Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

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But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

Three Madelehs of the Written Word


Jewish women have prominent roles in several new novels this season, penned by young Jewish writers with impressive track records — Ayelet Waldman, Allegra Goodman and Lara Vapnyar. The three have written urban stories, focused on relationships, and the books are closely observed slices of life.

The Jewish background and sensibility of these writers comes across on the page, although with varying degrees of transparency. Both Waldman and Vapnyar were born abroad: Vapnyar grew up in the former Soviet Union and came here as a young woman, while Waldman was born in Israel, came here as a child and grew up in New Jersey, although she lived in Israel again in high school and college and returns there often. Goodman may be the only well-known Jewish writer to hail from Hawaii.

“Love and Other Possible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday), who will be appearing at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend, is a novel of marriage and motherhood that is also a love story and a New York story. Emilia Greenleaf, the narrator, is a Harvard Law School graduate who meets her soul mate, Jack, at her first job. He is a Syrian Jew, a partner in the firm and he’s married with a young son. He leaves his wife for Emilia, and they live in elegant comfort, but all is not happily-ever-after.

They lose a newborn daughter — the reader learns this early on, as the novel skips back and forth in time — and Emilia struggles with her new stepson, William, a precocious preschooler. She finds the boy to be insufferable, even as she tells herself that as an adult she should be able to love this innocent 5-year-old who corrects her pronunciation and rebuffs with a smirk her attempts to please him. Emilia also has to deal with the child’s overprotective mother and the mother’s friends who watch her every step, even as she picks him up from his high-achievers’ nursery school. But in small ways, Emilia and William find their way toward bonding.

The novel is funny and a quick read, and although it might look like chick-lit, Waldman goes deeper, conveying emotional complexity. Even though Emilia has the profile of the kind of woman others sometimes can’t abide, she is likeable in her imperfections and growing self-awareness.

The author, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, keenly portrays the life of well-to-do professionals who strive for the best for their children, unable to see the downside of their single-minded pursuits.

A resident of Berkeley, where she lives with her husband Michael Chabon and their four children, she captures New York in its splendid beauty, particularly the charms of Central Park in all seasons. Waldman, author of “Daughter’s Keeper” and the Mommy Track mystery series, takes on in this novel many of the themes of romance, relationships and parenting that she writes about in her essays on Salon.com and in The New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

For years, Allegra Goodman was the poster child for the youngest generation of Jewish writers. She published her first story in Commentary during her freshman year at Harvard and her first book of stories on the day she graduated in 1989, and she has had a string of successes since then. She’s been applauded for her luminous style and originality, her humor, and her embrace of Judaism in her fiction. Now 38, she’s no longer the child at the literary table and has just published her most ambitious book to date, “Intuition” (The Dial Press).

Named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, Goodman is the author of two collections of stories and two novels, “Paradise Park” and “Kaaterskill Falls,” a National Book Award finalist. She has also won a Whiting Writers Award, National Jewish Book Award and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn, lived briefly in Los Angeles as a toddler and grew up in Hawaii, where she sets many stories and her novel “Paradise Park.” Her parents, who taught at the University of Hawaii, lived there for 25 years and, although the Jewish community was limited, they consciously chose a Jewish lifestyle — they attended synagogue and imported kosher meat from California. As a child, Goodman often would visit Los Angeles, where her father grew up and her grandfather still lives. “Intuition” is, in fact, dedicated to her grandparents, Calvin and Florence Goodman (her grandmother died recently).

While her previous novels involved Jewish communities, “Intuition” is about a professional community, although several characters are Jewish. Compellingly told from several points of view, the novel is set at a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Mass., where a team of scientists does sophisticated cancer investigations. Goodman shows readers the inside workings of a lab, from how projects are assigned to how mice are sac’ed — or sacrificed — to how scientists compete for funds. The cast of the novel is something of an ensemble, functioning in certain ways as a family, with relationships based on power, love, ambition and shared interests.

The novel has elements of mystery, as one postdoc raises questions about whether a colleague, her former boyfriend, may be falsifying his data. She acts based on intuition, which, in the lab, as Goodman writes, “was a restricted substance. Like imagination and emotion, intuition misled researchers, leading to willful interpretations.”

In a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Goodman explains that although the subject of this novel may be different, she remains interested in themes of “ritual, hierarchy, closed communities, questions of doubt and belief, who you believe in, what you put your faith in.”

This book is less comic than her others, but the distinctive Goodman voice — attentive to all details, wise, inventive, strong on characters’ inner and outer lives — is recognizable.

“I’ve been surrounded by scientists all my life,” she says, referring to her mother, sister, brother-in-law and husband.

She also spent time observing in an actual lab to understand its rhythms and mindset. As a writer who works in solitude, she is envious of the close collaborative nature of scientific work and sought to explore that. As a writer, she seeks truth, as scientists do — but she recognizes that she gets to make things up.

Goodman never shies away from writing about religious themes or religious people and sees this as “a very Jewish book. My subject in all my books is the American Jewish community, which is huge.”

In the book, both lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are Jewish. While Glass (who shortened his name from Glazeroff “not just to forget that his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but for aesthetic reasons. He could not countenance living and working in such a Russian bear-coat of a last name, and so he’d distilled Glazeroff to its purer form”) is intermarried and assimilated, Mendelssohn is neither, but Glass tries to use his Judaism when questions are raised about lab results. For several characters, their religion is science.

In conversation, Goodman, the mother of four children who range in age from 3 to 13, is upbeat — with a personality that matches her writing. She seems easygoing, likes to laugh and is drawn to the philosophical side of things. She has a doctorate in English and as a reader, she favors writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Among the contemporary writers she cites are Marilynne Robinson and Kazuro Ishiguro.

