best known for his books about the origins and uses of religious texts, including “The God of Old” and “How to Read the Bible.” When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Kugel was reminded of the lines of Psalm 102 — “O my God, do not take me halfway through life” — and he imagined that the Psalmist must have been similarly stricken.

“You would think that a Bible professor would, in the circumstances I have described, seek comfort in these and other words from Scripture,” he writes. “But to be absolutely truthful, although I know much of the book of Psalms by heart, these were not the words that I kept thinking of after the doctors’ diagnosis. Instead, what ran through my mind was mostly poetry in English, poems I had learned a long time ago – some of them fairly corny.”

Happily, Kugel regained his health, and now he offers a meditation on how our perceptions and of religion can change when we confront the imminence of death.  He describes how the “background music” of daily life — “the music of infinite time and possibilities” — seemed to suddenly stop when he heard his diagnosis, and he muses on the smallness of life as symbolized by the sight of a freshly-dug grave: “Can a whole human being fit in there, a whole human life? Yes. No problem.”

Kugel frankly asks why human beings are (and always have been) so fascinated by religion — a question that is at the core of his life’s work — but he argues that some of the modern scientific theories about the origins and workings of the religious imagination fail to see the forest for the trees. “They all seem to be saying: once we understand the neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain how this delusion got going in the first place, then we can start to come to our senses and reorder our lives,” he writes of books like “The God Delusion.”  “But that really is to miss the point…. After all is said and done, it may come down to a choice between seeing something through a wavy lens…and not seeing at all. Faced with such a choice, I’ll take seeing anytime.”

To explain the elusive concepts that he is struggling to express, Kugel resorts to a whole library of sources, texts, and points of reference, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the architecture of medieval cathedrals to pop music and gospel music, from the Homer to Augustine to Rilke.  Kugel argues that religion can be a way of seeking “a different reality, more powerful and truer than the one we live in every day…a vision of things that is altogether different from our usual one” — an idea that is hardly revolutionary but one that takes on both complexity and resonance in Kugel’s work.

And yet, even though Kugel refuses to simplify what he has to say and always drills deeply into the texts that he ponders, he is also willing and able to share moments of startling clarity.  “Why do we expect the world to be a fair place?” he asks. “In fact, your own little tragedy is inscribed next to so many big ones on the front page of every newspaper (teenage soldier cut down for trying to keep the peace; pilgrims blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber) that in no time at all it is just one more instance in an endless litany of unfairnesses — why should anyone ever expect life to be any different?”

Then, too, he is willing to humanize and personalize the human beings who wrote and read the ancient texts that continue to serve as the touchstones of religion in the modern world. “It is easy now for religion’s deniers to dismiss the way of seeing associated with ancient religions as a benighted patchwork of superstitions and wishful thinking, one that is now happily being disproved and scientifically explained,” he writes. “But my own belief – and the continued theme of this book – is that people two thousand or five thousand years ago were not any stupider than we are today, and that they certainly knew when their own innocent children were dying, whether from disease or famine or apparently nothing at all.”

“In the Valley of the Shadow” is a curious blend of scholarship and confession.  Kugel’s mastery of the texts and traditions is richly displayed yet again, but somehow it all seems much more consequential when framed by an account of his own passage through that often-invoked “valley of the shadow of death.”

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

Poetic Master of Biblical Translation Receives Award

Robert Alter is the 2009 recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award, a lifetime achievement award named after my late father and given each year by the Los Angeles Times. It will be my honor to hand the award to Alter, a role I have been asked to perform on a few memorable occasions over the years. But never before have I discharged my duties with a greater sense of pleasure, admiration and enthusiasm. Alter is, as I once wrote in a review of his work in the L.A. Times, “one of the living masters of biblical criticism and translation.”

Born in New York City in 1935 and educated at Columbia and Harvard, Alter has long served as Class of 1937 Professor of Comparative Literature at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. To fix Robert Alter in the firmament of literary scholarship, however, let me cite both my earliest and the most recent encounters with his printed prose. I first began to read Alter’s writings on the Bible in the pages of Commentary magazine when I was a college student in the late 1960s. And, only a few months ago, I read his latest essay in The New Republic, a knowing (and, for that reason, brutal) critique of a book about the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai in which he displays his mastery of both ancient and modern poetics. 

I suspect that most readers know Robert Alter through the books that are required reading in “Bible as literature” classes on campuses across America, including “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” “The Art of Biblical Poetry” and (with Frank Kermode) “The Literary Guide to the Bible.” For several generations of freshmen, it was Alter who allowed them to see — for the first time — the fingerprints of the human authors of the Tanakh, a crucial if also unsettling experience for anyone who had been taught since early childhood that the Bible is the revealed word of God.

More recently, Alter has composed a series of translations and commentaries that approach the ancient texts with the full arsenal of his literary scholarship and his critical sensibility, his poet’s ear for language and his mastery of biblical Hebrew. It is a measure of his chutzpah that Alter, after retranslating the book of Genesis in 1996 and the book of Samuel in 1999, went on to produce a fresh new translation of the Torah in its entirety in 2004, and capped it off with his rendering of the Psalms in 2007. To his credit, these undertakings have earned the praise not only of his fellow Bible scholars but also his fellow literary critics, a tribute to the quality of his work but also his ability to transcend the confines of academic scholarship.

“The poets will rejoice,” enthused Cynthia Ozick, and she was right — Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney insisted that “Alter’s translation can be fairly described as a godsend.”

Alter may be grounded in the very earliest examples of our literature, but he is certainly not stuck there. He is just as comfortable — and just as commanding — in his consideration of authors as diverse as Stendhal and Kafka, James Joyce and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. But the Bible remains the touchstone of his work: “The Bible in part seizes the imagination of the modern writer,” he explains in “Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture” (Yale University Press, 2000), “because of his acute consciousness of it as a body of founding texts, marking out one of the primary possibilities of representing the human condition….”

Many recipients of lifetime-achievement awards are uncomfortable about the honor because it is regarded as a capstone rather than a milestone. Perhaps the most important thing that readers need to know about Robert Alter is that he continues to deploy new examples of his scholarship with the same powerful curiosity that has characterized his work from the outset, and his newest book — “American Prose and the King James Version” — is scheduled for publication later this year. 

Robert Alter will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the UCLA campus on Saturday, April 25, at 12:00 p.m. in Humanities A51. For ticket information, visit

“Breakdowns” & The “Maus” that roared (or Art Spiegelman through the looking glass)

Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist whose graphic memoir, “Maus,” won a Pulitzer Prize, was in town recently to promote a reissue of “Breakdowns,” a collection of his underground comics work first published in 1978.

As Spiegelman pointed out to me, his name in German means “Mirror Man” (mine means “Pond-wood”) — and revisiting “Breakdowns,” now subtitled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!” was like finding a letter you’d written 30 years ago. For this new edition, Spiegelman spent two years drawing an introduction in comic book form, a series of vignettes that Spiegelman described as “a demo of how memory works” as well as a prose afterword — an elaborate consideration of the most fundamental of questions — “Who am I? How did I become this way? How did I become an artist and what inspired this work?”

Spiegelman was born in 1949 (in Sweden, of all places). His parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, were making their way to the United States, en route to landing in New York City, where they lived in Washington Heights and Rego Park. As he renders in the new introduction, Spiegelman started drawing early and as a child became besotted with newspaper comics and with Mad Magazine. He published his first cartoons at 13 in a local newspaper, and by the time he was 18, he had landed a summer job working for Topps Chewing Gum (which included cartoons in the gum wrappers) under the legendary Woody Gelman, where he met some of the now-celebrated early comic strip artists, as well as some rising talent, among them Robert “R” Crumb.

Spiegelman attended Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y. (now part of Binghamton University). It was the ’60s! Sex, LSD and combinations of both blew his mind, while trips to San Francisco, the East Village and a Vermont commune put flowers in his hair, or at least in some of his drawings.

Although his parents wanted him to be a dentist, a breakdown (of the mental hospital kind) made clear that was never going to happen. That same year, 1969, Spiegelman’s mother committed suicide. In his comic book depiction of her death, Spiegelman dubbed it “the perfect crime,” saying that in killing herself she murdered a part of him and at the same time left him “to take the rap.”

