Woody Allen’s sidekick shares all


There’s a memorable scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, rants about finding anti-Semites everywhere he goes.

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC and I said, ‘Did you eat yet?’ and [they] said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not, ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat? Jew?’ Not ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat?’”

To which his pal Rob — played by the prolific stage and screen actor Tony Roberts — replies, “Max, you see conspiracies in everything.”

It’s an exchange that sums up a quintessential relationship in Allen’s oeuvre: the nervous, insecure schlemiel (played by Allen himself) and his level-headed, self-assured friend.

In several of Allen’s films in the 1970s and ’80s — including “Play It Again, Sam,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Stardust Memories”— that role belonged to Roberts.

Roberts’ confident onscreen presence — not to mention his tall frame, broad shoulders and brown curly mane — was the perfect foil for Allen’s various neurotic characters, making them more funny and enjoyable to watch.

Still handsome at 76, though his curls have long since turned cloud white, Roberts says today that his comedic interplay with Allen was nothing less than serendipitous.

“I don’t even know what chemistry we lucked upon,” Roberts tells JTA. “[Woody] said to me, ‘You know, people like our schmoozing.’”

“Well, clearly people liked it because he made use of it in six films,” he adds.

Those films with Allen have been on Roberts’ mind quite a lot in the past year. The actor has published a new memoir that entertainingly dishes on his decades in film, theater and TV, and explores how he built a successful career while teetering somewhere between fame and anonymity.

In “Do You Know Me?,” Roberts writes that he could star in Broadway shows and hit films and receive critical praise  — yet people would approach him on the street wondering where they had seen him before.

Aside from providing a peek inside his celebrity-filled life — the memoir is filled with anecdotes about working legends like Sidney Lumet, who directed him in “Serpico” opposite Al Pacino, and Julie Andrews, with whom he co-starred in the Broadway production of “Victor/Victoria” — Roberts hopes the book will be a guide for young actors. He offers advice on preparing for auditions, inhabiting characters and observing human behavior as a conduit to understanding narrative.

And of course, there’s a lot about Woody Allen. Roberts calls Allen “Max” throughout the book, a nod to the personal nickname that started when the perennially introverted Allen told Roberts not to call out his name in public. In fact, the nickname “Max,” used in “Annie Hall,” is a direct reference to their off-screen joke.

Robert’s fame never reached the height of a Robert Redford, whom Roberts replaced in the 1963 Broadway hit “Barefoot in the Park.” And in films, he typically plays the sidekick rather than the lead. But his nearly 60-year career reveals the strengths of a supporting actor who continually brought the main character’s desires and conflicts into greater relief.

As the legendary comedian Milton Berle once told him, “When I get a laugh, it’s our laugh.”

Today, Roberts looks back with a sense of pride, but he’s reluctant to call himself an artist. Sitting in Lexington Candy Shop, the classic Upper East Side diner he’s frequented since he was 7 years old, Roberts contemplates how to define his work.

“I’m like a musician in an orchestra,” he suggests. “An interpreter, not a creator.”

Roberts credits his Manhattan upbringing for providing a fascinating spectrum of characters to observe.

“It was like the whole world was here,” he says of city life. “There were ethnic collisions between newly arrived immigrants; there were Irish kids who went to school in ties but, after school, would see a weakling Jew and take it out on him.

“But on the other hand, I had Irish friends,” he adds. “I learned tolerance.”

His parents were secular Jews who raised their son to love culture and uphold a moral code of behavior. In his memoir, Roberts writes that though he was raised without religious observance, he grew curious about his heritage and took a trip to Latvia where his grandfather had lived before immigrating to the United States.

Roberts got an early start as a professional actor, landing a part on the soap opera “The Edge of the Night” just after college in 1966. Soon after he was cast in his first Broadway play, and the roles multiplied from there.

He first met Allen backstage when he was starring in “Barefoot in the Park.” It was around the time that Roberts unsuccessfully auditioned — four times — for Allen’s first Broadway play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” Seeing Roberts perform in “Barefoot in the Park” convinced Allen that Roberts was talented and worth casting. According to his memoir, Allen told him, “You were great. How come you’re such a lousy auditioner?”

Roberts talks comfortably about all facets of Allen’s work — but on the topic of the director’s romantic and personal scandals, he eschews commentary. In fact, several publishers told him they would only publish the memoir if it included details about Allen’s personal life, Roberts says, so he decided to publish the book independently. There’s no dignity in divulging gossip, he says, and he maintains that the off-camera memories with Allen are more interesting anyway.

Today, Roberts and Allen are still good friends. And though they haven’t acted together in some time, Allen still screens his new films for him and seeks his feedback.

Thinking back on their most famous film together, “Annie Hall” — which won four Academy Awards in 1978, including best picture — Roberts says, “I don’t think Woody wants ‘Annie Hall’ to be his signature achievement. He would much prefer if it were one of his more obscure, experimental films. Like ‘Zelig’ — that’s the one they should put in the time capsule.”

As for Roberts, like all working actors, he’s excited about his next role, whatever it is.

“I wrote the book about the things I want to be my legacy — a love of acting and a love of performers,” he says. “The trick is to figure out what you love to do and then get paid to do it.”

Hier and Hier: From yeshiva boy to global storyteller


The longer I live in America, the more fascinated I become with the story of American Jewry —  how a wandering and persecuted people discovered a free and open nation and have given so much back.

At the heart of this story are some larger-than-life Jews who have influenced every facet of American life, from Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to academia, popular culture, media, social action and politics. 

One Jew who surely belongs to this prominent cast is Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Here is a yeshiva boy from New York’s Lower East Side who grows up to become one of the world’s most influential Jews, thanks to a special brew of smarts, chutzpah, faith and humor.

Those traits are in full view in Hier’s new memoir, “Meant to Be,” which offers up hundreds of little anecdotes to paint the portrait of a big life. The book’s title speaks to Hier’s faith that everything in life happens for a reason, and that it is always for the good.

But Hier easily could have titled his book “To Make a Long Story Short,” because the man’s life revolves so much around stories — stories about things that happened to him or to others, stories that he has handy for any occasion, stories from the Bible that move his soul, stories that help him land a big donor or a movie star, and, his favorite type, stories that make him laugh.   

From left: Sen. Edward  Kennedy, Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Hier, when the senator received the Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian Award at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

“There are many reasons why we Jews have survived nearly three thousand five hundred years of persecution and turmoil,” he writes. “I am convinced that one of the them is our ability to laugh, even during the most trying circumstances.”

Hier is one of those people for whom smiling seems to be the default position, as if he’s always on the hunt for good news. You can imagine him smiling as he wrote some of the stories in the book, as when he recounts his first meeting with Frank Sinatra in the late-1970s. At the time, his plan for a Holocaust museum was still just a dream. Sinatra offered to help, but because he called himself only an “honorary member of the Jewish tribe,” he reached out to his Jewish neighbor, Danny Schwartz, asking him to bring along his “Jewish telephone directory.”

Like so many stories in the book, the Sinatra story leads to a series of other events and meetings that invariably lead to good things. Most of the stories are connected to people — from Hollywood stars, world leaders or major donors to quirky characters, including funny rabbis and even janitors.

Perhaps the quirkiest story is the one that ignited Hier’s mission to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

It started innocuously enough during a family outing to the La Brea Tar Pits in the summer of 1977. Hier overheard a little girl asking the tour guide: “Will dinosaurs come back to earth one day?”

As Hier recounts the story, “The amiable guide smiled and reassured her that the earth’s changing climate conditions prevented dinosaurs from returning.”

Oddly, something about that answer stuck with Hier. His mind wandered. He thought about “human creatures, whose time on earth is dependent as much on political conditions as environmental ones.” And then he wondered if a political climate can ever return a monster like Hitler to power.

That question weighed on him for weeks: “How many of the visitors who came to the La Brea Tar Pits to learn about prehistoric animal fossils knew anything about the cataclysmic events that had engulfed our world in the 1930s and ’40s? Why didn’t America have a major Holocaust education center like Israel’s Yad Vashem to teach the story of the murder of six million Jews — one third of the world’s Jewish population? Why hadn’t the American Jewish community — the world’s largest — built a major Holocaust museum?”

Hier then recounts the decisive story of the book: Over Shabbat cholent in his Pico-Robertson home, he brings up the idea of a Holocaust center with his lifelong partner, his wife, Malkie. “It’s a great idea,” she tells him. “It will have an impact on the whole community. I think you should do it.”

That cholent meeting set off a decades-long adventure to build two of the most prominent institutions in the world. But while the building of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance have garnered enormous attention and made Hier a global name, when you read the book, you realize that something has gotten lost in the media picture: Hier is still, at heart, a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side.

It’s easy to overlook that Hier began his career as a successful pulpit rabbi in Canada, eventually leaving after 10 years because “there were no yeshivas for my sons in Vancouver.” When he moved his family to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, he had no idea he would ever be involved with the Holocaust or fighting anti-Semitism. His plan was to start a yeshiva for post-high school students of all backgrounds and denominations and contribute, as he says, “to the unbroken chain of Torah study that had sustained Jews over the centuries.”

By forging an association with Yeshiva University (YU) of New York, one of the oldest Jewish educational institutions in America, he gave his new yeshiva instant credibility. With the help of initial funding from the Belzberg family, he bought an empty building on Pico Boulevard and began his new life in Los Angeles immersed in Jewish education.

One of my favorite stories in the book is when Hier visits the empty building on Pico and meets the janitor, Jack Rufus, a “tall, slender African-American man with deep worry lines on his forehead.”

Hier tells Rufus about his plan for starting the school, admitting that “I don’t exactly have any students, and we haven’t hired any teachers yet.”

Rufus, who was hoping to keep his job, responds: “You mean to tell me, you don’t have any teachers or students, but you bought this building? Rabbi, I don’t mean any disrespect, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. That’s like going horseback riding without a horse.”

Hier proceeds to tell Rufus a Chasidic story about two men who went to see the same rebbe for a blessing to have children. The blessing worked, but only for the man who immediately bought a baby carriage — in other words, only for the man who had true faith in the blessing. Hier told the janitor that he had received his own blessing from a rebbe to open the school. He had so much faith in that blessing, in fact, that he hired Rufus on the spot.

It’s while Hier was building his new yeshiva that his improbable visit to the Tar Pits led him to think about building a Holocaust center. From then on, Jewish education and Holocaust remembrance became his two consuming passions. Only two months after the yeshiva opened in late 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened inside the yeshiva’s west wing.

A key story in the book is how Hier convinced Wiesenthal, the legendary pursuer of Nazi war criminals, to agree to have his name on the center. Hier recounts a long courtship, punctuated by a hairy car ride through the streets of Vienna.

At a meeting with the great man, Hier mustered all his chutzpah: “Mr. Wiesenthal,” he said, “I recently visited a museum in L.A .where people come from all over America to learn about dinosaurs. In fact, there are a half dozen such places in America. But where can people go to learn about the Nazis? Who will teach them that thirty-two years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still going strong? If we don’t teach young people now, we will once again be caught unprepared, and history will repeat itself.”

The Wiesenthal name helped put Hier’s Holocaust center on the map, just as the YU association did the same for his yeshiva. As they both took off simultaneously, the two tracks of Hier’s life began to take shape: an international leader around Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism, and a local leader in Orthodox Jewish education in Los Angeles, first with the yeshiva and then with its successor high school, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), which he led until 2005. 

These two sides symbolize the two Marvin Hiers: the global storyteller who wants to change the world, and the yeshiva boy who stays loyal to his Jewish roots.

The yeshiva boy dreams of keeping the flame of Torah alive with the Jews of his community; the global storyteller dreams of keeping the memory and lessons of the Holocaust alive with people everywhere.  

The yeshiva boy wears a yarmulke on his head; the global storyteller wears a smile on his face.  

The smile and the stories help Hier attract prominent people to his projects; the yamulke keeps him grounded in the story of his people and the primacy of Torah observance.

Hier is not just one of these. He’s both. He’s as comfortable telling stories in Yiddish to a group of yeshiva students as he is receiving an Academy Award for one of the documentaries produced by his film company, Moriah Films.