She’s not a confessional sort of writer; her novels aren’t memoiristic: She’s more interested in writing about other people. About her own writing, she thinks she’s getting better, having matured as a craftsman: “I’ve grown more patient, more willing to spend time to get things right. That comes with age.”

Lara Vapnyar, a Russian American Jewish writer, is at the forefront of a new generation of immigrant Jewish writers. Like Goodman, she has published stories in The New Yorker. Her first book, “There Are Jews in My House” a collection of short stores set in the former Soviet Union and in New York, won awards and much praise.

In her first novel, “Memoirs of a Muse” (Pantheon), Vapnyar again turns to the world of immigrants. With the understated humor characteristic of her stories, she portrays a young immigrant woman named Tanya who as a child in the Soviet Union developed an obsession with Dostoevsky and the woman who was his muse. In New York, she is determined to become the muse of a great American writer. When she meets a novelist at an Upper West Side reading, she becomes his live-in girlfriend, earnestly trying to help him. But she finds that while he goes to book parties and the gym and visits his analyst, he does little writing. As she learns English, she comes to understand all sides of her new world, and she learns about genuine artistic inspiration.

Published in 2003, “There Are Jews in My House,” received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. The novel, like her stories, touches on issues of alienation, identity, contrasts between East and West.

From her well-tuned prose, it’s hard to believe that English is not her first language. Vapnyar went through the Moscow school system and earned a master’s degree in Russian language and literature before moving to New York, where she largely taught herself English through reading.

Ayelet Waldman will be a panelist on the “Fiction: Reinventing the Family” event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 29.

 

First Person – A Love Story


This is the story of my friend Valerie, whom I first met just last year. Valerie sent me an e-mail introducing herself as Shira, a Jew-by-Choice who worked as a flight attendant. She wondered if I was the same Rabbi Mark her fiancé Glenn knew from his synagogue’s high school youth group. Glenn and I had lost touch with one another when his family moved to California. Was I the same individual, Val asked, and, if so, would I officiate at their wedding?

Thanks to Valerie, two best friends were reunited after more than three decades apart. More importantly, Glenn and Val had found each other. Their love was intoxicating, with family and friends commenting how happy each was to have found his/her soul mate.

On a sunny October afternoon, I performed the ceremony as Glenn and Valerie married in a traditional Jewish wedding on a yacht in Marina del Rey. We joined with their children, parents, relatives and friends for a joyous ceremony on the deck replete with a wind-blown chuppah. Val’s artistic touches were evident in the wedding program she designed, the ketubah she selected and the extra touches that made the day special. Adding to the festivities were other yachts in the harbor whose captains blew their horns in celebration with shouts of mazal tov from their own passengers.

Two months after that glorious day, Glenn called to tell me that his beloved Valerie had suffered a brain aneurism and was in critical condition in an area hospital. I rushed to the ICU unit, only to find our beautiful, 47-year-old Valerie near death. I sat with Glenn, Val’s daughters, and other family members as a neurologist informed them that Valerie was brain dead and being kept “alive” by machines.

Amid the overwhelming shock and grief, the medical staff gently raised a sensitive but timely subject: Would the family consider donating Valerie’s organs to others? Their initial reply was no, since Valerie had thought that Jewish law prohibited organ donation. They too believed that donating organs was a sin. Fighting back tears, I counseled family members that organ donation is not contrary to Jewish law. In fact, rabbinical authorities from all Jewish movements agree that organ donation is a tremendous mitzvah and the highest form of pikuah nefesh (saving life).

An emotional discussion followed. What would Valerie want her loved ones to do had she known that organ donation is permissible according to Jewish law?

In the end, Valerie’s family consented to donating her organs. I sat with my friend Glenn as a nurse from OneLegacy (the Southern California transplant donor network) completed the paperwork to initiate this awesome mitzvah. I witnessed the OneLegacy team spend day and night painstakingly matching Valerie’s organs with compatible donors, as her family and I made plans for her funeral.

On a sunny December afternoon, we laid Valerie to rest in a local cemetery. We remembered her as a fun-loving, vivacious young woman. Val made friends easily and instantly, from passengers on her flights, to total strangers in stores and restaurants. She lived each moment to the fullest, and radiated warmth and joy to those around her.

In life, Valerie gave 100 percent to whomever she was with and whatever she was doing. In death, Valerie gave the ultimate gift. One of her kidneys is now in the body of a 76-year-old man who had been on dialysis for six years. He is married and the father of three children. His kidney function is now good and he is off of dialysis.

Valerie’s other kidney went to a 50-year-old man. He is single, active and used to ride his bicycle 40 to 50 miles a week. Prior to the transplant, he had been on dialysis. Valerie’s kidney was a “zero mismatch,” meaning that it was a perfect match for this recipient. He told the transplant team that he knows he “won the lotto” by receiving such a perfectly matched kidney. He is doing well and his prognosis is quite good.

These are just two of the fortunate recipients of Valerie’s donated organs. The quality of their lives has improved dramatically since their transplants. In some cases, they are alive because of their transplants.

I will never understand why my friend Valerie was taken from us in the very prime of her life. When I sit and cry with her family, I cannot know their pain and anguish nor can I comprehend their tragic loss. I do know that they find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that Valerie gave the gift of life to others. Amid the darkness, they have found a ray of light and hope for the future.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

 

‘Love With Noodles’ Rife With Canoodles


“Love With Noodles” by Harry I. Freund (Carroll & Graff, $25).

Consider the curious case of Dan Gelder: 60 years old, Jewish, paunchy, bad back. Yet it seems every bejeweled Park Avenue matron is after the investment counselor for love, for money or maybe for just a quick roll in the hay.

That’s the cute and quirky premise of “Love With Noodles,” the debut novel by 65-year-old Park Avenue investment counselor Harry I. Freund. The novel’s subtitle is, “An Amorous Widower’s Tale,” and just how true to life it is, we may never know. But whether or not art imitated life is irrelevant, especially when the ride is as much fun as “Love With Noodles.”