After his mother’s death, Spiegelman returned to Binghamton, where filmmaker Ken Jacobs inspired him to think of himself as an artist. Studying the way early cartoons anthropomorphized animals in one of Jacobs’ classes gave Spiegelman his “Eureka!” moment. He decided to create a comic in which the victims would be drawn as mice, and the persecutors as cats. It would be about … race in America! Imagine Ku Klux Kats lynching black mice! It seemed genius — that is until Spiegelman realized he knew, as he put it, “bupkis about being black in America.”

Justin Green, one of the cartoonists Spiegelman had befriended in San Francisco, had asked him to contribute a short strip to an underground comic to be called, “Funny Animals.” Spiegelman decided to apply his earlier idea to a different tack — his own life. The three-page cartoon Spiegelman produced in a month’s time in 1972 was called “Maus.” It was about a father who tells his young mouse son “bedtime stories” about his time in Mauschwitz. He drew it in a very simple black-and-white direct style, as he called it, “conventional in form, radical in content.” Later that same year, Spiegelman would draft a German Expressionist style narrative called, “Prisoner on Hell Planet” about his mother’s suicide.

Over the next six years, Spiegelman experimented with a variety of comic book forms, incorporating elements of pulp detective fiction and porno films, referencing everything from the Sunday funnies of the early 1900s to Cubism and riding a “New Wave” in his work that, much like the movies or music of the time, mixed high art with low to find new forms. This was the work collected in the 1978 “Breakdowns,” the title of which is a play on words alluding both to the artistic term break-down, to Spiegelman’s own mental anguishes and his breakthrough artwork.

Much like Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for myself,” “Breakdowns” was meant to make the case for Spiegelman’s art. “For me,” Spiegelman notes in his new afterword, “Breakdowns” is “a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note and a still- relevant love letter to a medium I adore.”

ALTTEXT Spiegelman then decided to expand “Maus” into a book-length work. When people asked him how long it would take to finish “Maus,” he would answer “two or three years,” which he now says was “idiotic because I was saying that for years and years.”

In 1982, his father died. During our conversation, I suggested that perhaps one of the reasons “Maus” took so long was that Spiegelman couldn’t finish it while his father was still alive.

Spiegelman admitted that although he had hoped to finish the work while his father was still alive, his death, “may have made certain things easier.” “My relationship with my father improved a lot after he died,” Spiegelman explained. “I bristle when people ask if I think of my comics as therapy, but I will say that to act out [Vladek’s part] in this, which is what you have to do in order to draw any decent strip … was a kind of gestalt thing to see it from his point of view.”

“Maus” was first published in book form in 1986 (in part to beat out Spielberg’s animated movie about a mouse, “An American Tail”), and “Maus II” came out in 1991. “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — requiring a special category since its form was considered so unconventional.

“Maus” also became a tough act to follow. In a comic strip called “Pop Art” that is part of the new intro to “Breakdowns,” Spiegelman draws himself fleeing from a giant Maus-like mouse monument, saying “No matter how much I run I can’t seem to get out of that Mouse’s shadow.” The success of “Maus,” he now says, was “constricting.”

Then came Sept. 11.

For Spiegelman, who lived in lower Manhattan with his family, the event was profoundly affecting. Having spent much of his life living with the specter of his father’s cataclysm, he now found that “something one might call history was intersecting with my story in a direct way.” (I suggested to Spiegelman that this was like the scene in “Hannah and her Sisters” where Woody Allen plays a hypochondriac who visits his doctor and is shocked to find out that he might indeed be deathly ill).

“One of the things I felt that morning [was]… ‘Schmuck, you should have done more comics.’ I feel it’s like what I can do best. Even though it’s hard.”

Spiegelman started to draw large one-page panels, which a friend who was editor of Germany’s “Die Zeit” offered to publish with a “no editing” clause (The New Yorker, where he had worked for many years, passed). Over the next year, Spiegelman drew 10 pages. Publishers from England, Italy and France carried it — “A coalition of the willing,” as Spiegelman called it, and eventually it was published in the United States in The Forward, which had also published “Maus” in serial form. It also came out finally in book form with the title, “In the Shadow of No Towers.”

Keeping his vow to make more comics, Spiegelman has several works forthcoming: He just did a volume for Toon Books (, whose editorial director is Francoise Mouly, Spiegelman’s wife and frequent collaborator (he’s listed on the Web site as “series advisor”). He’s also done a collection of three different sketchbooks to be published by McSweeny’s, as a well as “Meta Maus,” an update of the 1994 “Maus Voyager” CD-ROM, to be published by Criterion. And he is working on a new comic that, he says, “I refuse to talk about what it would be, because that would sure kill it.”

As much as “Maus” owes to the legacy of his father, Vladek, Spiegelman feels equally that “all of my work before that and after that [owes] a lot to the fathers who made the Sunday comics from 1900.”

“Maybe that’s the way I am Jewish,” Spiegelman said. “I was lecturing somewhere on Yom Kippur, and I explained that I didn’t observe the High Holy Days, since I haven’t gotten high since about 1980. [However]… in many ways the Jewishness has to do with carrying a history.”

“The irony for me is that I am involved in this Oedipal struggle, and now here I am this patriarch of comics who’s in a kind of Oedipal target position for younger comics, who might think I’m taking up too much oxygen.”

Reflecting on the way comics have changed since he first published “Breakdowns,” Spiegelman said, “When I was growing up, if you went into a bar and told this woman that you drew comic books, it wasn’t a really surefire pick-up line…. Now it seems to be as good as saying that I play bass in some punk band.”

The current comics explosion that has birthed Comic-Con and made graphic novels hot literary properties for the movies, is “part of the trifecta that just happened to comics.”

“Now comics can be anything,” Spiegelman said, “that includes a literary or visual arts comic that could find its way into bookstores or museums easily.” Much as that makes Spiegelman happy, it also concerns him.

“I’ve been fretting recently [that] I placed my bet on this when it was an unusual place to be. It seems I’m living in a Phillip K. Dick world — like I willed it into existence somehow. Now, in the last eight years, is when it’s really flourished. Comics can now be a serious medium — as opposed to ephemeral garbage. I’m worrying perhaps that I used up the seriousness quotient for the planet and it ended up being in comics; so now the world of political and social arena has no adults left in it.”

One could say it was as if from “Maus” to now, the Mirror Man and the comics he begat had passed through the looking glass.

Calendar Girls picks, clicks and kicks for February 16 – 22



Celebrating 60 years of a Jewish homeland means nonstop partying in Jewish communities around the world. The kick-off is well underway here in Los Angeles, where Israeli-born songman Danny Maseng will perform as part of “Israel: 60 Years of Song and Story,”an evening of food, wine and dance. As an added mitzvah, five trees will be planted in Israel for every ticket sold. 6:30 p.m. $150. Temple Beth Hillel, 12326 Riverside Drive, Valley Village. (818) 761-0192.


” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>Brazil’s high buzz Oscar-nominated film, “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation,” is opening for a limited run at three Los Angeles theaters. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from a review published in the Forward: “Set in Brazil in the 1970s, during the exuberance of a World Cup victory and the fear-driven torpor of a military dictatorship, the film shows what happens to Mauro after his parents go on a highly euphemistic vacation (they are leftists running from the government). Mauro is dropped off in front of his grandfather’s apartment in Bom Retiro, an immigrant enclave in Sao Paulo, only to discover that the old man has died. The boy’s livelihood soon becomes the concern of a group of the building’s Yiddish-speaking residents, with a surly religious man named Shlomo reluctantly taking the lead. Mauro — as unimpressed as he is uncircumcised — shows little interest in the Jewish goings-on around him. Visit ” target=”_blank”>

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You don’t have to go all the way to South Beach for a wine and food festival. Herzog Wine Cellars brings you the best of both worlds with the inaugural International Food and Wine Festival. Kosher winemakers from France, Spain, Israel and California invite you to slosh and spit your favorite grapes before chasing them with chef Todd Aarons’ Mediterranean-style dishes. 7 p.m. $100 (per person), $80 (two or more people). Herzog Wine Cellars, 3201 Camino Del Sol, Oxnard. (805) 983-1560, ext. 305. ” target=”_blank”>

Award-winning playwright Bruce J. Robinson brings a seat-gripping true story to life with director Alex Craig Mann in “Another Vermeer.” Set in postwar Europe, Dutch art dealer Han van Meegeren is in deep after being arrested for selling a Johannes Vermeer masterpiece to Nazi Hermann Goering. To free himself from prison and looming death, Van Meegeren must convince the authorities that the Vermeer is a forgery. Mon.- Sun. Through March 9. $20-$22. Beverly Hills High School, Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 364-0535. ” target=”_blank”>

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, creator of the ABC series “Brothers and Sisters,” brings another riveting drama to the stage with “The Paris Letter.” Set in the early 1960s, a successful New York businessman has an affair with a young male associate, after which he becomes tangled in a tragic game of financial and moral betrayal, sacrificing friends, family and love. Ron Rifkin, John Glover, Neil Patrick Harris, Josh Radnor and Patricia Wettig star in this L.A. Theatre Works production, which will be recorded for the nationally syndicated radio theater series, “The Play’s the Thing.” Wed.-Sun. Through Feb. 24. $20-$47. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 827-0889.