But if I had to venture a guess as to which side is more dominant, I would pick the yeshiva boy. It is the yeshiva boy who drives the global storyteller in a way that always comes back to help the Jewish people. It is the yeshiva boy that nourishes his faith that, in the end, everything will come out for the good. 

“As I look back over the trajectory of my life, from New York’s Lower East Side to Vancouver, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, from yeshiva bocher to rabbi, political activist, film producer and museum founder,” he writes near the end of the book, “I realize that I have always held firm to that deceptively simple idea. I have always believed that no matter how many people try to extinguish the flame of the Jewish people, they will never succeed, because the irrevocable covenant God made with Abraham will always produce unexpected helpers and new circumstances to rekindle it.

“I have always believed in miracles, whether the ancient types, staves that turn into snakes, seas that split, manna that falls from trees, or the greater miracles of our own time, the creation of Israel, the incredible victories of the Israeli army and the renaissance of yeshivas and Jewish day schools throughout the world.”

Hier’s obsession with Jewish education counters the critique that, for all of the universal imperatives of Holocaust remembrance, it’s not an enduring source for creating a Jewish identity. Showing how Jews died and how Jews are hated doesn’t teach Jews how to live. Hier understood that only Jewish education can do that.

Early in his rabbinic career, while teaching a class for teenagers, Hier quoted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the biblical verse, “And he [Abraham] sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”

What is the significance of the “heat of the day”? Soloveitchik explained that “Abraham purposely positioned himself at the entrance of his tent in the midday sun, despite the fact that it would have been more comfortable inside, because the Covenant of Abraham demands that every Jew stand guard, engage with the world, and contribute to it, despite the challenges even ‘in the heat of the day.’ ”

Maybe because of his undying faith, Hier never seems intimidated by the heat of the day. That might also explain why Hier refused to stay comfortable inside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, despite its successes. He writes:

“By the late 1980s, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Moriah Films had established international reputations. Our social action campaigns were effective and widely covered by the press, and our films were being screened in theaters and shown on television stations around the world. The Center had an active board, a national staff of thirty, and a membership approaching one hundred thousand.”

But Hier was restless. It wasn’t enough to teach the world about the Holocaust. To increase global impact, he needed to make the Holocaust more relevant, more universal. He decided to broaden the scope of the museum to promote the value of tolerance.

Hier and his team raised money for a new, larger facility that would link the events that took place between 1933 and 1945 to “post-Holocaust history, which was rife with examples of atrocities that resulted from racism and hatred. We wanted both to teach the story of the Holocaust and to apply its lessons to the present and the future in a Museum of Tolerance.”

The deliberations over whether and how to include the persecution of non-Jews in the new museum provide some of the more sensitive stories in the book. In the end, the deciding factor, brought up by none other than Wiesenthal himself, was that “Jews needed friends and allies to conquer hatred.”

On the heels of the success of the Museum of Tolerance, a phone call in 1993 from the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, the late Teddy Kollek, would change Hier’s life once again — this time with a mission to build a Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

Thus began another long journey, complicated by legal challenges over the site, as well as endless delays and major fundraising needs. The ability of Hier and his team to raise significant funds and stick to his mission through all the ups and downs is a testament not just to his tenacity but to his faith. The Jerusalem museum, now scheduled to open in 2017 (24 years after that first phone call from Kollek), is a good example of both. It is Hier’s faith in God that gives him the tenacity to keep going.

Hier mentions so many of the “unexpected helpers” who have supported his dreams through the years — donors, partners, employees who remain loyal for decades, prominent Hollywood and political figures, family members and so on — that you get a sense he wrote the memoir as much for them as for anyone.  

There’s nothing wrong with that. If this book becomes a long thank-you letter to all those who helped a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side write his own great American story, then surely it was meant to be. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The other side of Maxine Kumin


I think there were always two Maxine Kumins wrestling for space inside of her. 

In her new memoir, “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter” (W. W. Norton), the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died last year at 88, allows us to see only certain parts of her. There is the feeling throughout the book of a polished presentation of self. It is not that I doubt Kumin’s charming recollections of her wonderful marriage and children. Nor do I question her ecstatic affection for all forms of wildlife, particularly her beloved horses. I am certain she took great pleasure in the many years she spent on her 200-acre farm in New Hampshire, where she became one with the land, toiling relentlessly while raising her family and writing. It is even easy to imagine Kumin as a budding feminist before we had the words for such desire.

Kumin’s poetry touched many areas. She wrote poems about the simple joys of living that are peppered with references to the splendor of the natural world and her wish to live in harmony with it. She wrote about her husband, Victor Kumin, a scientist who graduated from Harvard and who was involved at Los Alamos in the development of the nuclear bomb. He seems to have been a natural companion for her; they were both blessed with resilient spirits, good health and respect for each other’s resolve. 

Kumin also wrote poetry about the world outside her farm, particularly her disgust with America’s hawkish policies during the George W. Bush years that aligned her with the left. But in this memoir, some readers may sense that there was something else hiding behind her seeming invincibility; something she didn’t want us to see.

There is a precious, telling photograph of a young Kumin in the book. She looks 4 or 5. It is the standard picture of a little girl all dressed up in frilly white, her hair perfectly curled. But Kumin’s pretty, young face is marred by a ferocious scowl, and one guesses that this little girl had already decided she would refuse to dance prettily around anyone else’s expectations of her. This would help her with her mother, with whom she shared a somewhat contentious relationship. 

Kumin grew up the daughter of a Russian Jewish pawnbroker in Philadelphia who had a large successful store in the Black section of town. She was the youngest of four, the only girl, and her father treated her with consistent tenderness. Her mother was of German-Jewish origin, and came from one of the few Jewish families in Virginia. She was a refined and elegant woman, but a distracted and critical mother. She would chastise Kumin for speaking with her hands, and was dismayed by the little girl’s refusal to succumb to her mother’s standards of proper feminine dress and behavior. Kumin, however, was infatuated with her mother’s beauty and remembers watching her leave each evening to go out with her father while gorgeously dressed in an “evening cape of black velvet, its full length sprinkled with what looked like multicolored nonpareils.” She remembers her mother’s shame regarding her father’s profession. She would tell Maxine to list her father’s occupation at school as “broker,” instead of “pawnbroker,” because of the stigma she feared it would bring them.

Kumin’s family practiced a watered-down version of Reform Judaism. She spent her first years attending a Christian school because it was next door to her family home. She left for public school in second grade when the teachings about Jews became uncomfortable for her. 

There is a moving recollection in the book that is shattering: Kumin remembers coming home as a young girl as “news of the concentration camps had sifted into the Jewish community” and finding her father bitterly crying with some crumpled letters in his fist.

When he finally spoke to her, he whispered, “They will all die. This is the pogrom to end all pogroms,” which left Kumin mortified at the fate that might have befallen them if not for a mere accident of geography. Still, one senses that for Kumin, being Jewish was merely a part of her identity rather than a defining theme.

Kumin graduated from Radcliffe in 1948, married young and started her family. The demands of early motherhood were difficult for her. She wrote poems when she could, but the concentration required for her work was eaten away by the daily demands of motherhood. She expresses this frustration in an ironic letter to her mother in 1958 that is filled with pathos: “Just call me Mrs. Pepys. Up sooner than betimes; dryer broken, youngest out of underpants. All underpants soaking wet on line. Pouring. Ten minutes of earnest persuasion, no one would know he was wearing old baby pair, no one would see. Find plastic bag to protect violin case. (Pouring harder.) Write check for violin teacher. Overdrawn? Live dangerously; payday Wednesday. Find cough drops for the middle child. Middle child coughs anyhow. Girls depart. Youngest watching Captain Kangaroo. Make beds, get dressed, car pool late for youngest, writer later for appointment.”

Motherhood was erratic and had its own timetable (as did her poetry, which she often wrote in traditional form with exacting patterns of syllable count and rhyme). She writes of her exasperation with early motherhood:

“This dwelt in me who does not know me now, / where in her labyrinth I cannot follow, advance to be recognized, displace her terror; / I hold my heartbeat on my lap and cannot comfort her / The first cell that divided us separates us.”

But Kumin remained vigilant and signed up for a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education and left her children in the care of others for a few hours each week. It was here that she met Anne Sexton.

At first glance, there is nothing about their subsequent 17-year intense friendship that makes any sense. On the surface, they seem polar opposites. Sexton wrote explosive self-immolating poetry that couldn’t have been more different from Kumin’s restrained work. Sexton was a drug addict and an alcoholic and suffered from continual mental disturbances that sent her reeling from one psychiatrist to another, making many of them her lovers. Sexton was beautiful and cunning and manipulative and self-indulgent. And needy. 

Kumin was earthy, stable, centered and independent. Yet these two women became fast friends. They set up a private phone line in their respective homes and kept the receiver off the hook during the day so they could whistle to one another when they wanted to chat or laugh or share their work; each nourished by the feedback offered. They did not compete with each other, and were close with each other’s children. They never went out as a foursome with their husbands because, Kumin insists, it just didn’t work out. They had lunch several times a week, even on the day Sexton finally succeeding in killing herself (she had tried many times before). Kumin shared all of this years ago with Diane Middlebrook, Sexton’s biographer, and added that she still isn’t certain why they were so close. They even took great pleasure in sharing hats and jewelry and dresses, amused by the fact that they wore the same dress size.

So what were they really? It is tempting to speculate. Were they soul mates in a parallel universe of their own creation? Lovers? I have no idea. Kumin told Middlebrook that she was helped by Sexton, who showed her that the “cerebral really needed a strong admixture of the visceral.” I am not certain what that really means, but it sounds like doublespeak for an energized passion she felt when she was with Sexton that she perhaps had trouble fully feeling when she was with anyone else. And part of me wishes she would have written something about that! 

Alan Lightman turns to remembering a life in the South


It feels as if Alan Lightman has been forgetting large pieces of his past for decades; his reinvention seems intentional.  This very talented 66-year-old writer and theoretical physicist has produced beautiful works of fiction that examine the fragility of the human experience using spare and elegant and sometimes mystical prose.  In interviews, Lightman comes across as eager to please, very much the Southern Memphis gentleman he was raised to be.  His good looks and youthful demeanor are almost unsettling; he is mannerly and offers smooth, perhaps overly rehearsed answers to questions that seem to simulate an intimate exchange.  Which is why his decision to write a memoir, “Screening Room: Family Pictures” (Pantheon Books) is surprising. 

Lightman grew up the eldest of four boys, whom his mother gave birth to in less than five years.  She was an unhappy and nervous woman prone to insomnia and depression, and she channeled her manic energy into giving dance lessons to the local children.  She was emotional needy, which further alienated her husband, who was quiet and self-contained; an unhappy man too timid to pull away from his domineering father whom he worked for until he retired.  Their family was a wealthy secular Jewish one, under the thumb of Lightman’s paternal grandfather, M.A. Lightman, who opened up a chain of morethan 60 movie theaters throughout the south.  Lightman’s parents were mismatched from the start, and he writes about their marriage with a restrained candor that reveals his disappointment.

Alan Lightman seemed to always possess the ambition and wounded daringness of a precocious and unhappy child.  He was going to escape and was helped enormously by his dual talents in science and literature.  He was ashamed of the insularity of the South and his few memories of being nurtured involve his beloved nanny Blanche, a black woman who took the time to stroke his forehead when his mother wasn’t able to.

I think he knew when he left he wasn’t going home again.  And he didn’t.  He got a Ph.D. in Physics from Cal Tech, and then taught at Harvard and M.I.T.  He began writing essays that blended his scientific fascination with human longings and eventually turned to fiction.  For example, in one of his novels, titled “Reunion,” he writes poignantly about a sad and lonely man who returns to his 30th college reunion and is catapulted into a whirlwind of memories about a passionate romance he had in college with a ballerina.  In another work titled “Ghost,” he chronicles the agonized thoughts of a 43-year-old man who has trouble connecting to everyone around him.  Although not directly autobiographical, we sense much of Lightman fills his lonely characters, and is the more genuine alter-ego to the polished persona he presents to the world.