What Freund sorely lacks in literary style, he more than makes up with heart and humor.

Narrated in the first person, present tense (always risky), “Love With Noodles” follows Gelder’s canoodling with a string of women who enter his life just as he emerges from mourning his late beshert, Ellen. Gelder lives alone. His grown son, Eric, faces financial ruin. What’s worse, Eric is planning to marry a non-Jew.

Though all Jewish, Gelder’s women vary widely — from Charlotte, the wife of a friend off on a gay fling, to Maya, a Palestinian rights activist with a knack for lovemaking so vigorous it puts her partners in traction.

He nearly finds beshert No. 2 in Violet, a stinking-rich widow who loves adventure, diamonds and sticking it to those she detests. Gelder nearly steals her heart, and the two are off to Israel to visit Violet’s Orthodox daughter.

But soon, Gelder meets Tatiana, a 43-year-old Ukrainian widow with a 9-year-old piano prodigy son. She is gorgeous, lonely and seemingly angelic. Gelder falls for her hard. But does she love him for who he is or for his bank account?

The last third of the novel chronicles Gelder’s efforts to weed out all the meaningless sexual encounters and settle on choosing between the women that matter: Violet and Tatania. How about both?

Freund has trouble setting the tone of his story. Is it farce? Comedy of manners? Social satire? He isn’t sure, and that trips up his writing.

Moreover, though the book is filled with sex scenes, Gelder/Freund approaches them so gingerly, so squeamishly, they end up less than erotic. One almost feels embarrassed for the author, who doesn’t seem to want to shine a light into the bedroom.

As with many first-person narratives, the main character/narrator is often the most poorly drawn. That is the central problem with “Love With Noodles,” as Gelder ends up frustratingly two-dimensional. A novelist is required to reveal characters, not cover for them.

However, the women are delightful, especially Violet. She has all the color and brashness of a Tennessee Williams heroine. If they ever make a movie adaptation of this book, the Shirley McClaines and Meryl Streeps of the world will be fighting for the part.

There’s plenty of Jewish content here, from the pair of Orthodox Jewish weddings, to Gelder’s anguish over his son’s intermarriage, to the sojourn across Israel.

Like all good fiction, “Love With Noodles” expands its borders beyond the parochial. Anyone past the halfway point of life, hurtling forward with unease, will see something of himself in Gelder, paunch or no paunch.

Freund has a long way to go if he wants to join the ranks of great American novelists. But if there was a Pulitzer Prize for understanding the subtleties of life, Freund would have his on the mantel by now.

Burton’s ‘Corpse’ Has Jewish Bones


Once upon a time, a bridegroom jokingly recited his marriage vows over a skeletal finger protruding from the earth. After placing his ring on the bone, his mirth turned to horror when a grasping hand burst forth, followed by a corpse in a tattered shroud, her dead eyes staring as she proclaimed, “My husband!”

This chilling Jewish folk tale hails from a cycle of stories about the great 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, in what is now northern Israel, said Howard Schwartz, a top Jewish folklorist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It also apparently inspired Tim Burton’s charmingly ghoulish animated film, “Corpse Bride.” Yes, the film features a bridegroom who accidentally weds a cadaver. But the feature eschews the folk tale’s grotesquerie for romanticized gloom and Halloweeny fun — a trademark of Burton fare such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Corpse Bride” is among more than a dozen fantasy films slated to open this year, including Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which some analysts attribute to the yen for escapist cinema during wartime.

“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges (voiced by Burton’s real-life fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine.

“When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said.

The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. On these occasions, a maggot pal pops out of her exposed eye socket. This damsel-past-distress whisks Victor off to the Land of the Dead, a lively place where skeletons party, forcing Victor to leave his living fiancée (voiced by Emily Watson) bereft.

So why did Burton — who is known to dress like a mortician — brighten the Jewish tale?

“We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” said co-screenwriter John August, who also wrote Burton’s “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“The parts that are ‘scary’ are really parodies of classic horror-film moments, such as when our bride’s detached hand crawls after Victor.” The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”

Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.

“It seemed right for this particular type of [stop-motion] animation,” Burton said in an interview with studio publicists. “It’s like casting — you want to marry the medium with the material.”

The director saw elements in the tale that he could transform to match his love of protagonists who seem bizarre but who are actually tragic and isolated. In interviews, Burton has traced this preoccupation to his lonely childhood as an eccentric, artistic boy growing up in Burbank. No wonder his characters have included the titular disfigured innocent in “Edward Scissorhands,” the reclusive Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and now the corpse bride.

“On the surface, she appears to be a monster but in fact she is kind and sweet and misunderstood,” screenwriter August said.

The Jewish folk obsession with the macabre — encompassing tales such as the corpse bride — comes from strikingly different cultural sensibilities than Burton’s obsessions, said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism.

“Over the centuries, the Jews were very helpless and very beset by outside forces,” Giller said. “Bad luck could always come about, and it was a real act of Providence that bore a couple to the wedding canopy.”

Schwartz, author of “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), retells the corpse tale in his 1987 book, “Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural” (Oxford University Press), in a story titled, “The Finger.” His source was the 17th-century volume, “Shivhei ha-Ari,” which collected earlier stories about the alleged feats of the real Rabbi Luria. The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. He is a member of the rabbinic court (the beit din) that eventually rules against the corpse, stating that she is not married because the dead have no claim upon the living, among other reasons.

The real Luria lived in the 16th century, but the origin of tales about nuptials with supernatural entities is far earlier. Schwartz traces them to a biblical commentary that suggests Adam had an insubordinate first wife, Lilith, who became a seductive demon. Later variations on this storyline include “the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said.Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (also the subject of a new movie), the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior.