A different attic’s holocaust secrets

Joseph Hollander left the untold story of his life packed up in a suitcase, waiting to be found.

His son, Richard Hollander, found the suitcase in the attic of his parents’ Westchester house in 1986, after they were both killed in a tragic car accident. The younger Hollander uncovered piles of letters, neatly stacked, from a family he didn’t know — his father’s mother, three sisters and their husbands and children –written from Poland between November 1939 and December 1941, to Joseph, who managed to leave in 1939 and make his way to the United States. Each envelope had a large hand-stamped Nazi imprint on the back.

When Richard Hollander, the only child of his parents, found the suitcase, he was still so devastated by his parents’ sudden death that he packed up the contents again and stashed it in his own attic for more than a decade. Also packed inside, along with the letters, were files and court papers involving the U.S. government’s efforts to deport Joseph when he arrived as an undocumented refugee, a case Richard hadn’t heard about. Richard also found photographs, his father’s unfinished hand-written autobiography with a preface to his grandchildren — he didn’t know his father had been working on this — and also a stack of letters between his parents during their courtship and marriage.

“Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland” edited by Christopher R. Browning, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press), is the story of Joseph Hollander’s experience and that of his family. Richard Hollander, a former newspaper and television reporter who now heads a communications firm in Baltimore, spearheaded the project and wrote Joseph’s story. He commissioned translations from Polish and German of the mostly hand-written letters. Browning and Tec, who are scholars and authors of important works about the Holocaust, lent their support to the book and contribute historical and analytical essays, providing context for the letters.

The power of the book lies in the letters, which depict day-to-day family life and concerns amid growing uncertainty and stress. These letters are very different from the many memoirs of survivors written after the war looking back at their experiences, for as the Hollander family was writing to Joseph, they didn’t know the final chapters of the story. The letters, written by three generations of a family, are not about political events, nor do they provide detailed descriptions of the suffering the family endured, as the writers were mindful of postal censors; sometimes they wrote about fears and hopes in coded language. Theirs is a one-sided correspondence, for although Joseph — Joziu, as he is referred to in the letters — was meticulous about saving the letters he received, none of his responses exist.

“History is usually written by the victors, not the victims,” Richard Hollander said in an interview recently. “The losers don’t get much chance to write history.”

book cover

When he first showed the letters to a curator at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., he was told that they were a historical treasure.

“There are two parallel Holocaust stories. My father is in the U.S., facing deportation and probably death, and his family is in Cracow, facing separation and probably death,” Richard Hollander said.

While Joseph was trying to secure his own entry, he was also trying to arrange his family’s emigration. His great frustration was that although he was able to save people through his travel business while he was still in Europe, he couldn’t save his own family.

Although a journalist by trade and an inquisitive person, Richard never spoke to his father about his experience during the Holocaust. Richard says he doesn’t understand why he didn’t inquire, but he somehow knew that his father, a man of great integrity, didn’t want to talk. His mother served as gatekeeper for her husband on everything related to the Holocaust.

“Mostly this is the story of my father, a man who was a victim of the Holocaust, although he never saw a ghetto, experienced the dehumanizing conduct of Nazi overseers, nor witnessed the indescribable atrocities,” Richard Hollander writes.

The book’s title is drawn from a letter written by Berta Hollander, Joseph’s mother, in May 1941. For her, as she awaited her son’s responses, “Every day lasts a year.”

In another letter, his sister Klara writes, “During our land exploring journey we lost most of our belongings but may this be our only sacrifice. I thank God that we are all together and we all help each other as much as we can. We all work and this is good since we don’t have too much time to think, and time runs quickly. I don’t have to write you that your letters are our joy, but we don’t get too many of them. Are we going to see each other?”

Richard Hollander explains that their “land exploring journey” was a failed attempt to leave Cracow. The book includes 300 entries from different family members, each with their own outlook and vision. Sometimes the different writers share a single piece of paper, and they often make references to the letters they are receiving from Joseph. At times, they ask him to stop sending packages, explaining that they don’t need anything and have been getting some uninvited guests. Richard Hollander assumes that these guests were the Nazis.

After finding the material about his father’s case in the suitcase, Richard Hollander contacted the National Archives and New York Federal Court, and received hundreds of pages of documents. Joseph and his wife arrived in New York in December 1939, on board an Italian ship named Vulcania. They had first sailed from Naples to Portugal, their original destination, but they weren’t allowed to disembark, as they didn’t have proper documentation; they then sailed on to New York where they were considered stateless and illegal.

Richard Hollander was recently told that his father was “the Elian Gonzalez of 1940,” referring to the young Cuban boy whose deportation attracted much attention in 2000. Included in the materials are letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of Congress and other high-ranking officials. The resourceful and determined Joseph, who was trained as a lawyer in Poland, spent years in litigation. His marriage fell apart in 1942. In 1943, he was granted citizenship, and then soon after joined the U.S. Army. Before being shipped to Europe, he met the woman who would become his new wife. He searched for members of his family, but none survived.


Kollek a British Spy?
The late Teddy Kollek reportedly spied for Britain against the hard-line Jewish underground in British Mandate Palestine. Citing declassified documents, the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported last week that Kollek, who is best remembered as Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor, had spent much of the 1940s passing information to the British authorities that helped them crack down on Etzel and Lehi fighters.

At the time, Kollek was a senior figure with the Jewish Agency, which was largely aligned with the more moderate Haganah and Palmach Zionist movements.

One of Etzel’s leaders, Menachem Begin, topped Britain’s wanted list, eluded capture and went on to become Israeli prime minister. According to Yediot, Israeli diplomats asked Britain’s government archives to keep the files on Kollek sealed while he was alive.

Asked about the report, Kollek’s son, Amos, told the newspaper, “Dad never spoke of his activities during that period.”

U.S. Lawmakers Want Insurance Firms to Release Names of Shoah Policyholders
Congress wants to force Holocaust-era insurance companies to disclose lists of their insured survivors. The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), seeks to supersede international agreements brokered by the State Department to settle insurance claims through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The proposed legislation asserts that commission, which officially ended its nine-year efforts last week, “did not make sufficient effort to investigate” or compile the names of Holocaust-era insureds or the claims due to survivors. The measure would require insurers to disclose comprehensive lists of those they insured during the Hitler era.

The legislation also authorizes federal lawsuits to recover monies from insurers, thus overruling the commission’s authority and a variety of adverse Supreme Court rulings that have denied survivors the right to sue.

The bill was spurred by survivors groups, following revelations in the Jewish media that the secret International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, contains thousands of uninvestigated documents relating to insurance and corporate complicity.

Briton Wins Largest Jewish Literary Prize
The largest-ever Jewish literary prize, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature that was inaugurated this year, has been awarded to British writer Tamar Yellin, author of “The Genizah at the House of Shepher.”

The award carries a grant of $100,000. Individuals cannot apply but instead are recommended by an anonymous team of nominators. Many Jewish literary awards have modest, if any, honorariums attached.

The prize was established by Sami Rohr’s children and grandchildren to celebrate his 80th birthday and is presented to an emerging writer, whose work of exceptional literary merit stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.

Yellin has won a triple crown of major Jewish literary awards this year. In addition to the Rohr Prize, she received Hadassah’s Ribalow Prize and the Reform Judaism Prize, both awarded for Jewish fiction.

When asked about how the latest award might change her life, she replied, “I’m carrying on with my writing. I’m working on a new novel.”