But when called upon to reflect upon his past in a direct manner, he falters frequently and loses focus.  He even invents two characters and throws them into the mix which we don’t find out about until the final pages of the book.  It feels contrived and disingenuous.  His relatives seemed to blend into an indistinguishable lump of characters who drink and eat a lot and say little of substance.  The same goes for his brothers whom he spends some time with when he returns home for a brief visit.  We are unclear how his relatives view him, or whether they are affected by his presence at all.  Similarly, he seems detached from all, a ghost-like presence observing quietly from the sidelines with little to offer them but his quiet attendance.  Even when recalling old friends and girlfriends, no one takes star billing.  His most poignant memories seem to recall being alone in his childhood bedroom pondering the great questions of the universe and his own trajectory out of there.  Or the few moments of pure pleasure he experienced walking home by himself from school looking around at the beauty of the natural world which still continues to captivate him.

The Lightman’s family’s rise to prominence is an exceptional one; a Jewish tale of resilience and daring and imagination.  His great-grandfather, Papa Joe Lightman, came to America in 1881 from Budapest, Hungary, and made a name for himself in the construction business.  His son, M.A. Lightman, became entranced with the movie business after seeing people line up and wait for hours to watch a film in front of a converted store front which was filled with folding chairs and an old projector installed in the back of the room.  When Papa Joe, died, M.A. began building his movie empire; the first theatre in Sheffield, Ala. and the second one in Florence, Ala.  The flagship theatre was in downtown Memphis and called the “Malco.”  It was where his father worked, and was an opulent 2500 seat emporium that dazzled crowds with movies that were now able to produce sound.  The business today still employs the majority of Lightman’s relatives including two of his brothers. 

Lightman’s father died two years ago, at 91.  In the book, Lightman recalls his father once trying to tell him a story that seemed very important to him during the late 1980s.  It involved a moment of indecision, perhaps hesitation, while fighting during the Second World War, that his commander told him had cost them lives.  Lightman remembers listening to his father talk, but his mind was elsewhere.  He writes, “What I should have done right then and there was put my arm around him.  I wonder if I really heard what he just said to me.  What could I have been thinking about at the time, at the moment?  And I remember.  I was thinking about moving to a different university to teach.  What I actually did at that moment was listened to Dad and said nothing.  Was I so wrapped up in my little problems?  Or was it that I had no outcroppings in his psyche to grab on to?  I knew so little about his insides, and then suddenly I was confronted with this vast summation of his life, or at least how he felt about his life.  How could I begin to fathom what he had just said to me?” Lightman’s response here seems cold and controlled; overly analytical.

Ironically, the underlying emotional intensity can be found elsewhere. In another book Lightman wrote earlier, called “Einstein’s Dreams,” which is considered by many to be his masterwork.  The book is a dizzying and inspired fictional meditation about a young Albert Einstein who is reimagining the notion of time.  Einstein considers how time might be circular, or perhaps compelled to forever repeat itself, or maybe just an unstoppable force that threatens to trample us.  Einstein ponders how some of us are able to live mostly in the present, yet others remain lost in time.  Lightman’s Einstein feels that time contains multitudes of secrets we have yet to decipher.   In one very moving passage Einstein imagines a desolate and remorseful man that seems a lot like Alan Lightman.  The man is harboring an almost irrepressible desire for a reunion with his father who is now dead and beyond his grasp.  Lightman writes majestically, “In another house, a man sits alone at his table, laid out for two.  Ten years ago, he sat across from his father, was unable to say that he loved him, searched through the years for some moment of closeness, remembered the evenings that silent man sat alone with his book, was unable to say that he loved him.  The table is set with two plates, two glasses, two forks, as on that last night.  The man begins to eat, cannot eat, weeps uncontrollably.  He never said that he loved him.”  One can’t help but wish that Lightman had been able to bring some of this fury to his own personal memoir. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Husband of terror victim pens memoir of quest to meet bomber


David Harris-Gershon, author of the forthcoming memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?,” is frank about the contradictions in his personality.

An admitted “natural introvert,” Harris-Gershon describes himself as “surprisingly good” at public speaking. In 2013, he won the GrandSLAM Storytelling Championship at the Pittsburgh branch of the Moth, a nationwide storytelling organization, with a tale of using unorthodox tactics to drum up support for Barack Obama by posing as a woman in adult romance chat rooms.

“I love being in front of an audience,” said Harris-Gershon, 39, who works as a Judaic studies teacher in Pittsburgh, “but it drains me.”

Nonetheless, Harris-Gershon maintains a very public profile as a liberal commentator on Middle East politics, blogging for the progressive publications Tikkun magazine and Daily Kos.

But with the publication of his memoir, Harris-Gershon delves into the deeply personal events — some catastrophic, some therapeutic — that have led to his political stance.

The memoir, due in U.S. bookstores on Sept. 10, begins with the Hebrew University bombing in 2002 that killed two of his friends and severely injured his wife, Jamie, who had shrapnel lodged in her body.

Harris-Gershon says Jamie is a “very private person” who preferred not to have her private ordeal immortalized in a book. So the memoir is not the story of her recovery but his own.

“Despite the fact that the book begins with the attack, her injury and her recovery, she understands that it is primarily a chronicle of my story and my experience — myself as a secondary victim,” Harris-Gershon said.

After the couple left Israel in 2003 after spending three years living in Jerusalem, Harris-Gershon began suffering symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including crippling anxiety attacks. The book delves deeply into his recovery process, including the traditional and innovative forms of therapy he tries.

Harris-Gershon describes watching a piece of shrapnel extracted from his wife’s body, noting the “opaque film of unknown fluids” on the twisted metal.

Much of his struggle is portrayed as extended dialogues between the author and himself, or with his therapist or inanimate objects — a playful literary technique that Harris-Gershon says reveals the influence of postmodern masters like Dave Eggers.

Ultimately, however, Harris-Gershon’s recovery was enabled not by conventional therapy but by an unprecedented encounter — one that led to a political awakening.

Spurred by an article in which the cafe bomber, Mohammed Odeh, expressed remorse for his actions, Harris-Gershon set out on a quixotic quest to meet the terrorist.

The memoir details Harris-Gershon’s unsuccessful attempts to meet Odeh, a member of Hamas who is being held in an Israeli prison. Blocked repeatedly by the thorny machinations of Israeli bureaucracy, Harris-Gershon’s search serves as a catalyst for a series of revelations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that range from the unjust policies of the British Mandate to the poignancy of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

The book culminates in a meeting between the author and Odeh’s family in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. Harris-Gershon describes the encounter as a “reckoning” that drove home the realization that Palestinians are, as he writes, “not monsters.”

The product of a Conservative Jewish upbringing in America, Harris-Gershon expresses bemusement that it took an act of terror for him to reach this epiphany.

“Growing up, I just thought of Palestinians as another enemy of the Jewish people,” he said. “I thought of them as a caricature of evil. And that is sadly common among American Jews.”

But struggling to understand the motivations of a terrorist and speaking with Odeh’s family, Harris-Gershon said, “made me understand their history and experience, their intense suffering, in ways that I had never understood before.”

Harris-Gershon says that in the wake of the encounter, he feels “transformed” and plans to continue to act on his newfound political beliefs, writing about Middle East politics and America’s role in the region.

“It may take the form of a new book in the near future,” he said. “My writing on this issue is definitely going to continue.”

Dick Cheney, torture and teshuvah


According to press reports, Dick Cheney’s memoir, set to be released this week, is one long exercise is not regretting any decision he made while serving as Vice-President of the United States. This is a shame. The first step in teshuvah, repentance, is recognizing the wrongs that one has committed. Cheney, rather, articulates his continued support for interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, extremes of heat and cold, sleep deprivation, long-term isolation, sensory deprivation and stress positions. It’s clear he will continue to defend his authorization of such torture and has no remorse for the criminal acts of torture he authorized. Cheney could have helped in the effort to repair the harms caused by torturing prisoners by expressing some regret for his actions. He has not.

I have found that the greatest challenge for me in talking about torture, about why torture is, from the point of view Judaism and from the point of view of the larger faith community, completely forbidden, is getting beyond the initial gut level response of—but of course it’s forbidden, how can any sentient being think otherwise. However, as with many things, the obvious needs to be articulated for those, like the former Vice-President, for whom, as a result of force of habit or willing blindness and moral obtuseness, the obvious is not so obvious. So we begin at the beginning.

Genesis Chapter one verse 27.

And God created the human in his own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them.

The basic facts that the Torah wants us to know about the creation of the first human is that God created the human as male and female and that God created them in God’s image. This divine image, the tzelem elohim in Hebrew, is the guarantor of the human’s humanity. The biblical answer to the question: “what is it to be human?” is: to be created in the image of God.

To be created in the image of God brings with it the very notion of a life worth caring for, a life precious for its own sake. In chapter 9 of Genesis, the Torah records God saying:

He who sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

The reason that an accounting for the blood of a human will be demanded by God (from person or animal) is that humans are made in the image of God. The corollary of this is that denying a person their divine image, and even more so erasing that Divine image, is at the same time denying or destroying their very humanity.

Having been created in the image of God means many different things. For the midrash, it is the extraordinary synthesis and integration between body and mind or soul that is emblematic of the Divine image. For this reason the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23) says of one who was executed as a result of a death sentence:

you shall not let his corpse stay the night on a tree but you shall surely bury it on that day, for a hanged man is God’s curse.

The midrash explains that leaving the executed corpse hanging overnight is the same as if the bust of a king were being desecrated. It is the human being, body and soul which represents the Divine and cannot be desecrated, for in that desecration God is desecrated.

For the medieval rationalist philosophers like the great 13th century Sage Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, being created in the image of God means having an intellect and intellectual capacity. The ability to make rational choices and arrive at rational decisions, the ability to acquire knowledge and to know God, these are all aspects of the Divine image in a person.

When one human being tortures another, the point of the torture is to destroy the humanity, the Divine image of the person being tortured. Pain, in the torture situation, is not applied towards any specific end. The words that are used in torture interrogations, as Elaine Scarry has argued, are not the actual language of the torturer. The questions which seem to be requesting information are only the background to the language of pain in which the torturer refocuses the torture victim’s whole consciousness on their body and its pain. The torturer assumes the role of God in that room and the torture is deployed so as to undermine any sense of free will, any ability to formulate actual rational thoughts and choices. The distortion of a torture victim’s body and soul through torture is not a by product of the torture, it is its purpose. The lasting effects and long-term insidiousness of torture is that very loss of tzelem, humanity which is hard to regain.

This moment of the destruction of a person’s tzelem elohim is the reason that torture needs to be absolutely forbidden. Beyond the arguments that torture is not reliable (since torture victims will say anything to stop the pain) or whether or not there really might ever be an actual “ticking time bomb” situation, beyond all this is the prohibition against destroying a person’s tzelem elohim. This is what we affirm when we read the decalogue.

God introduces Godself by declaring: “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage.”

What is the content of this introduction? God took Israel out of slavery, out of the state of being a slave. What is that state? It is a state in which one’s tzlelem elohim is erased. When Moses came to the Israelites with the message that they were to be redeemed by the God of their ancestors, the Israelites “did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.” They were unable to comprehend because their bodies and souls had been distorted by the torturous slavery.

The corresponding prohibition to the opening saying (as we think of the two tablets in parallel) is: “Do not murder.” Slaves are those who can be tortured or killed with impunity since their essential humanity, which is their Divine image is not recognized.

We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity, that every person is made in the image of God and that it is absolutely forbidden for another person to demean and destroy that image of God.

As a first step towards a national teshuvah, we have a moral obligation to fully investigate the government’s past use of torture, not to brush it under the rug or excuse it in the name of national security. The United States must establish a Commission of Inquiry that fully investigates all aspects of the use of torture by the United States to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again.  We must refuse to allow Dick Cheney’s moral obtuseness define us as a nation.