“It tells us, ‘Be careful, don’t ever take an oath in vain. Don’t take it lightly,'” said Peninnah Schram, a professional Jewish storyteller and associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College in New York.

In “The Finger,” the wayward bridegroom gets lucky. After the rabbis rule against the validity of the corpse’s marriage to the careless suitor, the would-be bride — after emitting one last shriek — collapses in a pile of bones and dies, this time for keeps.

The movie has a more Hollywood kind of ending, with that Tim Burton twist.

“Tim’s characters tend to wear darker colors and some, like the corpse bride, are no longer living, but they have a pluck and a spirit that makes you fall in love with them,” August said.

“Corpse Bride” opens Friday in theaters.

 

Books – ‘Love’ Tries to Solve Mystery of the Heart


“The History of Love” By Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, $23.95).

“The History of Love” is the name of a book within Nicole Krauss’s remarkable new novel of the same name, “The History of Love” (Norton). The inner novel has had a life of its own, written in Yiddish in Poland and thought to be lost, translated into Spanish in Buenos Aires, unbeknownst to the author, and later into English in New York; it drew on real love and also inspired love. If this were a love letter rather than a novel, it would be a chain letter, broken but ultimately reconnected.

Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith living alone in New York City, who makes a daily commotion in some public place to be sure that he doesn’t die without being noticed, is the unlikely romantic who’s the original author of “The History of Love.” He wrote it while living in Poland, when he was very much in love with a girl named Alma. Jews weren’t safe in their town of Slonim, and he lost Alma, who left for America before he did, and he gave the manuscript to a friend for safekeeping.

Years later at age 57, Gursky, after a heart attack curtails his work; he begins a new book, writing daily. He muses: “At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”

Gursky is a man whose suit doesn’t quite fit, who’s always late (“I’ve always arrived too late for my life”). A magnet for small mishaps at inopportune times, he’s cranky and lonely, although still a poetic observer. “Story of my life: I was a locksmith. I could unlock every door in the city. And yet I couldn’t unlock anything I wanted to unlock.”

Also living in New York is a young girl named Alma, who understands that she’s named after every female character in a Spanish novel her late father gave to her mother. Her parents would read to her from the book, inscribed with the words that this would have been the story her father would have written for her mother had he been a novelist. Years later, Alma’s mother is hired to translate the novel into English. Excerpts of it appear throughout the book.

Masterfully, Krauss ties together the stories of Gursky and the young Alma as each searches for clues about “The History of Love.” For Gursky, the manuscript oddly reappears, with the names changed into Spanish. The far-reaching literary puzzles involve Alma’s younger brother, who has messianic impulses; Gursky’s son, a well-known writer who doesn’t know of his father’s existence; Alma’s young friend Misha, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who learns English by memorizing Beatles songs; and ghosts from Gursky’s past. Krauss’s overarching “The History of Love” is about loss and the transformative force of love; it’s also playful, wise and funny.

Her highly praised first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room,” published in 2002, is about a man who loses his memory. That was a daring first novel, not the more usual coming-of-age story. Beginning the book when she was 25, she wrote from the perspective of a 36-year-old man. Here she inhabits the voices of an old man and a 14-year-old girl, portraying each with convincing power.

Memory is still a theme for Krauss, and as she says, it’s probably one of the things she’ll be writing about as long as she writes. In “The History of Love,” Leo Gursky is overflowing with memories; in many ways, he lives in his memories. But he has no one to share them with.

Krauss has spoken of being really in love as she wrote this, and how that feeling is evident on the page. For her, writing is “a kind of reflex.” She says that her writing has evolved from the tightly-reigned-in prose of her first novel, where she cared a lot about the sentences, to greater expansiveness. Gursky’s voice, she explains, “allowed a kind of openness and honesty felt in the moment.”

Krauss, who began publishing poetry when she was 19, still writes beautiful sentences; her pages are full of energy.

The 30-year-old author, who lives in Brooklyn, is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is also recently published. Although several critics see parallels between their work, she declines to talk about him, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

Film rights to “The History of Love” have been optioned by Warner Bros., with David Heyman set to produce and Alfonso Cuaron (known for “Y Tu Mamá También) as director.

On Monday, June 13, at 7 p.m., Nicole Krauss will read from “The History of Love” at Dutton’s Beverly Hills Books, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 281-0997.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

Nothing But the Truth


 

Let’s go live to my blind date at a West Hollywood Restaurant. The merlot is great, the gnocchi is inspired and the waiter taught me to say fork in Italian. The guy? Not for me. Marc is a rare blond Jew, but there was no click between us, no fireworks, no cell phone call from the bathroom stall to tell my girls I’d met my husband. Not that I’ve ever made that call or am looking for a husband. I don’t even know how to spell husband. Or say it in Italian.

Having already located my nearest emergency exit, I had one high heel out the door when Marc blurts out, “So what’d ya think? How’d I do? Where do I stand?”

I laugh. Then realize he’s serious.

“Are you into me?”

Could he ask more questions?

“Are we going out again?”

Guess he can.

This is a “clean up on aisle four” disaster. After a typical dating mismatch, I dial the next day, say thanks, then let things fade. I don’t do direct feedback, customer comment cards or post-date wrap-ups. I’m not comfortable with it, especially when I’m sitting less than a foot away. Yet, inquiring Marc wants to know. He’s desperate for a touchy-feely date-end review. I blame daytime television.

I’ve never been cross-examined by a date before; I don’t know how to respond. Should I be honest or polite? Go for truth or tact? Marc’s not topping my to-do list, but can I say that? Bad dates have feelings, too. I could lie, say I’m ga ga, and suggest we visit the Little Chuppah of Elvis. I could play coy, suggest he call, then give him the Ma Bell brush off. I could tell the truth, and send him home with Rice-A-Roni and a parting gift. Or I could take the Fifth. Yeah right, like I can remain silent.