She explained that because of her supportive husband, she was able to give up teaching several years ago and become a full-time writer. She continues to visit schools in northern England as a Jewish Faith Visitor, teaching about Judaism in schools where there’s a large Pakistani Muslim community and many of the children have never encountered a Jewish person.

“It’s very important to connect with them, for them to meet someone Jewish and to learn about our traditions to break down the barrier of ignorance,” she said.

The daughter of a third-generation Jerusalemite father and a Polish immigrant mother, she studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. In her novel and stories, she writes of identity, community, belonging and exile, which, as she explained, are themes that grow out of her experience of being Jewish in England.

Rohr was a real estate developer in Bogota, Columbia, for more than 30 years and now lives in Miami. His lifelong love of Jewish writing includes the work of Lion Feuchtwanger and, in Yiddish, Israel Joshua Singer.

The two runners-up, who will each receive $7,500, are Amir Guttfreund of Israel, author of “Our Holocaust,” and Michael Lavigne of San Francisco, author of “Not Me.” Other finalists are Yael Hedaya from Israel, author of “Accidents,” and Naomi Alderman from England, author of “Disobedience.”

Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the prize will be given annually, with awards to fiction and nonfiction writers in alternate years.

The Rohr family will also establish the Rohr Family Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The institute will convene a biannual retreat, meeting for the first time after the next round of award recipients are announced in 2008. All of the finalists will be invited to participate.

Judges for this year’s award were professor Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University; novelist (and MacArthur Fellow) Rebecca Goldstein; Daisy Maryles, Publishers Weekly; novelist Jonathan Rosen; and professor Ruth Wisse, Harvard University. — Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Home and Jerusalem

Israel according to Hollywood:
Click the BIG ARROW for the trailer from “Exodus” (1960)

The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; theyfounded Israel to help Jews escape the world.

Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.

One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise.

But both these grand inventions have something very important in common: Jewish writers.

Jewish writers created the movies that defined Hollywood. And other Jewish writers, a world away, created the movement that defined Israel. These thoughts wandered through my head as I dipped in an out of a rare offering this week, an international conference in Los Angeles on Israeli literature. Held under the auspices of the relatively new UCLA Israel Studies Program, “History as Reflected in Israeli Literature” brought together several dozen of the world’s top scholars in a surprisingly rich field.

Actually, as the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua made clear in his keynote address Sunday evening, the importance of the literary imagination to Israel should surprise no one.

“Zionism was founded by writers,” he said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a popular journalist and aspiring playwright.

“Herzl was a failed dramatist,” Yehoshua said. “Perhaps if he was a more successful dramatist….” His voice trailed off as the audience laughed, imagining Herzl forsaking his life’s mission for a three-play deal on the Ringstrasse. “We are perhaps one of his plays.”

But Herzl forsook plays and instead wrote books, bad fiction and good nonfiction, outlining his vision of a Jewish state. That tradition continued after Israel’s founding in 1948, though the quality of the fiction greatly improved. Those early works, as Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Yigal Schwartz said at one panel, mostly wrestled with the basic questions of identity.

“Most Hebrew literature dealt with trying to make a new nation through literature,” he told conferees. These works created, “the Zionist religion of Nationhood.”

But on their heels, in the 1950s, came novels challenging the hard-won status quo.

“The major subject of this literature is the disappointment with the state,” said professor Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University. “There wasn’t any writer who didn’t express disappointment.”

Holtzman pointed out that the early Soviet literature evinced the same kind of post-revolutionary letdown.

The difference was, of course, that the Soviets killed their disappointed novelists. Israel lauded hers. Another generation — Yehoshua’s — blossomed, and its literature was still more complex, combining political themes with the personal and historical. And as these Israeli writers gained fame, something extraordinary happened — Israelis continued to listen to them.

As professor Robert Alter pointed out in a presentation with Yehoshua, this attention marks a great divide between Israeli and American novelists. Israel has a tradition of novelists and writers engaged in the public square.

“How different this is from the American writer,” Alter said. “I think very few practicing American novelists today feel any impulse to comment on political matters, and even more crucially, if they did, if Phillip Roth did comment on American politics, nobody would pay attention to him.”

In fact, Roth denies that his book, “The Plot Against America,” is a direct critique of the Bush administration, despite the fact that many have read it as such.

When Yehoshua gave a press conference last summer alongside novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman calling for an end to the recent war against Hezbollah — Yehoshua supported it but believed it was going on too long — it made national headlines. When Yehoshua declared that in the Diaspora being Jewish “is a jacket you take on or off,” while in Israel it is “a skin,” the outcry made international headlines. (He repeated the charges Sunday night, with considerably less shock value.)

In fact, the importance of the artistic imagination to the Israeli endeavor should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into L.A. culture these days. The Israel Film Festival is at the Laemmle theatres, featuring a slate of cutting-edge movies from Hollywood-on-HaYarkon. This May, a vast exchange is in the works bringing Tel Aviv fine artists to galleries in L.A. Musicians from David Broza to the entire Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have played to large audiences recently.

And last week’s literary conference was, according to professor David Myers of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, which co-sponsored the event, the first of its kind in Los Angeles.

In America, it’s fair to say, Hollywood’s writers have more power than novelists over the public political and cultural consciousness. But in Israel the lions of literature still have an impact, and that, Yehoshua said, is not by chance.

“The others,” he said, going back to the beginnings of that other Jewish invention, “the rabbis, the leaders of the community, they could not foresee what was happening, what will happen to the Jewish people. It was only by a certain imagination, an audacity, that these writers could understand what has to be done in order to avoid the catastrophe.”

“My feeling is that we continue this certain tradition of writers, this vision for Zionism of seeing clearly what is to be done,” he continued. “I don’t say we have seen always the right thing, that our analysis was always correct. But the fact is that this is a certain tradition of Zionism, that writers and intellectuals are important and the public is hearing us. Maybe they were thinking we were perhaps na?ve, perhaps stupid, but there is a place for the intellectual to say his words. In this sense I am always grateful to Israel for the way in which it never persecuted us, and always gave us attention.”

Would you expect anything else from a great Jewish invention?

Guide to Torah fleshes out flat characters in stories

“Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary,” by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (Yashar Books)

Besotted with Torah.

That’s the phrase that springs to mind when reading Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s “Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary.”
The title is somewhat academic, and I have to admit that it does not make the book sound user-friendly. But make no mistake, this lovely and lively volume is a valuable addition to traditional Torah study and to the layman’s library.

One of the first maxims any budding Torah scholar learns is: Aseh L’cha rav — find yourself a teacher. For it is understood that no one can study Torah alone. The corridors of Torah study are an endless maze that can only lead to confusion and frustrating dead ends. Everyone needs a guide, and even the most brilliant talmudic students in the finest yeshivas must have a study partner.

Etshalom’s book cannot replace a study partner; no single book can do that. I’m sure that Etshalom would agree with me on this point, but his book is not meant to do that. Etshalom’s book is meant as a sort of introductory field guide to Torah.

Let’s admit something right away: When we read the narratives in the Torah, we often say to ourselves, “Gee willikers, this story is really weird; this narrative makes no sense. Do people really act this way? Did people ever act this way?”

This is why you have to study with a teacher. This is why you have to scrutinize the text using Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France), the greatest of all commentators, so that you can, as Etshalom says, read between the lines.

I’m a screenwriter and novelist. I think in terms of fully realized characters. I insist on the primacy of characters that act and think in coherent ways, with what’s called in the trade: internal logic. I’m also conditioned to think in terms of plots that work in three acts and have setups and payoffs. I look for stories that end with neat fades to black; stories that are tidily resolved with no narrative problems left dangling.
This rarely happens in the Torah.

Thus, reading the stories in the Torah can be a frustrating experience. So much is left unsaid. Biblical dialogue is so spare it makes Hemingway look positively chatty.
But in truth, the bare bones tales are without literary peer — the basis for almost all Western literature. Etshalom uses traditional Torah sources, plus some of the newer disciplines of archaeology, philology, Assyriology, Egyptology, anthropology and literary theory to disclose the internal logic of the characters and to reveal the full magnificence and truth of the Torah narratives. He’s like a hugely gifted screenwriter filling out a skimpy outline stage by stage (on occasion, Etshalom even refers to the biblical characters as “actors”) so that finally the director can see the epic that he is going to shoot.