Cheney: I wanted to bomb Syrian reactor in 2007


Dick Cheney urged former President George W. Bush to bomb Syria, according to the former Vice President’s new memoir.

According to the New York Times, which obtained an advance copy of the new book “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” Cheney advised Bush to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site in June 2008.

Cheney’s advice was dismissed in favor of a diplomatic approach favored by other advisers.

“I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor,” Mr. Cheney writes in the book, reported the Times. “But I was a lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room.”

The Israeli Air Force eventually bombed the site in September of that same year after failed White House diplomatic attempts to get Syrian’s to abandon the secret project.

Memoir’s Glimpse of Anne Frank Draws Skepticism


From NYTimes.com:

Frail, cold and surrounded by death, the Jewish teenager Anne Frank did her best to distract younger children from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by telling them fairy tales, a survivor of the camp says.

But her account is disputed by a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s.

In a book to be published in Dutch this month, Berthe Meijer, 71, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, offers a rare glimpse of Ms. Frank in the final weeks of her life, struggling to keep up her own spirits while trying to lift the morale of the smaller children at the camp.

Read the full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/world/europe/18dutch.html.

MICHAEL JACKSON: Memories of my Childhood


This column originally appeared in OLAM Magazine, a journal of Jewish spirituality.  Reprinted here with permission of the editor, David Suissa. To read David Suissa’s reflection on meeting Jackson, click here.

When I look back on my childhood, it is not an idyllic landscape of memories. My relationship with my father was strained, and my childhood was an emotionally difficult time for me. I began performing when I was five years old, and my father – a tough man – pushed my brothers and me hard, from the earliest age, to be the best performers we could be.

Although we all worked hard to perform, he never really complimented me. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he didn’t say anything at all. He seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. And at that he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius, and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way he pushed us. He trained me as a showman, and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step.

Those of you who are familiar with the Jackson Five know that since I began performing at that tender age I haven’t stopped dancing or singing. But while performing and making music undoubtedly remain among my greatest joys, when I was young I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy. I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights and play hide-n-seek with my friends. But fate had it otherwise, and all I could do was envy the laughter and playtime that seemed to be going on all around me.

There was no respite from my professional life. But on Sundays I would go “Pioneering”, the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. It was then that I was able to see the magic of other people’s childhood.

Since I was already a celebrity, I had to don a disguise of fat suit, wig, beard and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door-to-door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I loved to set foot in all those regular suburban houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs, kids playing Monopoly and grandmas babysitting and all those wonderful, ordinary and starry scenes of everyday life. Many, I know, would argue that these things are no big deal. But to me they were mesmerizing – because they symbolized, to me, a home life that I seemed to be missing.

My father was not openly affectionate with us, but he would show his love in different ways. I remember once when I was about four years old, we were at a little carnival and he picked me up and put me on a pony. It was a tiny gesture, probably something he forgot five minutes later. But because of that one moment, I have this special place in my heart for him. Because that’s how kids are, the little things mean so much to them and for me, that one moment meant everything. It was a gesture that showed his caring, and his love. I only experienced it that one time, but it made me feel really good, about him and the world.

And I have other memories too, of other gestures, however imperfect, that showed his love for us. When I was a kid, I had a real sweet tooth – we all did. I loved eating glazed doughnuts, and my father knew that. So every few weeks I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed doughnuts – no note, no explanation, just the doughnuts. It was like a fairy godmother had visited our kitchen. It was like Santa Claus. Sometimes, I would think about staying up late so I could see him leave them there, but as with Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic, for fear that he would never do it again.

I think now that my father had to leave the doughnuts secretly at night so that no one would catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion, he didn’t understand it, or know how to deal with it. But, he did know doughnuts.

And when I allow the floodgates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back, memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could.

With hindsight and maturity, I have come to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love. An imperfect love, sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. He pushed me because he wanted me to have more than he EVER had, and he wanted my life to be better than his EVER was.

It has taken me a long time to realize this, but now I feel the resentments of my childhood are finally being put to rest. My bitterness has been replaced by blessing, and in place of my anger, I have found absolution. And with this knowledge, that my father loved his children, I have found peace.

Stormin’ da castle: Tony Curtis in Hollywood


In “Cultural Amnesia,” Clive James’ eccentric encyclopedia of modern culture, the Australian critic devotes some of his most enthusiastic pages to Tony Curtis.

One might not think that Curtis, whose fame rests more on his beauty and outsized personality than on the quality of his movies, deserves to be ranked as one of the essential figures of the 20th century, alongside Thomas Mann and Margaret Thatcher.

But to James, who saw Curtis’ movies as a teenager in postwar Australia, the actor — with his frank sexiness, his adolescent intensity, his comic zest — seemed to incarnate the glamour of the American century.

The irony, of course, is that to Americans, Curtis looked like anything but an all-American boy. Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, with their WASP uprightness, were the kind of actors chosen by Hollywood’s Jewish filmmakers to be icons of American heroism. Curtis, on the other hand, was undisguisably ethnic. There may have been Jewish movie stars before Curtis, from Emmanuel Goldenberg (Edward G. Robinson) to Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas). But none of them sounded like Bernie Schwartz, who even after he changed his name was unmistakably a Jewish street kid from the East Side of Manhattan. It’s no coincidence that the one line of Curtis’ that everybody knows is “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” — a silly phrase given an ethnic mangling, it seems to encapsulate his whole career and persona.

In “American Prince” (Harmony, $25.95), his utterly synthetic, deeply unreliable yet fascinating new memoir, Curtis does not fail to defend himself against that infamous line. In the first place, Curtis, who will appear at American Jewish University on March 15, insists what he really said in “Son of Ali Baba” — the 1952 film he describes, with admirable directness, as a “another sand-and-tits movie” — was “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.” More important, his accent was not especially notable in the movie — no more so, at any rate, than in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Defiant Ones” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” to name some of his more enduring films.

The line didn’t become notorious, Curtis says, until Debbie Reynolds made fun of it on a talk show: “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In his new movie, he’s a got a hilarious line where he says, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fadda.'”

“You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent,” writes Curtis (as channeled by Peter Golenbock), “but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there.” And while immersed in “American Prince,” this roiling stew of Curtis’ grievances and boasts, the charge of anti-Semitism does seem plausible. Everybody changes their name in Hollywood — after all, Janet Leigh, Curtis’ first wife, was born Jeannette Morrison — so why should Bernie Schwartz’s fake name be especially noteworthy? And why should a Jewish accent be considered more inherently anachronistic than, say, the plummy English of Laurence Olivier, with whom Schwartz played a famously suggestive scene in “Spartacus”?

The answer, Curtis has no doubt, is that Hollywood in the 1950s was a closed caste that had no place for a Jew — at least for a Jew like him. Curtis, born in 1925, had grown up in one of those very poor, very troubled immigrant Jewish families whose miseries you can read about in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and Daniel Fuchs, or the memoirs of Alfred Kazin. His mother was frustrated, vindictive and unstable — later in life, Curtis writes, she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia — while his father, a tailor, struggled to stay afloat during the Depression. The family would sometimes have to squat in the tailor shop. On one traumatic occasion, when Curtis was 10 years old, his parents deposited him and his younger brother in an orphanage for two weeks.

As a young boy, Curtis writes, he was constantly bullied — by non-Jews for being a Jew and by other Jews for being poor. The worst blow came when Curtis was 13 years old, when his younger brother, Julie, was killed by a truck at First Avenue and 78th Street. His parents sent Curtis to the hospital, alone, to identify Julie’s body.

No wonder Curtis dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was just 16 years old, forging his mother’s signature on the parental consent form. And no wonder that, when he came back to New York at war’s end — never having seen combat — he immediately found another kind of escape in acting. His first professional job involved touring the Catskills in a “a play about anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America,” whose bathetic title — “This Too Shall Pass” — Philip Roth would have been proud to have come up with. Curtis also worked briefly in the Yiddish theater in Chicago, where he kept himself entertained in schlocky roles by ad-libbing lines like “I would rather be in the movies!”

Soon enough he was, thanks to a Universal talent scout named Bob Goldstein. And here begin the reader’s doubts about the anti-Semitism that, according to Curtis, froze him out of Hollywood’s A-List. Bob Goldstein discovered Curtis; Jack Warner befriended him on the plane to Los Angeles (one of the many moments where Curtis’ story conforms a little too perfectly to Hollywood archetype); Abner Biberman was his studio-assigned acting coach; Lew Wasserman and Swifty Lazar were the agents who made his career; Billy Wilder gave him his best part. All of these men, of course, were Jewish, as were the moguls who built the studio system in the first place, and many of the producers, directors and writers who still ran that system when Curtis was signed as a contract player in 1948.

Curtis never remarks on this obvious fact, which rather undermines his insistence that being a Jew “was a strike against you in Hollywood — as it was in most places.” Yet “American Prince” makes it possible to understand why Curtis could believe this. He was not looking at the whole ecosystem of Hollywood, he was only concerned about the intricate status hierarchy of Hollywood’s stars, and in that hierarchy, it is true, WASPs held the highest places. Curtis writes feelingly about ancient snubs from stars like Debbie Reynolds and Henry Fonda and Ray Milland: to him, a New York Jewish dropout, such people seemed like prom kings and queens.

Yet Curtis doesn’t fully appreciate how much his on-screen allure owed to his being Jewish. Like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who arrived in Hollywood at the same time he did, Curtis was a new kind of Hollywood leading man whose appeal flowed from his neurotic intensity and exotic, almost feminine beauty — a whole different type from the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants of the past. And it was Curtis’ Jewishness, including the wounds that resulted from it, that allowed him to fit this new image of American masculinity so perfectly.

To the teenaged Clive James, watching “Son of Ali Baba” in Sydney, even “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” sounded quintessentially American: “Nothing mattered except the enchanting way that the tormented phonemes seemed to give an extra zing to the American demotic.”

Tony Curtis will appear in conversation with radio talk show host Bill Moran at American Jewish University on Sunday, March 15. A book signing of “American Prince” will follow. $25. For more information, call (310) 440-1246.

Reprinted with permission from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series.

First Person: Rivky and Gabi were truly special people


Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family four days ago when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth.

While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.

Before I entered the Chabad house in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.

I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby Moishie in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad house and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.

Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot (songs) every Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackFriday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.

On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzberg’s helped. Gabi frequently brought Kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.

I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad house and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers, it was much greater. The Holtzberg’s were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim (emissaries) very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting (koshering) chickens himself. They also provided travelers with computers for internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim (righteous people).

On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors. We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.

The Holtzberg’s Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage in an otherwise unfamiliar city. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei torah (words of torah) to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25%), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas. Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.

I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.

Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was. If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles this Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did- with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.

Hillary A. Lewin is aPh.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at theFerkauf Graduate School of Psychology ofYeshiva University

ALTTEXT

The author (right) with Moshe and Rivka

Not your average ‘schlub’ — a memoir


“From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City” by Max Gross (Skyhorse Publishing, $12.95).

Max Gross, by his own admission, used to be your average schlub: He sported an unkempt Jewfro, the bottoms of his jeans were tattered and he’d gamely put a good burger before a diet. In Gross’s first book, “From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City”, he tells the tale of how some of this has changed: Now the burger and the diet are in a dead heat.

“The title is slightly misleading in that it’s about reveling in your schlubbiness, not purging it from you,” Gross said in a recent interview.

Indeed, the book is rife with advice on how to become a more functional schlub, rather than a former one. For instance, Gross advises his protégés, become a writer: “Dress code is flexible. As are working hours. And all the time you spend goofing off reading anything from Dostoevsky to Maxim magazine can legitimately be called research.”

Before Gross joined the staff of the New York Post, where he is currently a reporter, he authored a column called “The Hapless Jewish Writer” for The Forward in Manhattan, while fielding phone calls from subscribers. Max discusses here the nuances of schlubbism.

Marissa Brostoff: Is there a paradox inherent in being a schlub with a book contract?