So, tonight’s dating dilemma features heavyweight champion “honesty — best policy” vs. mother’s favorite “if you don’t have something nice to say….”

What does the Torah teach us about lying to a date? Nothing — who dated back then? But the Talmud does discuss telling little white social lies. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai argued over how to describe an ugly bride. Should all brides — shayna punim or not — be danced before in the same way? Shammai said no — be honest, say the chick’s not hot, and be happy brides wear veils. Hillel said lie — she has a beautiful personality, you’re not in court and better everyone should get along. I say, why marry an ugly bride?

“Just tell me the truth. I don’t want to waste my time.”

Marc’s sentiments sound vaguely familiar. He sounds like, well, um, a girl. Women constantly complain that men can’t be honest about how they feel, where things are going, or why things are ending. Take Scott, who I dated for two months last fall. On New Year’s Day, he hit me with the ol’ “I’m going back to my ex-girlfriend” resolution. What could I do? Who was I to stand in the way of their true love?

True love my shankbone. A week later, Scott contacted my sorority sister through JDate. Not realizing she knew me, he said he liked her profile, liked her picture and would like to meet. Was he going to bring his ex-girlfriend on their date? Did his big plan to woo her back involve meeting other women on the Internet? There was no ex-girlfriend reunion; Scott just didn’t have the matzah balls to say he didn’t like me. His lack of respect hurt just as much as the breakup. All I wanted was a little honesty.

Guess Marc just wants the same. Gray is the new black, early is the new late and honesty is the new game. Daters don’t want Splenda-coated statements and false hopes. We want the truth, no artificial colors or feelings. We want to know where we stand, even if we stand alone.

Which is why I ripped the rejection Band-Aid off quickly. I told Marc he was a good guy, but not the right guy and suggested he tell his story walking. I also suggested he back off on the post-date interrogations. If the date had gone well, we’d be kissing by now. Then I bid him adios, shalom and, as our waiter taught me, ciao!

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

 

Finding Love in the In-Between


 

“Joy Comes in the Morning” by Jonathan Rosen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25).

“Joy Comes in the Morning” by Jonathan Rosen is, among other things, a modern love story. A Reform rabbi who’s beginning to question her certainties meets a science writer putting aside his skepticism. They meet at Roosevelt Hospital, where she is visiting his father after a botched suicide attempt. Their first date is at a funeral of one of her congregants, where she’s officiating.

It’s a novel with humor and a good share of darkness as well as light, the contrast alluded to in the Psalm from which the title is drawn, “Weeping may endure for a night. But joy comes in the morning.” There’s a wedding that’s called off and another that begins, faith that’s lost and then recovered, pain and healing; there’s death — as the first line suggests, “Someone was dying” — and in the last line there’s song.

“Joy Comes in the Morning” is also the name of an unfinished memoir that Henry Friedman, an émigré who lost most of his family to the Nazis, has set aside, and the full line is one that Rabbi Deborah Green might share with the hospital patients she visits. In a recent interview in New York, before he set out on a national book tour, Rosen says that the book is dedicated in memory of his late father and in honor of his two young daughters.

“The poles of the dedication,” he said, “are the poles of weeping and joy. It’s almost as if certain themes are in the genetic material of the novel, the way that every cell contains the whole genome.”

Although Amy Sohn’s new novel, “My Old Man,” stars a female rabbinical student (who ultimately drops out), Deborah Green might be the first women rabbi to play a major role in a novel. An assistant rabbi at a large Manhattan Reform congregation, she’s spiritual and sensual, beautiful and complicated; the senior rabbi suggests that her skirts may be too short for the rabbinate. She sings in a voice that’s often complimented for its angelic qualities, and she tries to spread goodness in the world. Early on, she finds in her hospital visits “an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a solder might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war.”

Deborah is a Reform Jew who chooses to observe a great deal.

“Something in the tradition transcended the individual and became a living embodiment of God for her, even if the pieces were all man made. But it was not her only conduit to religious life. Always, outside the system, she felt God lurking, gleaming around the patches of law and tradition and improvisation she had half inherited and half stitched together.”

In the novel’s first scene, she dons her grandfather’s tallit over a pair of shorts and begins her daily prayers. She loves the praise parts of prayer.

“To praise God made her feel whole.” Lines of text make their way into her thoughts and speech.

For journalist Lev Friedman, Deborah’s faith was consoling; “being around her gave him a strange sense of getting closer to Judaism without being annihilated by it.”

He sees her faith in contrast to the dry rigidity of his yeshiva days. Rosen’s characters take their Judaism seriously. They are very much alive in religion and its questions.

Scenes unfold at weddings she performs as well as funerals, hospitals and nursing homes, in the Friedman apartment and at Deborah’s, at her synagogue and in Central Park, where Lev likes to go birdwatching. When Deborah feels that her faith is eroding, she runs away for a bit, and Lev ends up leading a funeral service, impersonating a rabbi.

“Joy Comes in the Morning” is told from the point of view of an all-knowing narrator, who sees into souls of all, revealing their inner lives. It has much in common with the 19th-century novels Rosen favors, books about families with strong characters where things happen, and where people ask big questions. As an influence, he cites George Eliot’s novel “Adam Bede,” featuring a female preacher who has a powerful presence. He says that writing a book with religious themes is “almost like writing about sex at the dawn of the modern period, what had only been written about by indirection.”

Before his stroke, Henry Friedman is careful and refined, the kind of man who wouldn’t venture outside without a tie. After, he suffers many indignities. Other characters include Lev’s childhood friend Neal, whose mental illness overtakes him and Reuben, Deborah’s former Orthodox boyfriend. When she runs into him again and admits that she can’t pray and is feeling estranged from God, he responds, “Jews aren’t expected to feel God’s presence. That’s why there’s the Torah.”