In his passionate and eye-opening second chapter, “Entering the Character’s World,” Etshalom analyzes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here Etshalom introduces the reader to his principal methodology of parshanut — understanding the portions:

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Posters by Czech Students Bring Back Lost ‘Neighbors’

” TARGET=”_blank”>Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust should be exhibiting the art work of Czech children trying to rediscover their Jewish compatriots in the exhibition, “Neighbors Who Disappeared.”

The show, which opened Aug. 20 and runs through the end of September, was put together by Susan Boyer of the Czech Torah Network and Rachel Jagoda, executive director of the museum, who has made it one of her goals to seek out “the other.” She has presented exhibitions on the Cambodian genocide and the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, as well as a recent lecture by a 101-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who, along with many of his co-religionists, spent time in Nazi concentration camps.

The “Neighbors” exhibition combines non-Jewish and Jewish narratives by featuring posters designed by non-Jewish kids from Czech junior high and high schools, who researched the history of their towns and found out about the plight of Jews, some of whom actually attended their very schools. Each poster in the first half of the exhibition, many of which have an earth-tone background, shows a map at the top which indicates the Czech town that was researched and includes a collage of archived photographs, diary entries, diagrams and other mixed-media forms.

Typically, the students who created the poster provide quotes about how the project has transformed them. In some cases, students reveal their ignorance prior to becoming enlightened about World War II and the Holocaust. One writes, “Today’s generation, without any knowledge what it is all about, only laughs at it.”

However, the students from Ostrava, an eastern Czech town, overcome this failing and are grateful to get in touch with Jan Mayer, who is shown as a 6-year-old in 1931, wearing a Maccabee shirt with a Star of David on it. The littlest child in the Jewish gymnasium, Mayer, who in the black-and-white photograph scratches his upper lip, later survived Terezin; Auschwitz, where he encountered Dr. Mengele; Birkenau; and the death march.

A recent photo shows the octogenarian with his wife. He tells the Czech students that he made it through the Holocaust due to “a lot of luck,” but the students write that he is a man of fortitude.

The second half of the exhibition is a tribute to the Czech children who died in the Holocaust. One colorful poster, with lots of yellow and pink, displays entries from a short-lived magazine, published in 1940 and 1941 by young Czech Jews, called Klepy, or gossip. There are cartoons and other illustrations, such as a superimposed image of a smiling boy who kicks a soccer ball.

But the light-hearted title of the publication and the frivolous images can not leaven the severity of a poem, titled “Reflections — Statements.” An unknown child poet writes, “We have only one life, one small fragment of eternity, and we have this in order to fight the world.”

The last poster is by the students of Varnsdorf High School and is dedicated to one of their alumni, the Czech painter Frantisek Peter Kien. Kien, who was deputy head of the art room at Terezin, may very well have taught art to the children whose work was found after the Holocaust and is now exhibited at venues like the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

In this poster, we see a number of remarkable drawings by Kien, including a self-portrait of the young artist, whose thick but tiny gob of a moustache ironically makes him resemble Hitler. We also see a print of an elongated, silhouetted man in a top hat, sitting next to a woman of the night. The image, done in a kind of diabolical green and red, is evocative of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and references Maupassant.

If there is a possible flaw to the poster, it is that we see none of Kien’s art documenting the inhumanity of the Terezin camp, even though such work is noted in the text. Perhaps the students wanted to show that in spite of the dehumanizing nature of Terezin, painters like Kien and the young Jewish children were still able to enter the imaginative realm, to dream and to produce art that outlasted the hatred of the Nazis.

“Neighbors Who Disappeared” runs through the end of September at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.

Eluding Death Gives Life to Roth Novel

Eluding death is the central issue of life for Philip Roth’s nameless leading character in his newest novel, “Everyman” (Houghton Mifflin). A thrice-married and divorced retired advertising executive, Roth’s lonely everyman wants to keep on with the messy business of his life — “he didn’t want the end to come a minute earlier than it had to” — even as friends get sick and die around him, and his own body’s failings persist.

“Old age,” Roth writes, “isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.”

Roth, 73, who has won every major American literary prize for his 26 previous books, began writing this short novel, or novella, the day after his friend, Saul Bellow, was buried. The book opens at a graveside service in a New Jersey cemetery, as the man referred to only as “he” — the other characters are named — is laid to rest, described by an all-seeing narrator who then loops the reader through the cycle of the man’s life through his catalog of ailments and relationships.

While his last novel, “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) reached into America’s past, this book is a personal and contemporary story, the events of Sept. 11 a shadow. With paragraphs that sometimes run over several pages of the small-format book, the novel’s sentences are at once haunting and dazzling and sometimes funny, too, for the pointed Roth details.

The title is drawn from the name of a line of anonymous 15th-century English allegorical plays that were performed in cemeteries — the theme was always salvation. In one classic morality play, Everyman, the main character, gets a visit from death and says what Roth considers the first great line in English drama: “Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.”

Death, loss, regret, sex and Jews are familiar Roth themes, and this Everyman at times sounds like other Roth characters, at times like the author himself. In the novel, he left his difficult first wife, the mother of his two sons, for a kindly second wife, the mother of his daughter, Nancy. While in his 50s, he is thrown out by his second wife, after she confronts him about an affair — not his first — with a 24-year-old Danish model. The model becomes his third wife, but that marriage doesn’t last either.

Throughout his life, he loves and admires his older brother, Howie, always the effortlessly successful athlete and businessman, but as he requires repeated major surgery, he begins to resent his brother’s good health.

He’s bitterly disappointed with his sons, “who continued to act as if what happened to them had never happened before or since to anyone else.” His daughter is a spectacularly good person, and he felt it was a miracle and his good fortune, rather than a result of anything he had done, that she turned out as she did. He muses that “sometimes it seemed that everything was a mistake, except for Nancy.”

Some weeks after the events of Sept. 11, he moves from Manhattan to Starfish Beach, a retirement village on the Jersey shore, not far from the town where his family had vacationed when he was growing up. He loves the ocean, “the stupendous sea that had been changing continuously without ever changing since he’d been a bony, sea-battling boy.”

His plan is to take up painting, which he had abandoned to begin his advertising career. He paints and gives classes, but soon after one of his more serious students, a widow crippled by pain, commits suicide, he gives up painting again. He takes little interest in the women of his village, but he walks the boardwalk, longing for the young women runners and bathers, ever aware of his weakened powers. Toward the end — although he doesn’t expect his own life to end — he reaches out to old friends and colleagues who are also experiencing loss and suffering.

The most evocative scenes are those in which his father’s Elizabeth, N.J., jewelry store is conjured up. The brothers worked there, alongside local Irish Catholic girls hired for their good manners and for their ability — as their father imagined — to make their non-Jewish customers feel comfortable. They were also there to look good when they tried on jewelry for potential buyers.

For the boys, the store was an Eden created by their father, “a paradise just 15 feet wide by 40 feet deep disguised as an old jewelry store.” In one of his episodes on the cardiac operating table, in an attempt to keep his mind elsewhere, he recites in alphabetical order the nine brands of watches and seven brands of clocks sold in the shop.

In rare interviews and public appearances, Roth repeatedly says the question of being a Jewish writer, or for that matter, being a Jewish man, does not interest him. When a Danish journalist recently asked if he was religious, he replied that he was the opposite of religious; that he’s anti-religious and disdainful of religious people, also a subject in which he finds little interest.

His character says that he stopped taking Judaism seriously the day after his bar mitzvah and hadn’t been in a synagogue since. In the many hospitals he’d been in, he would leave the line for religion blank on admission forms, trying to avoid the possibility of a rabbi stopping by to visit him. For him, “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness — the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him.”

Yet the questions about Judaism always come up, because Roth’s books are filled with Jews. Here, Everyman is buried according to Jewish tradition, as were his parents, in a near-crumbling Jewish cemetery built by Jewish benevolent societies more than a century earlier. His grandfather, who ran a boarding house for immigrants, was one of the founders who landscaped the open field with their own hands. Now, the once carefully groomed burial ground, just off the more recently built New Jersey Turnpike and abutting Newark Airport, is largely overgrown and vandalized. At the funeral, Nancy, who brings everyone together, remarks that they might have set her father to rest in a more beautiful setting, but she wanted him close by his parents and grandparents, rather than alone.