Max Gross: Maybe. There was something in ‘The Hapless Jewish Writer’ where I was supposed to fail horribly, and I succeeded — it was either a horse race or a poker game — and [an editor] said to me, ‘We’re going to have to change the name of the column.’ But I don’t think that schlubs are necessarily failures in life. They’re a little disorganized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean living at home with their parents.

MB: Who are some schlubs who have made it big?

MG: I think you can find them all throughout history. My father thinks that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a big schlub. When you think about it, here was a guy who had this incredible empire — I mean, maybe it wasn’t as great as the British or French empires, but he had a country that was going good, and he screwed it up forever.

My father also thinks Marion Barry is a schlub, because he got caught on film smoking crack. I’m convinced that makes him more of a schlemiel.

Golda Meir [was] a schlub. She’s a successful schlub. And very unique in the sense that she’s a badass schlub. She might be the only schlub that has ever had codes to nuclear weapons.

MB: Is there a schlub-Jewish connection beyond the fact that ‘schlub’ is a Yiddish word?

MG: I think most schlubs are Jews, but there are plenty of non-Jewish schlubs, just like I think most schlubs are male but there are certainly female schlubs. In a way, Judaism really values certain schlub characteristics. We were people that for centuries just sat around the prayer house and read. We weren’t out, like, building…. And we all looked like the Satmars in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg.

MB: Maybe being a schlub has something to do with not being assimilated.

MG: Actually, I think that I’m probably more of a schlub than my ancestors. My parents are extremely unschlubby. My mother is a fashion editor and my father is just a cool guy. They have no idea where I came from.

MB: You write that in ‘a world of schlubby newspapers, the Forward is amongst the schlubbiest.’ What makes you say that?

MG: Well, [the Forward] cover[s] a lot of schlubs. I think that, to a large extent, everybody that the Forward covers is a little bit schlubby. They’re these organizations that are obsessed with one little thing that almost nobody else in the world is obsessed with.

MB: The cover of your book features an attractive, blond, un-schlubby-looking woman with her arms around you. Do you feel like you’re more oriented toward women who are themselves schlubby, or women like the girl on the cover?

MG: A lot of shiksa-type women I’m not as into. I like talking about Jews and Jewish topics, and it just doesn’t go over as well with non-Jewish people. Like if you want to talk about Israel all the time, and Saul Bellow, it’s hard to find a shiksa who looks like that to be your soul mate.

Article courtesy the Forward, where this originally appeared.

Memoir recalls educator’s hardships, success in Iran


When local Iranian Jews gathered to honor Elias Eshaghian, a pivotal educator and director of many Jewish schools throughout Iran during the last century, Temple Beth El in West Hollywood was filled to capacity.

Treating him like a rock star, the crowd mobbed 70-something Eshaghian, seeking an autograph or photo op during the May 20 launch party for his Persian-language memoir, “A Follower of Culture.”

The book is a chronicle of the history of Jewish education in Iran during the 20th century, an effort that was supported by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish nonprofit education and cultural organization.

“In Farsi we have a proverb from Saadi, the great poet, that says, ‘Attend to people’s needs and cure their pains, so that they will elevate you to their leadership,'” said Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist. “Mr. Eshaghian is a living testimony to the correctness of this ageless saying. His vision and his style of leading by example, if embodied within the present generation, will guarantee the continuation of a high quality social work among our future generations.”

Eshaghian’s inspiration to record his experiences of educating Jews in various cities in Iran came from his 20-year bout with lung cancer. He didn’t want the community to forget the important role AIU played in their family member’s lives.

“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” Eshaghian said. “They went from constantly being harassed by the Muslim majority in Iran to becoming among the most educated and respected in the country.”

Iranian Jewish professor Goel Cohen, a faculty member at Teheran University, who helped research and co-write Eshaghian’s memoirs, said the book was a milestone in the community’s history because no other scholar had previously researched the dramatic impact of education on Iran’s Jews during the last century.

“You can see from this book that just within three decades, Jews in Iran went from being among the poorest students to becoming among the highest level of specialists in medicine, engineering, social sciences, pharmacology and education,” Cohen said. “When we as Jews have the right to learn and opportunities in a free society, we definitely do our best to contribute to society.”

For centuries, Jews in Iran were prohibited from receiving any form of education and restricted by Iran’s monarchs to live in poverty-stricken ghettos because of their religious impurity, according to “A Comprehensive History of The Jews of Iran” by Dr. Habib Levy. It was not until the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) that Jews and other religious minorities in Iran were granted greater individual freedoms, permitted to leave their ghettos and attain higher levels of education.

The AIU was only able to establish its first school in Tehran in 1898 with the special permission of the country’s then-ruler, Nassir-al-Din Shah. During the early 20th century, subsequent AIU schools were established in Hamedan, Esfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Bijar, Borujerd, Yazd and Kashan.

Eshaghian said he had tremendous difficulty as an AIU school director in initially attracting Jewish students in the different Iranian cities, where young children typically worked in their family businesses.

“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the United States are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” he said.

Yazd’s Jewish community in the 1950s didn’t have a single doctor and most youth didn’t continue their education beyond the seventh or eighth grade.

“When I asked the Jews of Yazd why their children did not go to school after seventh or eighth grade, they told me that fervent anti-Semitism from the city’s Muslim majority made it difficult for their children to study and travel about. They believed the Jews were najes, or ritually unpure, and made it impossible for them to lead normal lives, let alone seek any serious high education,” Eshaghian recounts in “A Follower of Culture.”

Cohen and Eshaghian said they collaborated on the book to help future generations of Iranian Jewry in America understand their roots.

“I wrote this book only with the goal of educating future Iranian Jews about what circumstances we lived under in Iran, how we educated ourselves and pulled ourselves out of poverty,” Eshgahian said.

Cohen also said that despite the tedium of researching and interviewing, he was grateful to Eshaghian and Eshaghian’s family for their time, as well as their willingness to record an integral part of Iranian Jewish oral history before it was lost forever.

Eshaghian has been successfully waging a battle with lung cancer for the past 20 years. Where others might have long given up, the educator dedicated his time to community activism. Eshaghian said he has drawn tremendous strength to continue his battle with cancer by focusing on activities that directly benefit the local Iranian Jewish community.

“About eight years ago they elected me chairman of the [Iranian American Jewish Federation] and I told them I honestly could not with my health, but they told me it was a good idea because it would move my focus away from my illness,” Eshaghian said. “I must admit now they were right about it.”

Cohen said that there are plans to eventually translate Eshaghian’s memoirs to English.

“After 60 years of my life’s work in this community, I finally realized the fruits of my labors with the publication of my memoirs,” said Eshaghian, who began the project three years ago. “My goal with this book was for our young people to truly understand the tremendous obstacles we had to overcome as Jews trying to educate ourselves in each individual city in Iran.”

Read Karmel Melamed’s extended interview with Elias Eshaghian by visiting his blog, jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

For more information, visit followerofculture.com

AIU: http://www.aiu.org/ANGLAIS/index_ang.htm

Ex-JDL member urges faith without fanaticism


Brad Hirschfield was a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant organization bent on fighting anti-Semitism. He spent time with JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Israeli political party was banned for racism and who was assassinated in 1990. By the time Hirschfield was 18 and studying at yeshiva in Israel, he was entrenched with the Gush Emunim in Hebron — Israelis intent on establishing settlements in the midst of the Palestinian population. There, Hirschfield found the passion and Zionist commitment he’d craved during his childhood in Chicago, where he became Orthodox on his own, despite his Conservative Jewish family.

But after a few years, when some settlers killed Palestinian children in retaliation for violence, it all fell apart.

“I was stunned by their deaths,” he wrote more than two decades later in his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” (Harmony Books, Random House, 2007). “When I sought the advice of one of their settlement leaders, he said, ‘Yes, this is a problem, but it is not a fundamental problem.’ That was when I knew something horrible had happened.

Staying in Hebron was destroying the very things that brought us there: the desire to take back power and walk the land our ancestors had. These are good things. But even the best things have limits. A lesson that I learned in Hebron was that the best things can become the most seductive — and deadly.”

The book is not called “Confessions of a Former Fanatic,” although that is what one publisher wanted — a memoir about leaving the extremist life. But that notion did not appeal to Hirschfield, who is now a rabbi and president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book is not a confessional tell-all — his life as an extremist and the fallout from that is discussed in snippets, as asides. In fact, it was a different extreme event that made him decide to write the book: Sept. 11.

“After 9/11 I felt that I wanted to explain the religious impulse at its most extreme, to dig into the anatomy of fanaticism, really to probe the destructive tendencies that are part of all religions,” he wrote. “After years of simply avoiding any real examination of that part of my life, it was time to come clean and share my journey into and out of fierce faith precisely because, unlike most people who make that journey, it had left me still in love with what I left behind.”

Which is why Hirschfield’s not looking to fan the flames of extremism, hate and finger-pointing. He’s looking to bring the heat down a notch, with a prescription for how people on all sides of every argument can learn to hear each other out: “That is finally what I want this book to be: a guide to our common humanity and a source of strength and stamina and hope.”

“Look, there is a way to be passionate and proud of who you are and still embrace who others may be, even when it disagrees with who they are: that’s what this is about,” Hirschfield said in an interview from The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, where he was about to give a lecture on the subject to different agency workers.

Federation members are also guilty of the them-and-us syndrome, he said, regarding people as insiders and outsiders.

“We spend money on studying ‘Are they coming in’ and not, ‘What do they need?'” Outsiders, he said, “don’t understand that without the institutions there is no community.”

But his book is not about addressing problems in institutional Jewish life — or Jewish life specifically. Belief.net has listed the book on its Christian site, and Hirschfield gives talks to Christian groups as well. It’s not even just about religion.

“This is about liberals and Conservatives and Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that tt’s about relationships of all sorts, from marital relations to global politics.

“The real issue is not to get everyone to agree, but how do you treat people with whom you don’t agree?” he said. “That is the test of a great society. You’re not Jewish because Christians are stupid, you don’t go to your shul because God doesn’t hear everyone else’s prayers. It’s a terrible way to think. That is simply cover for not being happy where you are,” he said. “Whatever person or ideology one really opposes — I understand that they’re not all equal — but even if you give me the worst one, there’s no way to teach someone what you most believe if you don’t learn from what they most believe.”

But aren’t the very people who need to ascribe to this approach the very fanatics who are probably not going to?

No such thing, Hirschfield says; everyone can learn tolerance and respect. “People pick their lines,” he said. “Traditionalists wrap it up in God’s will but liberals wrap it up in decency.”

For example, while Reform and Conservative Jews accept gay marriage, “Try and be a person who is opposed to gay ordination — that’s not so easy,” he said. Or on the subject of God, “the assertion that God is nonexistent is about as absurd as someone who says, ‘Of course God exists, and I can say what he wants.'”

Hirschfield is trying to do for religion what mediation has done for conflict resolution: instead of pitting the sides against each other with lawyers in a court of law, draining the resources of both sides until someone “wins” (where both parties really may lose), mediators find common ground between two sides and get them to come to agreement.

Easier said than done. How would one go about doing this?

TV: From Bensonhurst to Vermont, via Hollywood


Gary David Goldberg did not set out to be a screenwriter. He was already 30 when a teacher at San Diego State University guided him toward the profession. That fateful nudge set Goldberg on his path to becoming a successful writer/producer and director of a string of films and television shows that include “Spin City,” “Brooklyn Bridge” and the phenomenally popular sitcom, “Family Ties.” Now, more than 35 years after selling his first script, Goldberg has written a memoir, “Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.” The book covers Goldberg’s life from a sports-obsessed Jewish kid in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, through his heady days in Hollywood, to his current life as a small-town citizen in rural Vermont.

But Goldberg did not set out to be a book writer, either. “I really didn’t choose to write it consciously,” the author admitted during a telephone interview. “I try to write a little bit every day, and I just started jotting down things that really came in images and pictures and different moments, really just a lot of random notes from a disorganized mind.” After some encouraging words from his friends and agent, Goldberg decided to expand his writing and look back on his life to see if he could answer the question, “How did all of this happen?”