Rosen’s characters are compelling and knowable. He says that he creates characters and then tries to simply remain in their presence – they are beings that cease to be like him or like anyone else, yet are mysteriously fueled by his own experience and knowledge.

“I wanted my characters to have a soul in that real sense,” he said.

The author of the novel “Eve’s Apple” and the nonfiction “The Talmud and the Internet,” Rosen speaks thoughtfully and eloquently, with care, favoring long answers that give him a chance to wrestle with ideas before deciding what to reveal; he is, as he admits, a wandering Jew in conversation.

The author is, in fact, married to a conservative rabbi, although he insists that his wife is not the rabbi in his novel.

“But I’d be lying if I told you that being married to a rabbi hasn’t had a huge effect on my life,” he said.

He’s also a birdwatcher and the son of a father who escaped from Europe. And his own father penned a short story that he titled, “Joy Comes in the Morning.”

One of the challenges in writing this novel, the Manhattan resident explained, was to put aside his ideas of what a modern American Jewish novel ought to be and just write: “You just have to imagine a world and then inhabit it.”

He added, “Caring about what happens to imaginary people reminds you at some level how much you should care about the actual people around you.”

Although he has written a novel about faith and holiness, Rosen, who is editorial director of Nextbook, admits that those are difficult subjects to speak briefly about.

“The answers to those questions are a conversation,” he said.

About tradition in his own life, he noted, “I’m constantly negotiating — it’s a dance with the tradition. To me it’s the dialogue that matters. The argument itself is a kind of prayer. To be in dialogue with these questions is a form of worship.”

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

‘Natasha’ Takes Reform Judaism Title


David Bezmozgis has been named winner of the 2004 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction for his debut collection of stories that center on the life of a Latvian Jewish immigrant in Toronto, “Natasha: And Other Stories” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Bezmozgis will receive $5,000. The judges also named two finalists for the 2004 prize: Michael Andre Bernstein, for his novel “Conspirators” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); and Naama Goldstein for “The Place Will Comfort You” (Scribner).

The Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction was created in 2003 by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist in Larchmont, N.Y., to encourage promising Jewish fiction writers. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel serves as honorary chair of the prize committee, and this year’s judges were Sanford Pinsker of Franklin and Marshall College; Janet Burstein of Drew University; and author Dara Horn, who won the 2003 Reform Judaism for her novel “In the Image.”

Love the Stranger


The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.

Thelma has been our children’s nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.

But how can I love her if I don’t know her story?

Although Thelma’s English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.

Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.

When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.

She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.

I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.

You shall love the stranger as yourself.

Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer — cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.

She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.

Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.

She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.

"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."

I felt as if I had been blessed by her.

Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."

I couldn’t even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you … you shall love [her] as yourself."

Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.

Divine Wedding


Years ago, my husband and I climbed the alleged Mount Sinai, the Perseus shower streaked the Egyptian night sky with shooting stars.

At the summit, as God pulled the sun up from the fragrant desert floor, Jonathan held up a ring and proposed.

It is written in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai." That dawn, I heard the reverberation of a sacred voice in the words, "Would you be willing to spend you life with me…."

The revelation at Mount Sinai was a wedding. It was an eternal, loving joining between God and Israel. The story that we read is but a veil covering a radiance we must allow ourselves to know.

This Torah portion, Ki Tisa, begins with Moses taking a census. God chooses Betzalel to be the artisan of the Tabernacle. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, shrouded in mist and mystery, while the Israelites below build their golden idol. When Moses sees this he breaks the stone tablets and grinds up the golden calf, making the Israelites drink it. Moses ascends the mountain a second time. When he descends his face is so radiant he must wear a veil.

But when a light wind blows from the west, the mist is disturbed and we see the radiant face just beneath the veil of text.

Moses was the master alchemist. He climbed the mountain and hid in the cleft of the tzur (rock). He spoke with the philosopher’s stone face to face. He held the two tablets of prime matter in his hands. When he ground up the calf into a fine powder, stirred it into water and held it up into the air — a brilliant liquid shimmering with flakes of gold — he created a dizzyingly potent potion, a love potion, an elixir of life. A toast!

We drink of it. Our eyes are opened to see beneath the veil.

Ki Tisa is not about frenzied idol worship, but the detailed description of a spectacular wedding feast between God and the people Israel.

God the lover and Moses the beloved take a census of who shall be invited, and they make a long guest list. Betzalel is singled out to decorate the tent, arrange the flowers and adorn the feast.

Time passes and we find ourselves in the whirl of the banquet festivity. There is dancing and singing, and in the very center, what seems to be a golden calf, but it is the glittering pile of precious wedding gifts. High on the bima, under a chupah of cloud, God presents Moses with the marriage contract, our ketuba. One commentator points out that verse 31:18 which is translated, "When He finished (ke’challoto) speaking with him, He gave Moses the two tablets…" could also be read "As his bride (also ke’challoto) speaking with him." Some commentators understand Israel to be the groom and Torah the bride. Moses turns around in the chupah, and faces the guests. He lifts the contract for all to see and then smashes the glass beneath his foot, or breaks a plate as in the traditional tennaim (engagement) ceremony.

Now it is time for yichud, when husband and wife are alone together for the first time. In Exodus 33:12-23, we read excerpts from a conversation between God and Moses, sounding particularly romantic: "Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. You have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name. Oh let me behold Your presence! I will make all My goodness pass before you."

And God’s hand reaches out for Moses.

Moses comes down from the mountain blushing, a crimson glow in his cheeks. When he went in to the tent to meet our love, he removed his veil, so only God should see his glowing face, but when he left the tent, he lowered the veil.