In the scene before he goes into the operating room the final time, he is at the cemetery, visiting the graves of his parents. He stops and engages a gravedigger in a long conversation about the details of his 34 years of digging graves at this cemetery. Working by hand with two standard shovels, square and round, he digs down six feet and forms an area flat enough “to lay a bed out on … it’s got to be right for the sake of the family and right for the sake of the dead.”

When he realizes that this man dug his parents’ graves, he slips him some money, grateful for his care and consideration. And he realizes that this is the man who might sometime soon be digging a 6-foot hole for him. In all this, Everyman seems to find comfort.

Standing next to his parents’ tombstones, he feels an intensity of connection. He says aloud to them — his mother died at 80, his father at 90 — that their boy is 71. His mother replies, “Good. You lived.” His father tells him, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

He lingers, unable to leave. “The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all over again.”


The ‘Chosen’ Ones Across the Street

It has long been a cliché that Los Angeles does not respect the culture of the book. It is true that this town famously eviscerated Faulkner and Fitzgerald, that Hollywood suits to this day treat screenwriters the way Henry VIII treated his wives. Yet, it is also true that Los Angeles has spawned unique brands of literature, such as, the hard-boiled detective story, and that a major publisher like Judith Regan is moving from New York to Century City.

This weekend more than 100,000 people are expected to flock to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA — and to a new, Jewish-themed People of the Book Festival across the street.

The all-day “People” event April 30 will feature authors such as Amy Wilentz, the former Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker (see story on this page); renowned Jewish chef Faye Levy (“Feast From the Mideast : 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes From the Lands of the Bible”); Ruth Andrew Ellenson; Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein; Lori Gottleib, and Aimee Bender (“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt”) in a 4 p.m. panel moderated by Tobin Belzer.

It was the proximity to the Times’ festival that prompted UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, in part, to approach newspaper officials about a linked event several years ago. Audiences had been growing for Jewish Book Month events each November, starring Jewish literati such as Michael Chabon and Nicole Kraus.

But the Times passed, reportedly due to liability issues arising from attendees crossing Hilgard Avenue. Then Abigail Yasgur of the Jewish Community Library suggested an event to run separately but simultaneously with the existing fair, and the USC Kasden Institute and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies signed on.

While groups such as the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys will continue to hold book festivals in November, the People of the Book organizers have “created some kind of geographic and chronological confluence [that helps]… “keep the focus on books,” says David L. Ulin, book editor of the L.A. Times. “The great thing about books is that they bleed across all kinds of boundaries.”

For more information, visit

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, March 25

Hollywood Fight Club’s current production “A Lively … and Deathly Evening With Woody Allen” brings to the stage three written works by the Neurotic One. Woody Allen’s “God,” “Death Knocks” and “Mr. Big” all deal with existential dilemmas as only Allen can.

Through April 2. 8 p.m. (Saturdays), 8:30 p.m. (Thursdays), 3 p.m. (Sundays). $14. 6767 W. Sunset Blvd., Suite No. 6, Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 465-0800.

Sunday, March 26

Jewish school spirit can be found in abundance on the USC campus this weekend. The Jewish Student Film Festival has coordinated a weekend of Jewish activities, which culminates in today’s film fest. Friday evening, attend Shabbat services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion followed by Shabbat dinner at USC Hillel; Saturday, attend “Jewzika: A Night of Jewish Musicians” featuring Dov Kogen and the Hidden, SoCalled and the Moshav Band.

Film fest: Free (students), $5 (general). Jewzika: $10 (students), $12 (general). ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, March 27

“Minimalist Jukebox,” L.A. Philharmonic’s minimalism festival, gives us music by Steve Reich on March 25 and 26, including “Tehillim,” the composer’s music for Psalms. Then today, also in conjunction with the Minimalist Jukebox, California EAR Unit explores the theme with Lamon Young’s “Composition No. 7,” David Rosenboom’s “The Seduction of Sapentia” and other works.

Reich concerts: ” target=”_blank”> or (323) 857-6010.

Tuesday, March 28

Those seeking romance and mystery look no further than the last place you’d think of. National Council of Jewish Women steams things up with “An Evening of Literature and Conversation” with romance authors Loraine Despres and Dora Levy Mossanen, as well as mystery writer Rochelle Krich. Jewish Community Library Director Abigail Yasgur moderates.

7:30-9:30 p.m. Free. 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 651-2930, ext. 512.

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Dora Levy Mossanen

Wednesday, March 29

Tonight it’s sex, drugs and a night at the Writers Bloc. Authors and cultural icons Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying”) and Jerry Stahl (“Permanent Midnight”) converse about writing at the Skirball.

7:30 p.m. $20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, March30

Step inside to view the Getty Garden — as photographed by Becky Cohen — at the Persimmon gallery. Lovely permanent pigment prints from transparencies Cohen shot for the book “Robert Irwin Getty Garden” are on view through April 22.

310 N. Flores St., Los Angeles. (323) 951-9540.

Friday, March 31

“Methodfest,” the only film festival “dedicated to the actor,” opens tonight and continues through April 7. Count on panels, tributes, workshops, galas and plenty of self-importance. But you can also catch a few intriguing indie flicks, including tonight’s opening coming-of-age film, “Dreamland,” starring Agnes Bruckner, John Corbett and Gina Gershon, among others.

Woodland Hills and Calabasas. Prices vary. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not only that.

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

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


Beware of Formerly Observant Writers

“Beware of God” by Shalom Auslander (Simon & Schuster, $19.95)

God is a chicken.

God is a stalker.

God is a tougher advertising client than Proctor & Gamble.

God is just the bureaucrat of the “production nightmare” that is all of creation. And God just hates all the “micromanaging bull—-.”

In Shalom Auslander’s recent collection of short stories, “Beware of God,” God appears as many, many things, except for the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omniscient powerful Being He has traditionally been for the last however many-thousand years (depending on which religion you ask).

Like other novelists who have been raised in the Modern Orthodox world — Nathan Englander, most recently — Auslander takes his yeshiva upbringing, his knowledge of Jewish history and familiarity with the back and forth dialectic of Talmudic argument and turns it all on its head.

It’s all a big joke to you, Auslander,” one can picture his rebbes telling him in high school.

And it is a big joke, for the most part. Like some of Woody Allen’s shorts, Auslander manages to take what he knows, combine it with what the world knows, and turn it into an absurdist commentary on Orthodoxy — and on piety itself.

In “The Metamorphosis,” the character Motty awakes one morning “to find himself transformed into a very large goy.” Instead of bug eyes and wings, as in Kafka’s original tale of species transformation, this protagonist has to deal suddenly with a hairy chest and muscled biceps. And he’s “overcome with desire to build something with hammers and wood.”

That’s the danger of a Modern Orthodox education — one that’s equally strident in Judaic and English studies. In a modern religious life, which reaches for footing in both the secular and religious worlds, sometimes the balance and the tension cannot hold. (Which might explain why the Modern Orthodox world has moved further to the right since Auslander went to school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Auslander, like Englander, is a rabbi’s worst nightmare: Like the Wicked Son of Passover, he has all the knowledge and not much of the belief.

In “Prophet’s Dilemma,” God is just like a stalker. He tells Schwartzman to build an ark. But Schwartzman has already built a temple in his backyard, (with the help of the Home Depot man), has slaughtered a goat, has alienated his neighbors and his wife (“She made it very clear she didn’t want God around when the baby arrived”), so by the time the ark request intrudes — while he’s watching Jay Leno on TV — Schwartzman decides to get rid of God.

Schwartzman’s psychiatrist, who specialized in stalkers, advises his patient to ignore this voyeuristic, sadistic lonely member of society.

“Every time you respond, you’re positively reinforcing his behavior,” Dr. Herschberg tells Schwartzman, adding that the stalker will find a new person to bother after he doesn’t get what he wants.

It proves to be questionable advice for dealing with God — who, after all, has countermeasures in his arsenal. Like Job, Schwartzman and his wife lose everything — but unlike the distraught prophet, the couple “had never been happier.” Finally, this mean, vindictive, sulking God leaves the nonreligious couple alone and finds someone else to bother. The story ends on this one word: “Schmuck.”

No, these are not tales for the true believers. Nor are these stories for those who cannot laugh at themselves. Although how can you not laugh at Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League calling an emergency meeting of the Jewish Defense League to disprove “The Book of Stan” — tablets that claimed the Old Testament was fictional? (“If there were no real tribe, then there were no real Jews, and if there were no real Jews there could be no real anti-Semitism, and if there were no anti-Semitism, then Abe and his staff were s— out of a job.”)