Mother pens memoir on life with heroin addict son


Rita Lowenthal raised her family in a nice Jewish home, lived in a nice Jewish neighborhood and belonged to a nice Jewish temple. So how did her son become a heroin addict at age 13?

The need for an answer to that question, as well as a desire for closure, is what inspired Lowenthal to pen “One-Way Ticket: Our Son’s Addiction to Heroin” (Beaufort Books, $14), a memoir that compiles her experiences and correspondence with her son and his journal entries while in and out of San Quentin State Prison.

Despite years of treatment, Josh Lowenthal never broke the heroin addiction that eventually took his life in 1995.

“It looked like our family had all the blessings, so I wanted to figure out what happened,” Lowenthal said.

At a time when celebrity drug use and failed rehab attempts are all too prevalent — and even joked about — “One-Way Ticket” illustrates the cruel reality of drug addiction. “It is a disease, and it needs to be treated that way,” said Lowenthal, who wants to make the idea of knowing or loving an addict less shameful.

She first noticed a shift in her son’s behavior when he was 13, when the family lived in Pittsburgh. Along with her first husband, David, and their older son, Mark, Lowenthal quickly dismissed the change as teenage arrogance that would be addressed after the bar mitzvah.

“In 1969, Josh was 12, crazed with excitement about The Beatles, long hair, guitars, jazz and psychedelic paints that transformed his cute little boy’s bedroom with the cowboy bedspreads into a teenage den,” Lowenthal said. “He was beginning to bring home different, somewhat older friends, and he quit saying ‘goodbye’ in favor of ‘one mind.'”

Heroin was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Josh always appreciated a thrill and was always looking for the next excitement,” she said. “He was fun to be around. We never thought it would come to this.”

After the family became aware of the problem, Josh would spend the rest of his life in and out of recovery and rehabilitation centers.

Because he started using at such an early age, Lowenthal believes Josh’s body and mind never had the chance to fully develop independently of heroin, thus making the path to sobriety increasingly difficult with age.

Josh never liked many of the facilities, Lowenthal said. He went AWOL from several institutions, many of which preached “tough love,” an idea that had little effect on Josh and a concept extremely difficult for Lowenthal to embrace.

In a journal entry from 1985, Josh wrote about a particularly frustrating rehab experience: “This rehab is no good. Better off in jail if I want to be clean. I don’t know if I could stand to brown nose my way through this for months … more concerned with table manners than wrenching guts…. One thing is for certain, if I could be successful in this program I wouldn’t need it.”

Looking for a fresh start, Lowenthal and Josh moved to Los Angeles after her marriage ended. She found work as a professor in social work at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), while Josh struggled to find a college that would accept him. But no matter where they moved, “he was never far from drugs,” Lowenthal said.

Of all the treatment facilities, both Josh and Lowenthal acknowledged that Beit T’Shuvah was by far the most effective and encouraging.

“They know relapses will happen; they only hope the addicts will return to the program when they do,” Lowenthal said.

After frequent relapses and periods in and out San Quentin for petty theft, Lowenthal explains that Josh was finally realizing the futility of his addiction. While he craved a normal life, Josh was scared by a world without drugs — a sentiment expressed by many addicts close to full recovery.

In an unsent letter to his brother, Mark, written just a year before his death, Josh shows a disturbed, yet more self-aware, side while serving time at San Quentin:

“Realistically, I expect that in approximately two-and-a-half more years on parole, the state will probably squeeze another year out of me. Six months out, six months in, seems nearly unavoidable…. I imagine with hindsight that, more or less, we all reflect on — with misgivings — precious time squandered as so much spare change.”

Lowenthal said she sensed that Josh was extremely close to ending the nightmare of his addiction. In a video interview with Beit T’Shuvah, recorded one week before his death, Josh admits, “Like I said, I’ve been a junkie for 25 years. I’m 38, and I’m tired, and it’s over. These are my friends…. This is the end of the story — at least for the moment.”

She believes Josh committed suicide when he overdosed on heroin, although no note was found.

Lowenthal is now retired from HUC-JIR, as well as from the USC School of Social Work, where she was a charter member of the Betty Friedan Feminist Think Tank. She worked on the 2000 ballot initiative, Proposition 36, which changed California’s law to permit substance abuse treatment, as opposed to a jail sentence, for first- and second-time offenders guilty of nonviolent, simple drug possession.

She currently serves on the board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance as chair of the Drug Policy Committee of the Criminal Justice Task Force, in addition to being a member of the Community Action Committee of the Progressive Christians Uniting.

While Lowenthal has learned to turn her depression into political action, she said she’s still haunted by her tragic loss of Josh. For many years while Josh was using, her only comfort was a statement made by her son, which she said had become like a mantra for her: “There is nothing you can do, Mom; you can’t compete with heroin.”

Artist-Writer Maira Kalman creates illustrated memoir


When asked why she became a painter and writer, Maira Kalman, author of “The Principles of Uncertainty,” an illustrated memoir, says, “I can’t do anything else. I clean very well. I’d like to be a maid for the Duchess of Devonshire.”

That Kalman, who will be appearing Oct. 30 at Los Angeles’ downtown Central Library for one of its ALOUD events, would seek, even somewhat jokingly, a job outside the United States is no surprise. She has lived in Rome, was born in Israel to Russian-born parents and now lives in New York. She is also a Francophile, and the bold use of color in her exquisite paintings shows a clear connection to the work of Matisse and Cezanne.

As much as she is celebrated as a painter and illustrator — her work has adorned the cover of The New Yorker and has been exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan — Kalman says, “I guess I consider myself a writer.”

“Principles” is not her first book. She has previously written and illustrated a dozen children’s books and, as befitting her New Yorker pedigree, she illustrated a new version of Strunk & White’s classic, “The Elements of Style,” a text whose introduction was first published by The New Yorker.

A series of ruminations on life and death, as well as desserts, hats and walking, “Principles” conspicuously invokes Proust in its stream-of-consciousness style. But Proust is not the only literary figure who turns up in Kalman’s text. She also writes about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka; visits a friend named Molly Bloom; calls her daughter Milton, and draws a painting of an androgynous Nabokov, wearing what appears to be lipstick and women’s shoes, while reading a book on the science of butterflies and moths.

In fact, Kalman only writes about one painter: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who painted as a hobby, but of course is better remembered as a wartime statesman, orator and writer, and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are occasions when Kalman suspends her penmanship, idiosyncratic in its inconsistent use of capital letters within words, a bit harsher than the soft lines that often characterize women’s handwriting and types captions for illustrations.

She explains that she typed the chapter on February because “I didn’t want the handwriting to be lyrical, since February is such an impossible month…. It’s cold and gray and sad and rainy.”

She also sometimes includes blurry photographs of people walking, instead of her gouache-on-paper paintings. “I take hundreds of photos a week,” said this cross-disciplinary artist, who also has designed fabrics, clocks and umbrellas and is now working on an opera of her book with composer Nico Muhly.

A strain of melancholy runs through “Principles” — in the tales of the death of her husband and aunt, the Holocaust and Israel’s recent war against Hezbollah. But Kalman, who was in Israel last year during the war, seems to be heartened by the rudeness of an Israeli, who in the midst of the conflict flicks the remains of rotting cherries off his car onto her shirt. And she notes that the ice cream man is still selling his wares on the beach, and the secondhand bookstore and flea market in Tel Aviv are still filled with customers.

The final illustration of a river rippling down a falls into a pool leaves us with an image of tranquility and vibrancy. On the flip side of the page is a message from a World War II poster that still resonates today, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Maira Kalman will appear in conversation with Louise Steinman on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m. For information call (213) 228-7025.

An Orthodox ‘cast-off’ holds God accountable


“Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir” by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, $24.95).

Dressed in black, Shalom Auslander wears three tiny silver blocks on a chain that falls close to his neck, with Hebrew letters spelling out the word “Acher,” or other. This was a gift from his wife when he completed his memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament.” Acher was the name given to Elisha ben Abuya, a learned second-century rabbi, after he adopted heretical opinions. Auslander says he smiles whenever he looks in the mirror and sees the chain.

Both humor and anger run deep in this memoir, two excerpts of which have appeared in The New Yorker. The author of the story collection, “Beware of God,” Auslander, 37, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox world of upstate Monsey, N.Y., from which he is now estranged.

“I’m completely religious,” he said, in an interview in New York City.

While he no longer observes the laws of Judaism, he’s rarely without the fear of God, or negotiating with God, on his mind: “If I could get rid of it, I’d be thrilled. I would love to have that atheistic sensibility that’s flying around now, to get some rest.”

The memoir is framed as the story of Auslander’s son, from learning of the pregnancy to deciding whether to circumcise him to the child’s first birthday. Auslander first describes the terror of God that he grew up with, and then skips ahead to his wife’s doctor’s visits and his unrelenting fear that his wife will miscarry, or will die during childbirth, or that they’ll all die on the way back from the hospital.

“That would be so God,” he writes.

He talks about God without a trace of reverence. His God is a personal God: vengeful, brutal and tormenting. While Auslander believes in God, he’s not entirely comfortable with the word ‘believer,’ which suggests that God is an answer.

“I’d like to hold God accountable,” he said. “I’m all for a bit of revolution. As a parent you start to realize that you’re trying to create a person who moves away from you to become himself. Maybe that’s what God is waiting for, for us to reach adolescence, to say it can’t be right, to come to a new understanding. The way it is now reeks of ancient stupidity.”

For an article about him in The New York Times, Auslander took a reporter on a driving tour through Monsey, and he said that he didn’t realize they had made plans for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. But he was aware that it was Sukkot on the day we met. His wife, Orli, the more traditional of the pair, likes to hang branches with birds and leaves in front of their Woodstock home, and their 3-year old son Paix (rhymes with Max, and means peace, as his own first name does, but “without the God part”) calls it “thukkah.”

“Woodstock is a town of foreskins,” he said, using his term for people like himself who are cut off and cast out. “The place is filled with people who come from elsewhere, looking for something new. I found it in the solitude.”

There’s a Reconstructionist synagogue in town, but Auslander stays away. When he once attended services, he recognized that some people found comfort in the guitar-playing rabbi’s presence. But he couldn’t get the voices of his rebbes out of his head, dismissing the place as watered-down Judaism, or worse.

In the narrative, his own account of growing up is the back story to his son’s. He described attending the Yeshiva of Spring Valley with its competitive blessing bees. When the father of a classmate died, the teacher advised the students to pray to God for forgiveness so that He wouldn’t decide to kill their fathers, too.

Auslander then thought he could make everything in his unhappy home better: by pleasing his mother by winning the blessing bee and sinning so much that “Hashem would have to kill my father.”

His father was an alcoholic, violent with his two sons. His mother was a sad character, trying to keep up appearances of a normal home life. Incessantly reading decorating magazines, she harbored the hope that if she rearranged their furniture well, they would have a peaceful home.

The reader learns that Auslander’s mother is the sister of Rabbis Maurice and Norman Lamm, one a best-selling author and the other the chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University. While growing up, she had wanted to be a doctor, but her father used the money saved for her tuition to pay for her brother’s rabbinical education. Soon after she married, her husband’s father died, leaving his fortune, thought to be millions, entirely to charity. Early in their marriage, Shalom’s parents lost a baby son.

As a young boy, Auslander began sneaking out of the house on Shabbat afternoon; a first transgression was to ride his bike to a local store, but then he couldn’t get himself to step on the electronic pad to open the door, which would have been another transgression. But soon after, he was taking taxis to the mall, shoplifting small items and sneaking non-kosher foods. By the time he was in high school, the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, he was shoplifting the kinds of expensive clothing his classmates wore, smoking dope and skipping classes to go to museums, bookstores and porn shops.

When he was caught with more than $500 of stolen clothing and some marijuana in his pocket at Macy’s, he was sentenced to community service and a heavy fine. He worked at a local hospital, doing filing on Sundays, until he learned that he could also fulfill his service at a religious institution. He then went off to study at a yeshiva in Israel, pasting a poster of a bikini-clad Cindy Crawford above his bed.