When the potion wore off the children of Israel looked around them. Once again they were in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they said to one another, "Love is in this place and we did not know it. What have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it Gan Eden? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagle’s wings? Is it Purim or Yom Kippur?"

We look from one to the other and wonder what is the face beneath the face we wear every day? Sometimes the beauty of the other is as allusive as a sunray on the water. On Purim we celebrate the masquerade of living. Now, we discard the masks and unlid our eyes. We seek the radiant face beneath the veil.

Messy world. Angry, idolatrous world. Tired, hungry, sick and sorry world. But if we could lift the sooty, splattered veil….

This thing between God and Israel, it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, "Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?"

Yes.


Zoë Klein is associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

Israel Falls for Gay Military Romance


"Yossi & Jagger" is partly a gay love story about two Israeli officers on the Lebanese border. But the 71-minute film’s only love scene comes early in a larger, far less romantic story about the contradictions of modern Israel.

"Yossi & Jagger" has touched Israelis who long for peace and the coffeehouse chats about art and life that peace brings, an Israel yearning for the good food of Tel Aviv cafes instead of what is called "food" in Golan Heights bunkers.

"Israeli wars are supposed to be very clear. The truth is we don’t feel like that anymore," said "Yossi & Jagger" director Eytan Fox, in a telephone interview with The Journal from his Tel Aviv home.

"Everything feels hard, harsh, hopeless in many ways. You talk to many soldiers in Israel, you hear the confusion. A lot of these questions you don’t have in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ People would not buy that film [now] because it wouldn’t ring right with anybody."

But Israelis have been flocking to "Yossi & Jagger" in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and smaller cities like Beersheba and Rehovot.

"Of course it did much better in Tel Aviv. We didn’t do so well in Jerusalem," said Avner Bernheimer, the film’s screenwriter.

Films with military themes had once dominated the small Israeli movie industry. But recently, in the ’90s, as peace seemed imminent, moviemakers focused on other themes. With the return of the intifada and the violence of the new millennium, films like "Yossi and Jagger," and the recent "Time of Favor" and "The Holy Land" reflect the industry’s return to its roots — albeit in a more mature, nuanced view.

The film has earned critics’ praise and top ratings when it aired on Israel’s cable Channel 3, and is now opening in U.S. theaters.

The movie’s namesake, "Yossi," is an officer leading a small group of bunker-based soldiers on the Israeli-Lebanese border in the late 1990s. "Jagger" refers to Yossi’s younger officer and lover, whose rock-star-like charm prompted his nickname. The pair’s relationship is discreet; they make love while on patrol.

"It’s based loosely on a true story that I heard from a friend of mine," Bernheimer said. "He had a boyfriend there in the same unit."

One reaction that Israelis have shared after seeing the movie is how some parents do not really know their children, including their grown gay offspring.

"This is the real message of the movie: ‘Don’t hold your secrets,’" Bernheimer said. "I live in Tel Aviv and I might go have breakfast in a coffee shop, and I might not come back. Life is really, really fragile here. The reason the movie touched so many people is because life is fragile and you have to be who you are, no matter what it is."

The filmmakers added two women to the bunker story to spice up the sexual politics and make a broader portrayal of young, sometimes confused soldiers serving in what is considered the world’s most agile army.

"We wanted girls because we wanted more tension in the bunker at a certain point," Bernheimer said. "We wanted one girl who was in love with Jagger. You see girls like that in the army because it’s such a macho environment."

One scene in the short film lingers as Fox’s hand-held camera captures one of the women and many of the male soldiers dancing, almost trance-like, to Euro-technopop. Fox said he framed the dance scene in long, slower shots to portray soldiers dancing while briefly off duty because they are "full of anxiety, full of fear," and knew that hours later they would be on what would become fatal ambush duty. "You’re 18 and you still know very little about life," said the 39-year-old New York-born filmmaker, who lives with his longtime gay companion and one of the film’s producers, Gal Uchovzski.

Fox’s well-paced directing style finds his hand-held video camera mimicking the claustrophobic, tight spaces found in the Golan Heights kibbutz bunker where "Yossi & Jagger" was shot. Not every frame is a tight close-up, but Fox clearly shows the submarine-like confinement the bunker gives to the two gay lovers and the enlisted men under them. Fox then contrasts this tight filmmaking style with more open, outdoor shots displaying panoramic views of snow-capped mountains. "It’s easier to use very limited lighting and a small video camera [in the bunker]," Fox said, adding that once he, his camera, his actors and Bernheimer’s screenplay were outside, "your spirit can let go and be freer and therefore the frame can open, it’s not as claustrophobic, it’s not as closed."

Away from screenwriting, Bernheimer is a senior writer and editor at Israel’s daily Yedioth Aharonot. (Uchovzski is a writer and editor at Ma’ariv and fellow "Yossi" producer Amir Jarel is the jazz critic at Ha’aretz.) From 1998 to 2001, Bernheimer was his newspaper’s Los Angeles-based West Coast correspondent, living near Laurel Canyon and studying screenwriting at UCLA while his partner studied architecture there.

Among his observations of Jewish Los Angeles, Bernheimer said, "the Orthodox Jews in America are much more open and much more progressive than the Orthodox Jews in Israel." He is now writing a screenplay about the relationships between American Jews and Israelis while living in Los Angeles. Fox’s next film, "Walking on Water," is a German-Israeli romance.

Bernheimer was in air traffic control during his military service, while Fox was in a combined military/civil service program during his four-year army stint. Both are gay Tel Aviv men with political views to the left of the Labor Party, and Tel Aviv is referenced once in the film; Fox said he wanted it to show that city as Israel’s New York — a dreamy, young place where people can go and reinvent themselves, and also as a city symbolic of "the tension between the two Israels": the hoped-for civilian life and the military realities.