The 14 short stories in this thin book are, for the most part, irreverent, cynical apostasy that is not particularly high on character development but heavy on humor and spoof. The exception is the comic-tragic, storyless story, “Holocaust Tips for Kids,” which would be handy when Holocaust educators want to scare the hell out of middle-schoolers.

The humor has a deeper point, of course. God may not be dead, but He’s sure “tired of the whole damn business.”

In one of the strongest stories, “Somebody Up There Likes You,” God is distraught — cursing and smoking cigarettes, actually — over His inability to kill Bloom. It proves true, in fact, that it’s hard to kill someone who drives a Volvo. He, the devil and Lucifer go down to Manhattan to find Bloom “but even for archangels, crosstown traffic on a Friday afternoon was treacherously slow going.” It unfolds that Bloom has outfoxed them once again and has gone — where else? To a synagogue to repent: “He was where they all went when they wanted to make His job more difficult than it had to be.”

Like other pious characters in Auslander’s world, it’s only when Bloom finishes his repentance, prayer and charity to remove the evil of the decree” that God, Lucifer and the devil finally manage to run him down in the middle of the street.

In “Beware of God,” prayer, repentance and following God’s will are all for suckers, because, as it says in “God Is a Big Happy Chicken,” well, God is a big, happy chicken. You get the feeling that Auslander is very much like the main character of that story, Yankel Morgenstern, who goes back to Earth to tell his nine children and pious wife of his awful discovery. In the end, “He couldn’t do it.” Morgenstern can’t bring himself to ruin his family’s belief in “the Merciful God, the God of our Forefathers.”

Auslander also doesn’t seem like he’s renounced his faith — despite his various portrayals of God as wacko, demanding, tired, moody and malevolent. Yet no matter how many jokes he cracks about God and his followers, Auslander is, in the end, much like a latter-day Nietzsche, albeit with a smirk, proclaiming: “God Is Dead. Long Live God!”

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, October 22

Having recently taken on Arthur Miller on Broadway, in the play “The American Clock,” actor Jason Fisher now tries his craft with another Jewish icon. “Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words” opens tonight at M-Bar, with Fisher offering up Bruce rantings on race, class, ethnicity, sex, drugs and free speech.

10 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 17. $12-$18 (plus drinks). 1253 N. Vine St., Los Angeles. (323) 993-3305. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, October 23

The Workmen’s Circle offers a Halloweeny outlet with Jewish, uh, spirit today. Bring the kids to see a play of the classic Jewish tale, “The Golem,” a comedic take on the story about a muddy giant that offers lessons about being careful what you wish for.

2:30 p.m. Also, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m. $8-$10. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.

Monday, October 24

See and hear the survival stories of the Hakoah Vienna Sports Club’s champion female swimmers this evening, when Cinemax airs the documentary, “Watermarks.” Forced into segregation before eventually being forced out altogether, the Jewish female athletes fled Austria in varying directions. The film follows some of the swimmers back to Vienna for a moving reunion, along the way telling their individual stories of endurance.

6:30-8 p.m. Also airs Nov. 8, 7:10 a.m. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, October 25

“Saturday Night at Grossingers” playwright Rita Lakin brings new meaning to the term niche literature with her debut Yiddish mystery novel, “Getting Old Is Murder.” The author has also written for television’s “Dynasty,” “Peyton Place” and “The Mod Squad.” She reads from and signs the book tonight at Dutton’s Beverly Hills, and on Oct. 29 at Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles.

7 p.m. 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 887-1849.

Wednesday, October 26

It’s a Golem kind of week. But no earthen Frankensteins tonight. Just Golem, the band. The group of New York-based klezmer rockers “transforms the music of its Jewish grandparents, making it modern, edgy, sexy and brash.” Or so they say on their Web site. Check ’em out for yourself tonight at King King.

9 p.m. $10. 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 960-9011.

Thursday, October 27

Jewish literary fare abounds at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair. The fest is kicked off today with a special preview event of Jack Klugman discussing his book, “Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship,” the Tony, of course, being the actor’s “Odd Couple” co-star Tony Randall. Or, make a weekend out of it when the Fair continues Nov. 10-16 with a variety of author appearances, and a family day on Sun., Nov. 13.

Lawrence Family JCC, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla. (858) 362-1348. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, October 28

Rappers Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion offer up, “J.O.B.: The Hip Hopera,” a retelling of the biblical story of Job as an allegory of contemporary corporate life in the music biz — in rap. Yes, they rap the whole thing, with accompaniment by breakdancers, singers, a live DJ and brand-new score. Word.

8 p.m. (Thursdays-Sundays); 3 p.m. (Sundays). Runs through Nov. 27. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 960-4420. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, June 11

A talking clock, a lovely owl and an orange tree become friends with Zack and Zoe in their adventure through the new children’s musical, “A Kid’s Life.” Producer/director Keith Markinson, son of Tony Award-winning producer Marty Markinson, designed the show with children ages 2-6 (and their parents) in mind. “A Kid’s Life” opens today and invites your children to make new friends, too, and learn life lessons about the importance of nature and the preciousness of time.

Runs through June 19. 11 a.m. (Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sun.). $12.50-$17.50. Brentwood Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 211, Veterans Administration Campus. (310) 479-3636.

Sunday, June 12

She’s not a Jew, nor does she play one on TV, but that doesn’t stop Amber Tamblyn (of “Joan of Arcadia” fame) from moderating this afternoon’s panel about the changing images of Jewish women and men in the popular media. “Desperate Housewives and Beyond,” as they have titled it, is sponsored by the MorningStar Commission and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and features a panel of prominent writers, producers and actors. The audience will be invited to participate, as well.

3-5 p.m. $10. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 712-5400.

Monday, June 13

Rachel Bailit’s act covers issues from being a “nice” Jewish girl from Needham, Mass., to the ups and downs of life as an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. She calls it “Sugar Happens: A One-Girl Show,” and sugar you get. Bailit’s show displays big comedy (and bosom), and is extended for two more weeks.

Runs through June 21. 6:30 p.m. (wine and cheese reception), 7:30 p.m. (show), 8:30 p.m. (dessert with Bailit). Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 650-7777.

Tuesday, June 14

The remarkable true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived both Nazi and Communist regimes comes to the Geffen Playhouse tonight for a limited four-week run. “I Am My Own Wife” is a one-man play starring Jefferson Mays as von Mahlsdorf, as well as more than 40 other characters including the playwright, Doug Wright, who first became fascinated by her. It garnered Wright both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

Runs through July 10. $34-$85. 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 211, Veterans Administration Campus. (310) 208-6500.

Wednesday, June 15

The inexhaustible Theodore Bikel is the main attraction at the Chabad of Conejo-sponsored “Tradition: A Celebration of Jewish Life.” The show features Bikel performing a sort of “greatest hits” review, and also includes performances by the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble and comedian Mark Schiff.

7:45 p.m. $18-$108. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. (213) 480-3232.

Thursday, June 16

New York Times bestseller, Oprah movie of the week and now Rubicon Theater play, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” has run the gamut. Mitch Albom’s novel about a dying former college professor’s profound impact on his life has touched many already. See the story unfold for the first time, or revisit it in a more intimate setting at the Rubicon today.

Runs through July 10. Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 667-2900.

Friday, June 17

Was the Wicked Witch of the West really just misunderstood? Long before Dorothy dropped a house on the witch’s sister, the wicked witch was known simply as Elphaba, a smart young girl with an unfortunate skin disorder. Get her side of the story as “Wicked,” Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s musical adaptation of the novel by Gregory Maguire, alights on the Pantages for a limited engagement.

Runs through July 31. $35-$89. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, April 23

Tune that radio dial to KCRW this morning for a different sort of Q-&-A. The station airs ListenUP’s latest holiday special, “Passover: A Time For Questions,” hosted by actor Arye Gross. Chef Ruth Reichl talks matzah brie, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg reads from her children’s book, “Abuelitas Secret Matzahs,” singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman performs her music and Rabbi Sharon Brous asks the big holiday questions.