Most of the rebbes there had stories of their own — they had been on drugs or in street gangs and then found God. While their tales were meant to be inspiring, for Auslander they were cautionary. He mostly skipped class and prayer services, and occasionally showed up stoned. But even he experienced the phenomenon of return. After accepting invitations to a rebbe’s home, he felt loved and accepted — as he had never felt before — as long as he agreed to live as they did. He returned to New York still wearing his black hat, and while studying in a Queens yeshiva, worked nights as a shomer, watcher, in a funeral home. Not the most traditional of watchers, he’d get high and fall asleep on the gurney.

Actor-writer pens memoir of life marred by murder


“Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir,” by Dinah Lenney (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95)

For the past 10 years, Dinah Lenney, author of the memoir, “Bigger Than Life,” has lived with the memory of the murder of her father, a prominent New Jersey businessman and onetime senatorial candidate who was knifed to death by three teens in Manhattan.

Lenney says that she is a “spiritually challenged” person. Still, as she wrote, she once contemplated the possibility that a wounded white pigeon that had adopted her backyard as its home might be her father. When reminded of this during a visit to her Los Angeles home, the author smiles and jokes that Sully, her barking dog, might be her father. If so, he is a cheerful, rambunctious spirit.

That is not so far from the man Lenney describes in her book. Although her father could be a scoundrel — he served six months in federal prison for campaign fraud and always made her know how important his golf game was, even when he visited Lenney and her children — he nonetheless was, she said, “incredibly charismatic.”

A tall, burly real estate tycoon, Nelson Gross had always been able to control anyone and anything. He delivered Bergen County in northern New Jersey for Nixon in 1968, served as assistant secretary of state in the Nixon administration, and even conferred in the Oval Office with the president and John Ehrlichman.

To his young daughter, Gross seemed all the more omnipotent and exotic because he was rarely around. He and Lenney’s mother divorced when Lenney was a toddler, and growing up with her mother and stepfather she was “brainwashed,” as she put it, to think of her father as a “bad guy.”

Inside Lenney’s Echo Park living room, books are piled everywhere — stacked on the floor, tiered up on a shelf and placed inside a glass bookcase. There’s also a photo of her father inside that bookcase, a dark-haired, handsome man standing by a squash court at what looks to be a private club. Even at the time of the photo, when Gross was probably in his 60s, he looks daunting and muscular, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, with biceps palpable under his sleeve and a strong torso.

It still boggles Lenney that three “punks,” not one of them taller than 5-foot-8, could have overcome such a powerful figure.

One of the ironies of Lenney’s life, as she reveals in the book, is that she was more fearful of facing her own family than the killers when she appeared in the courtroom at their sentencing. The book indeed deals more with this toxic brew of upper-class Jews than it does with the three Latino felons.

Lenney, who is tall and dark-haired like her father, is a longtime TV actor who teaches acting at UCLA. She also has a background as a writer, having received an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. Last year she published her first book, titled, “Acting for Young Actors: The Ultimate Teen Guide.”

“Bigger Than Life” gives her more of an opportunity to display her literary chops.

Consider her description of the cast of characters in her family to whom her husband, then boyfriend, Fred, was introduced one Christmas: “Iris … a renowned archaeologist who wore the family kilts with a crested dagger in her sock … Audrey, Noel’s mother, whose hair shone shoe-polish black and whose skin stretched like an old flesh-colored bathing cap across her narrow skull. She was in her nineties with toothpick arms, and she trembled when she spoke, beautifully, with a mid-Atlantic lilt. Her escort … was a man in his sixties, slim, coiffed, and affable, like something out of a Noel Coward play.”

Lenney said she had several premonitory nightmares about her father in the days when he was missing, nearly all of them involving death. In the book, she dramatizes her “conjecture” about the final moments of her father’s life, the dialogue and action that may have transpired between him and the three punks, one of whom is named Christian.

In the dramatization, she depicts her father as a mensch even in the face of his impending death, as he defends his son, Neil, whom she speculates may have been involved in drugs.

“Listen,” he says, “you leave Neil alone. You don’t deal with my son. Ever. Just deal with me. I’ll take care of you.”

Unfortunately, punks of the 1990s and 2000s, nihilistic Generation Y-ers, are not like the punks of Gross’ youth in the 1940s and 1950s, who might have cut your face with a knife and left you with a mark but probably would not have killed you.

Though not religious, Lenney says that she respects most of all what one rabbi told her, that what happened to her father was “simply evil” and that there is no such thing as an afterlife. She said, however, that “I carry my father in my genes — he’s bound to turn up here and there, in this one’s smile, that one’s reticence, this one’s athletic ability, that one’s lack of sentiment….”

At the end of her memoir, Lenney writes about how in a summer stock production of “Peter Pan” the director came up with the idea of having “a shadow, a stagehand dressed in black,” help each performer simulate flying through the air. Then she writes about how her own shadow appears more confident now when she goes for a walk in Elysian Park, near her home.

It leaves open the possibility that that shadow may be a spirit of a sort, like the wounded pigeon that healed and flew away, and the dolphin who leaped by a boulder out at sea after Lenney tossed her father’s ashes into the Pacific, and Sully the dog who is no longer barking.

Like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Nelson Gross may finally be at rest.

Books: Nusseibeh ‘Once Upon a Country’ memoir ends in disillusionment


“Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life” by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $27.50).

Sari Nusseibeh’s political memoir is a monumental achievement both in breadth and boldness. There is little like it on the Palestinian side, certainly nothing from Columbia University Palestinian academic Edward Said, now deceased, who found only the holes in Zionism but never the heart. Nusseibeh reminds me most of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s spokesman and novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, who before a Mossad car bomb obliterated him in Beirut in 1972 wrote seminally honest short stories and novels, such as the symbolic “Men in the Sun,” whose Palestinian protagonists die in a water carrier in route from The West Bank to Basra, lacking help from their Arab brothers.

Nusseibeh never obfuscates, grandstands or justifies Palestinian excess. In a way no Palestinian has ever risked in print, he castigates the corruption of Yasser Arafat’s leadership in the territories:

“Politically, the center shifted suddenly from the intifada activists on the ‘inside’ to returning PLO functionaries, and geographically from East Jerusalem to Gaza and the West Bank, where the ‘outsiders’ now lived. Needless to say, the bulk of the ministers were ‘outsiders,’ whereas their undersecretaries were, by and large competent local people, many of whom had worked in the technical committees and hence had two years of preparatory work behind them…. Unfortunately, they faced the reality of working with the returning apparatchiks. The new ministers, dazzled by the trappings of power — the cars, the adulation — had little inclination to study reports or listen to local underlings. Ignoring the multiple volumes already on their desks, our potentates preferred commissioning new reports, which is after all what ministers do. One favorite pastime of many ministers was to gather around Arafat’s desk in Gaza, watching him conduct business and wanting to get their instructions directly from the Old Man. Some ministers, who behaved like demigods to the people under them, journeyed to Arafat’s desk in Gaza, to get his permission to hire an office secretary.”

Nusseibeh details the financial fraud of the ring around Arafat with painful precision — automobiles bought abroad with public funds then sold to the local populace the profit pocketed, collusion with unscrupulous local Jews in smuggling in gasoline. He argues persuasively that Arafat gained no personal financial benefit and was not squirreling away millions as has been charged. However Arafat read every report, knew everything and turned a blind eye to the corruption. Nusseibeh characterizes Arafat as someone “playing the trapeze act, carefully balancing himself between moderates and militants, unwilling and perhaps unable to come down firmly on either side.” Like many of us, his greatest strength was simultaneous his destructive weakness.

Painful for a Zionist like myself to read are the depictions of life in the West Bank and Gaza, something I frequently witnessed myself prior to the first intifada: roadblocks with yellow license plated settlers cars waved through while blue-plated Palestinians cars were stopped in a seemingly endless line at checkpoints; the squalor of the Dehasisha Camp near Bethlehem, where children were chased by soldiers for hurling a Palestinian flag in the electrical wires; the endless dusty dirt roads through the Gaza refugee camps in sight of the high chain-link fences of the settlements with sprinklers rotating over lush green grass. Failure to find sympathy for the Palestinians’ human suffering is as impenetrable a roadblock to peace as any.

The scion of an aristocratic Jerusalem family, Nusseibeh traces his roots back 1,300 years to one of the tribal leaders who joined Mohammad on his seventh century pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A family member still shares jurisdiction over the entrance key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and twists the lock on those doors open each morning.

The idea for this memoir sprang from his reading Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” as Nusseibeh discovered that they had grown up 100 yards apart in Jerusalem separated by the uncrossable “no man’s land” that partitioned the city from 1948 to 1967.

Oxford educated, a philosopher by training, happiest teaching and in metaphysical reverie, Nusseibeh is repeatedly forced into the political fray by its concrete existence around him. A good man in a turbulent sea, he is relentlessly tossed around, beaten by radical Palestinians for his moderate stance and jailed by the Israelis in Ramle Prison, charged with being an Iraqi spy who guided undirectable Scud missile launchings while in reality he hid under his kitchen table with his wife and children as the errant rockets regularly fell short and landed in Arab territory. To the Israeli right wing he was far more dangerous than an Iraqi spy; he is a thoughtful, passionate and fair-minded moderate.

Probably the most tragic segments of the book detail the Camp David accords and how the dual egotism of Ehud Barak and Arafat prevented an accord “by a whisker.” Nusseibeh’s political trajectory moved from support of a binational state to a two-state solution to a sadly disillusioned stance. He no longer finds the erection of a Palestinian state preeminent and now focuses on the achievement of freedom and human dignity. The politician has returned to philosophy but I suspect only the politicians can ultimately bring the freedom and human dignity he and his people seek.

Howard Kaplan is the author of three novels on the Middle East.

Books to remember this summer by


Our summers have markers, memories that trigger a specific time: The summer of the walk on the moon, Hurricane Bob or the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles; personal events like a high school prom, a kitchen renovation or a houseguest who long overstays.

“It was that summer,” begins the first story in Lesley Dormen’s engaging novel of linked stories, “The Best Place to Be” (Simon & Schuster), “the summer we were 50 and the little Cuban boy went home to no mother, not the first West Nile virus summer but the second, the Hillary and ‘Survivor’ summer, you know that summer.”

Grace Hanford, the narrator of the stories, is a New York woman who’s “50 and holding” and thinks and talks a lot about relationships, aging, dining, finding a place in the world. This first book from the 60-year-old author is written in an appealing conversational style that makes for great summer reading, with prose that’s smart and sophisticated and humor that’s subtle and memorable.

Books are also summer markers. There’s the summer of discovering Philip Roth, or rereading Chekhov or Mark Twain. This summer, much-awaited novels from Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Nathan Englander (“The Ministry of Special Cases”) are available, as are other absorbing new works of fiction and nonfiction, memoirs, historical fiction and mysteries.

“People only find out what you what them to find out,” Roberta, the woman at the center of Patricia Volk’s charming and funny new novel, “To My Dearest Friends” (Knopf), was known to say. When she dies of cancer, a deep secret is revealed to two of her closest friends, who are brought together only by her death. These are women in their 50s, who have, as they know, the gift of perspective. Volk, author of a very funny memoir about her restaurant family, “Stuffed,” writes knowingly about women and friendship, in all its mystery, with a wink and a big heart.

A first novel, “Petropolis” by Anya Ulinich (Viking) is an outstanding coming-of-age story, beginning in a mining town in post-glasnost Russia and moving from suburban Arizona to Brooklyn. Sasha Goldberg is a young, awkward, overweight Jewish girl with a demanding mother who’s a Russian beauty and a father who left them behind when he made his way to America. Sasha, too, makes her way to America, as a mail-order bride, and then abandons her fiancé and searches across America for her father. Sasha’s adventures, including a stint as maid for an Orthodox family, are very funny, providing an outsider’s keen perspective on America. The author, who was 17 when her family immigrated to the United States, received an master’s of fine arts in painting from UC Davis.