The Israeli Defense Forces did not cooperate with the filmmakers because, while the army officially is tolerant of gay soldiers, Bernheimer said he was told that the Yossi/Jagger romance was between officers of different ranks, and thus not an acceptable image. But the film, which also shows an adulterous liaison between a married colonel and one of the enlisted women, has become a favorite of soldiers on their days off.

"The movie became this huge success, also with soldiers," Bernheimer said. "In a way, we won the battle with the army because the soldiers came to see the movie, and whole units came to see the movie."

The film has not caused a stir among Israel’s vocal Orthodox communities. "Surprisingly there was not a reaction at all," Bernheimer said. "We didn’t hear anything, even from their politicians. I always say that in Israel, we have more important things to deal with than hating gays."

What has grabbed Israeli filmgoers, Fox said, is the film’s clear, somewhat depressing portrait of life in a bunker, different than military duty in Gaza and on the West Bank because one was fighting a Lebanese enemy that one could not see.

"The Lebanese experience was even more surreal because it was like a Vietnam," Fox said. "People were sitting in their remote bunkers, not really understanding who the enemy was."

"People reacted to that," said Bernheimer, of the film’s bunker theme. "It doesn’t come out like a gay film or a ghetto film. It’s not a gay movie. It’s really Israeli society in one bunker, the whole Israeli society in one bunker."

My Mikvah Lady


The 21st victim of the heinous bus bombing in Jerusalem last month was Rachel Weitz, 70.

Her name probably flew by most of you. It almost flew by me, too, the first time I heard it on the 9 p.m. Saturday news. When I heard her name the second time that night, on the midnight news flash, I knew. My breath stopped as I ran to the phone book to check if there was any other Rachel Weitz in Jerusalem. There wasn’t.

Rachel Weitz was my beloved mikvah lady, the woman who ran the ritual bath.

Rachel ran the private mikvah in Mattersdorf until several years ago. Almost all the women who used it, except for me and a few others, were ultra-Orthodox. Even after I moved to Efrat, 18 years ago, I would still return there if I happened to be in town too late to get home to the Efrat mikvah, or just because I liked seeing Rachel.

For the 27 years of my married life, I measured all the mikvah ladies I met by Rachel. It was unfair competition. Had Agnon known her, he would have written a story about her, like he did about Tehila. But, of course, he couldn’t have known her like we, the women, did.

When I was a young bride, Rachel made me feel comfortable with this new activity that went along with the wedding ring. She always greeted me with a warm smile and a bit of friendly chatter. Each time I entered her pristine structure, tucked away behind a large Mattersdorf synagogue, I felt like I was parting a veil and entering a sanctum. No matter what insanity was going on in the world outside, it was always safe in Rachel’s mikvah. There, I was home.

As time went on, our family grew, and I loved the experience of returning to Rachel’s mikvah after giving birth, sharing with her the fact that a new child had been born to the tribe of Israel.

Most of the other women who came to Rachel’s mikvah wore thick stockings and either wigs or hats that covered all their hair; some had black stretch snoods pulled over shaved heads, and women even came from the heart of Mea Shearim to use it. I arrived in flowing colored head scarves with my barefoot toes sticking out of my sandals. Rachel didn’t care. She was as loving and caring toward me as she was toward the others, who were a much closer match for her mode of dress and lifestyle.

When I came occasionally after I had moved to Efrat, Rachel always expressed great concern for my safety. When I said goodbye, she would ask me if the road was safe and wished me best of health.

Over the years my scarves and flowered skirts were sometimes replaced by suits, heels and a fashionable hat or styled wig. But Rachel never changed. She remained an anchor of tradition in a shifting world.

Part of that tradition was what happened while the women waited their turn. The women in Rachel’s mikvah all said Tehillim (psalms) while they waited. There was no small talk. They turned inward and prayed for the people of Israel — and perhaps for their husbands and for their children. And if they had no children, perhaps they were praying for themselves.

Rachel had a custom from the old country that few mikvah ladies adhere to nowadays. As a woman emerged from the mikvah, while still on the last step, Rachel would grasp her wet hand, shake it warmly and give her a blessing for joy and good luck, as she helped her step up and out. And even though Rachel watched you dunk and say the blessing while in the water, once she had witnessed the act, she would hold the towel up to hide her own eyes from you as you emerged, offering you a final moment of modest dignity before you swathed yourself in terry cloth.

In the years of our marriage I’ve had occasion to travel, and to visit the luxurious mikvahs of London and of Beverly Hills. I’ve been to the beautiful establishments in Toronto, Cleveland and Queens. But even with their multicolored tiles, carpeting, piped-in music and collections of condiments and coffee for post-immersion pampering, none of those mikvahs were ever as soothing to me as Rachel’s spartan one.

I feel that Rachel’s blessings have accompanied me throughout my married life. She has been a role model to me of chesed, of kindness, of cheerfulness, of what it means to make another person always feel comfortable, special and welcome.

The last time I visited the Mattersdorf mikvah, more than a year ago, they told me that Rachel had retired. But I noticed that the spirit she had brought to the mikvah was still there. Well, I thought, some day I’ll go and visit her at her home, just to say hello and tell her how much I appreciated her all those years. Someday I’ll call her and tell her what’s going on with my children.

After the Aug. 19 bombing, Rachel suffered for four days before she died. This knowledge is almost more than I can bear. This righteous woman — who lovingly clasped the hands of thousands of women, lifting them up and out of the ritual bath, who then sent them forth from her sanctum to go home to their husbands, her blessings ringing in their ears, who should have spent her last years in comfort and joy, basking in the laughter and love of her children and grandchildren — was slaughtered by the epitome of evil. This knowledge is hard for me to live with.

And so is the knowledge that I never found the time to tell her, "Thank you."


Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, a community theater writer and director (“Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court”) and the editor-in-chief of

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