11 a.m. KCRW 89.9. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, April 24

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and composer Billy Childs give voice to the children of Terezin Concentration Camp this evening. Based on six pieces of poetry from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” Childs’ “The Voices of Angeles” is meant to conjure emotions from anger and despair to hope. It will be performed as part of the program titled “hope” which also features Mozart’s “Coronation Mass”

7 p.m. $19-$79. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (800) 787-5262.

Monday, April 25

This Passover, consider the heritage of freedom from bondage that Jews and African Americans share with the help of “Let My People Go!” The new CD was created by folksingers and musical/educational activists Kim and Reggie Harris, and their friend Rabbi Jonathan Kliger. It’s a spoken word and song compilation that incorporates music from the hagaddah, traditional spirituals and new songs, as well as a poem by a Palestinian poet set to music by a Jewish cantor.

$15. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, April 26

Artist Tobi Kahn’s Exhibition, “Avoda: Objects of the Spirit” has alighted on USC’s Doheny Memorial Library just in time for Passover. View the Jewish ceremonial objects that Kahn has created during the last 20 years, from candlesticks to seder plates. Then take Kahn up on his challenge to create your own. “I want people to realize that creating ceremonial objects can be special and transformative,” Kahn told the Journal. To let him know about your seder creations, you can reach Kahn at

Through May 31. 3550 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles. (213) 740-2924.

Wednesday, April 27

The sixth annual Polish Film Festival presents two documentary shorts of Jewish interest this evening. “Kazimierz Is Closed,” is about the city of Krakow, whose name conjures thoughts of Holocaust atrocities, but today is a hot spot where young people go to have fun. The second, titled “Future in Hand,” follows a Polish-born American teenager’s trip back to the place of her birth and early childhood and incorporates her poetry as the primary form of narration for the film.

7 p.m. Laemmle’s Sunset Five, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, April 28

All that jazz, plus Yiddish novelty tunes and Catskills comedy could only mean chanteuse Janet Klein is involved. Tonight, the Comedy Central Stage at the Hudson presents “Janet Klein and her Borscht Belt Babies Yiddish Vaudeville Spectacular.” The variety show also features descendants of Catskills legends.

8 p.m. Free. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 960-5519.

Friday, April 29

Just in time for date night comes director Yvan Attal’s French romantic comedy, “Happily Ever After.” The lives of two Parisian couples and a single man are the focus for exploring themes of romance, midlife crisis, sex and marriage. Attal also stars in the film opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg (“21 Grams”).

” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

7 Days in Arts

Saturday, April 16

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel scholar-in-residence Estelle Frankel talks kabbalah this weekend. The author of “Sacred Therapy” is a psychotherapist, a spiritual adviser and a teacher of kabbalah. Today she discusses the ancient Jewish teachings as they relate to Passover, and tomorrow, as they relate to Freud and psychology.

Noon. (Sat.), 10:30 a.m. (Sun.). $25-$35. 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 475-7311.

Mysticism of another variety is at the heart of AVAZ International Dance Theatre’s latest modern/folk dance production, “The Golden Mask of Guran.” The Persian tale, part historical, part fairy tale/myth, tells of a Roman slave girl who uses a magical mask to communicate with and help the wild zebras her king likes to hunt.

8 p.m. (Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20-$35. Arartani/Japan American Theatre, Los Angeles. Also, April 30 at 8 p.m at Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Sunday, April 17

Congregation Kol Ami’s “Music at Kol Ami” series gives us huddled masses yearning to breathe free with today’s premiere of “Ellis Island, an Oral History of Immigration in America.” Singers, actors and performance artists draw portraits of early 20th-century American immigrants.

2 p.m. $15-$20. 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 606- 0996.

Monday, April 18

Sort of “Big Chill”-y for 20-somethings, “Origin of the Species” is the story of six friends — two of whom are played by Elon Gold and Amanda Peet — who reunite for a weekend in a summer house. Issues of life and death and sex and relationships surround them all as they find themselves at different crossroads. It’s out now on DVD.


Tuesday, April 19

Dropping today is singer/songwriter Saul Zonana’s latest CD, “42 Days.” Born to older parents, a Spanish father and Brooklyn Jewish mother, Zonana credits his older brother with introducing him to the songs of the Beatles, his primary musical influence. This latest pop/rock collection is co-produced by Adrian Belew of King Crimson, who also lends his guitar-playing talents to three tracks.

Wednesday, April 20

For wacky hijinks and light-hearted fare, head to the Geffen Playhouse Brentwood Theatre for its production of the classic George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, “You Can’t Take it With You.” With its cast of zany family member characters, the 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is credited as a seminal force in the creation of the modern sitcom family. Tony Award-winner Roy Dotrice heads up the cast in this latest production.

Runs through May 22. 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 211, Veterans Administration Campus.

Thursday, April 21

“Doikayt.” It refers to the philosophy of Yiddish-speaking Jews who worked in sweatshops a century ago and established unions to protect themselves. It means “here-ness,” as in being present in the world around you and working for social justice. It’s also the title of today’s event being sponsored by Progressive Jewish Alliance and AVADA, a project that tries to engage under-30 Jews in Yiddishkayt. Tonight’s nonseder is a spoken word and musical exploration of many peoples’ journeys toward freedom.

9 p.m. $10-$15. The Vanguard, 6201 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 761-8350.

Friday, April 22

Family heirlooms become art in “Containers of Memories,” The Federation’s Bell Family Art Gallery’s latest exhibition. Artist Viviana Lombrozo explores the role memories play in personal and collective identity through the use of these pieces.

Runs through October. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Mon.-Thurs.), 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (Fri.). Free. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8352.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, April 9

The city of Malibu honors the surfer girl who helped launch a subculture. This year’s One Book, One City – Malibu month celebrates Frederick Kohner’s novella, “Gidget.” Based on Kohner’s daughter, Kathy, “Gidget” the book spawned the Sandra Dee movie, the Sally Field TV show and a surf culture now practically synonymous with Malibu. The kickoff celebration takes place today, with keynote speakers Kathy Kohner and author Deanne Stillman, who wrote the introduction in the book’s recent re-issue. Other events are scheduled throughout the month.

3 p.m. Malibu Library, 23519 W. Civic Center Way, Malibu. (310) 456-6438.

Sunday, April 10

Hear cantors and rabbis perform jazz, pop, Broadway and folk numbers at this afternoon’s Cure FD Foundation Second Annual Concert and Auction. The organization is dedicated to the prevention and cure of Familial Dysautonomia (FD), a progressive, degenerative, neurological, fatal and genetic disease carried by 1 in 27 Jews of Central or Eastern European descent. Today’s event supports their efforts.

1:30-4 p.m. $18-$54. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 459-1056. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, April 11

It’s a Hoodios kind of week. Saturday, April 9, check out the Hip Hop Hoodio’s Long Beach concert at the Alpert JCC, then, on Sunday, April 10, see the Latino-Jewish urban collective live at the Joint on Pico Boulevard. Today, combat withdrawal symptoms by purchasing their new CD, “Agua Pa’ La Gente,” which features cameos from Jaguares, Santana and the Klezmatics.

$15.98. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, April 12

The ancient scriptures have gotten with the 21st century. Voices of Heritage has produced what they say is the first audio CD box set of the Torah. The elegantly packaged 13-CD set contains recordings of the five books of Moses read in Hebrew by Israeli narrator Omer Frenkel.


Wednesday, April 13

Peter Himmelman gets you over hump day this month. The son-in-law of Bob Dylan and acclaimed musician in his own right has a new album out, titled, “Imperfect World,” and also performs his spiritually tinged pop/rock songs at Cinema Bar in Los Angeles on Wednesdays, April 13 and 20.

8:30 p.m. No cover charge. 3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 390-1328.

Thursday, April 14

Willy Wonka and Mr. Spock converse tonight, as the Writers Bloc presents Gene Wilder in conversation with Leonard Nimoy. They’ll discuss Wilder’s new memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.”

7:30 p.m. $20. The Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, April 15

Get an amen or two this evening at Temple Shalom for the Arts’ multicultural interfaith service, aimed at uniting the Jewish and African American communities through our shared heritage of exodus from slavery. Rabbi David Baron leads the service that will incorporate gospel and Hebrew music by two choirs: West Angeles Church of God in Christ Choir and the Tova Marcos Singers. Bishop Charles E. Blake of West Angeles will also participate.

8 p.m. Free (includes refreshments following the service). The Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 444-7500