Another debut, Lauren Fox’s “Still Life With Husband” (Knopf), is a bittersweet story of marriage, friendship and loyalty. Meg is married to her college sweetheart; at 30 she’s not so sure she wants to have children but he keeps letting her know that he’s ready. The kind of person who has always played by the rules for all of her life, Meg decides she’s going to break some.

Joyce Carol Oates’s latest book, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” (Ecco), is set in the years following World War II, in the part of upstate New York where the award-winning author grew up. In her 36th novel — dedicated to her grandmother, “the gravedigger’s daughter” — Oates tells of an immigrant Jewish family who escapes Nazi Germany; their daughter, Rebecca, is born on the boat in New York harbor. The father, who was a high school teacher in Munich, finds work as a gravedigger, and the family lives in squalor. This is the story of Rebecca and her journey in America through violent times and personal reinvention.

“Charity Girl” (Houghton Mifflin), by Michael Lowenthal, is a novel based on a little-known and disgraceful episode in American history: During World War I, 15,000 American women suspected of having venereal disease were imprisoned. While some were prostitutes, others were charity girls, young working-class women who dated soldiers and sailors, trading companionship for a night out.

Lowenthal creates an unforgettable character in Frieda Mintz, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish immigrants who runs away after her religious, widowed mother tries to marry her off to an older man. While working as a wrapper in a Boston department store, Frieda meets a soldier from a wealthy Boston family. Once he is found to have venereal disease, she is sent to a detention home in a former brothel, where she suffers but also finds real friendship while still pining for her soldier. Lowenthal, who teaches writing at Boston College and is the author of two previous novels, beautifully evokes an earlier era. Raising provocative questions about freedom, the novel is powerful and timely.

Set in medieval England, “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin (Putnam) is an intriguing historical novel and forensic mystery. When four children are murdered in Cambridge, Catholic townspeople blame their Jewish neighbors, who are then placed under the protection of King Henry. The king asks his cousin, the King of Sicily, to send the best expert to help them, and he sends an unlikely but highly trained and brilliant Italian doctor — a “mistress of the art of death” named Adelia — accompanied by a Jew and Muslim. The first murder mentioned is based on actual events surrounding the 1144 death of William of Norwich, which prompted the accusation of ritual murder. Ariana Franklin is the pseudonym of British writer Diana Norman, a former journalist who has written biographies and historical novels. This book is the first in a series featuring Adelia.

L.A. resident Mindy Schneider transports readers back to the summer camps of their youth in a hilarious memoir, “Not a Happy Camper” (Grove Press). Conned into attending Camp Kin-A-Hurra in the backwoods of Maine by the owner, who promised a sunny, activity-filled paradise, Mindy instead finds a rainy spot where the bathrooms usually don’t work and the schedule is “do anything you want any time you want, unless you just want to do nothing.” But she doesn’t mind: Her goal is to find a boyfriend and to be kissed before the last night of camp. Her bunkmates in 1974 are a mix of the bookish, boy-crazy, guitar-playing and quirky, including one who calls herself Autumn Evening Schwartz. Rich in atmosphere, the book might be read after curfew, by flashlight.


Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Kirk Douglas packs 90 years of living into latest book


For decades as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Kirk Douglas paid little attention to his religion — with one exception.

“I always fasted on Yom Kippur,” he recalls. “I still worked on the movie sets, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

Besides bearing up under this ordeal, the nonagenarian has survived 87 movies, countless one-night stands with filmdom’s most beautiful women, a helicopter crash, a stroke and two bar mitzvahs.

He’s not done yet, not by a long shot. Just out is his ninth book, “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning.” It is a mix of reminiscences, anecdotes, tributes to Hollywood luminaries now faded or gone, a critique of America’s present leadership and somber thoughts on the drug-induced suicide of Eric, the youngest of his four sons.

As in his previous works — three memoirs, three novels and two children’s books on biblical and Holocaust themes — Douglas writes with the artlessness of a man talking about the incidents and reflections of an interesting life, whose casual conversation has been surreptitiously taped and transcribed.

When I mention this appraisal to Douglas, he seems pleased. “I am glad to hear you say that, because I don’t want to be like a writer. I want to write impulsively,” he comments.

It is almost impossible to recall the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s without remembering a Douglas movie. In the ’50s alone, he starred in 23 films, receiving Oscar nominations for “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life” (as Vincent van Gogh). These were bracketed by his 1949 breakthrough role as a cynical boxer in “Champion” (his first Oscar nomination) and perhaps his best-known movie, “Spartacus,” in 1960.

Douglas produced and played the title role as the leader of a slave revolt against ancient Rome in “Spartacus.” He himself received no Academy Award honors but earned even higher distinction for moral courage by breaking the McCarthy-era blacklist of artists suspected of communist leanings — in this case, openly employing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Now Douglas, pronouncing each word slowly, carefully and with a slight slur after his stroke forced him to re-learn the language (“For a guy who can’t talk, I sure talk a lot,” he jokes), has reached a new stage in his life.

Once known as one of Hollywood’s most self-centered denizens, in a town notorious for supersized egos, Douglas is now looking beyond himself. He is exhorting the Internet generation to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world) through social action and respect for human rights.

Douglas knows where to reach his target audience — not in the movie theaters but on MySpace and YouTube. There he urges the young viewers “to rebel, to speak up, vote and care about people…. You are the group facing many problems: abject poverty, global warming, AIDS and suicide bombers … we have done very little to solve these problems. Now we leave it to you. You have to fix it, because the situation is intolerable.”

Douglas’ own childhood might well seem intolerable to most young people in Britain or America today. The Nordic-looking hero, who vanquished hordes of Vikings and Romans on the screen, began life as Issur Danielovitch in the small town of Amsterdam in upstate New York.

His parents were poor, illiterate immigrants from Russia, and his father made a precarious living as a peddler. In his first memoir, “The Ragman’s Son,” Kirk recalls, with undiminished pain, growing up with a loveless father who was unresponsive to his son and six daughters.

To compensate, he makes it a point to show emotion and affection toward his own children and grandchildren. “When we meet,” he says, “we embrace and kiss each other on the mouth, Russian style.”

Douglas has always been aware of his Jewishness. When he was 12, the Sons of Israel congregation in his hometown offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Young Kirk declined, informing his would-be benefactors that he would become an actor.

But for most of his life, he has been an indifferent Jew, at best. At one point in college, though a popular student body president and champion wrestler, he tried to pass himself off as a half-Jew.

He dates his return to Jewish observance and full identification to a collision between his helicopter and a light stunt plane, in which two young men died while he survived. The crash in 1991 compressed his spine by three inches, and while lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pains, he started pondering the meaning of his survival and his life.

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” Douglas reflects.

In his mid-70s, Douglas embarked on an intensive regime of Torah studies with two young Orthodox rabbis and found an immediate relevance to his profession.

“The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written,” he observes. “It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything.”

These days, Douglas has a weekly study session with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, but he is hardly an unquestioning pupil. Sitting in his office in Beverly Hills, relatively modest as is his art-filled house where we had met on previous occasions, Douglas poses a few questions.

“Why was God so talkative in biblical times but doesn’t talk to us now? We Jews are supposed to be smart, so why was Samson so dumb as to let Delilah cut off his hair?”

Wolpe officiated at Douglas’ second bar mitzvah, at which time the 83-year-old celebrant informed the assembled Hollywood glitterati, “Today, I am a man.”

On the present state of his Jewishness, Douglas ruminates, “I think of myself as a secular Jew, but I have great admiration for Chasidic Jews who preserve the old laws. I attend High Holy Days services — every man should have a day of atonement — and I light candles in my home every Shabbat. I don’t keep kosher, but it would be very difficult for me to go into a restaurant and order pork.”

Oy vey! You should read what they’re writing about them — in books yet


I have the kind of Jewish mother who could both make gefilte fish from scratch and play 18 holes of golf in one day. Every day throughout my high school years, my mother would hand me lunch in a paper bag as I rushed out the door and left most of the breakfast she had prepared on the kitchen table.

Now, when she visits, my eighty-something mother will clean our toaster inside out if we don’t stop her. She’s still the best person around to shop with for just about anything.

But while I’ve always been a daughter –an adoring one, in fact — this is the first time that I’ve written a column about books for Mother’s Day while being interrupted to go over 5th-grade spelling words and help illustrate a 7th-grade poster. As I write late into the night, tomorrow night’s dinner is cooking and three young children are sleeping upstairs in the new home I share with them and their father, a widower.

We got married just a few months ago, and we are all finding our way toward forging a family. Yes, I see my mother in my household routines, and I am ever aware of her example and increasingly awestruck by her talents.

So I read this season’s selection of books with perhaps a different eye and an increased curiosity. There are serious books about Jewish mothers, lighthearted books, how-to volumes and memoirs and some manage to cross categories. Some offer knowing advice, others observations and jokes. The best are those that are open, honest and wise, not preachy or sentimental.

The title of Joyce Antler’s new book not only grabs attention but conveys the tone of the book. “You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother” is scholarly and lively, full of rich anecdotes drawn from popular culture, sociological and historical studies and life experience.

Antler, a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University and author of several books, including “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America,” examines the origins of negative stereotypes associated with the Jewish mother. She shows how images like being domineering, manipulative and overprotective have endured, and how they’ve been depicted in books, film and particularly on television, even as Jewish mothers have represented so much more than that.

“I wanted to understand the misunderstood Jewish mother, ” Antler said in an interview, noting her goal of coming up with a portrait that’s more diverse and pluralistic, recognizing the great strengths of Jewish women over these last decades in America, who’ve helped their families get acculturated and achieve great success. She said that the images get re-invented every generation or so.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother book cover
Hers is the most serious and engaging of new books, as she shifts her analytical eye from early television and radio’s Molly Goldberg and the jokes of George Jessel (“Isn’t it nice to have your own phone?” he asks his mother. “What? Nobody calls you? Even before you had the phone, nobody called you either?”) to Tovah Feldshuh in “Kissing Jessica Stein” and the humor of Sarah Silverman.

Antler also interviews Jewish mothers and includes their voices, speaking directly of their lives. One 97-year-old Sephardic mother of five who was born in Turkey spoke of having “a paradise in my home.”

Antler, who has been teaching at Brandeis for 28 years, is the proud Jewish mother of two daughters, and she’s admittedly quite involved in their lives.

“I’ve come to embrace the label, more so than I ever did before,” she said. One daughter is a stand-up comic who enjoys making fun in her monologue of having a feminist Jewish mother — a mother who encourages her not to wait for a man to shovel the snow for her but to put on a warm coat and get out there.

When you show up empty-handed on the first day of your young child’s softball practice, and the rest of the mothers all seem to be bearing bags of doughnuts for the coach, you realize that they know something that you don’t. “What the Other Mothers Know,” by Michelle Gendelman, Ilene Graff and Donna Rosenstein (Harper), is a smart, practical, funny and hip guide.

The Los Angeles-based authors, who describe themselves as not professionals like Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil but “three Dr. Moms, hands-on working parents” who have to budget their time and money, share advice that’s generous in spirit, especially geared to first-time moms.

There’s nothing of the competitive attitude that marks the so-called “mommy wars,” as they offer their version of a maternal E-Z Pass, culled from those with older kids and good memories. First-timers will learn about what other mothers seem to already know about preschool enrollment, finding good baby sitters and getting around the rules of school uniforms.

Yiddishe Mamas book cover
When I saw Judy Gold’s show, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” off-Broadway, I laughed and cried and called my sister as soon as I left the theater and told her that she had to get tickets. Gold’s new book, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” (Voice), written with playwright Kate Moira Ryan, is based on the show and organized into 25 chapters of questions, ranging from “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” to “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do as a mother?”

Gold’s monologue — here presented as narrative — is based on her own adventures growing up in suburban New Jersey and now as the mother of two sons, along with the voices of 50 Jewish mothers she and Ryan interviewed around the country over a five-year period.

“I am not the typical Jewish mother I make fun of in my act,” she writes. “I’ve always wanted to be the ‘young and fun’ kind of mom and not some secondary character in a Philip Roth novel. For most of my adult life, I have struggled with the conflicts of being Jewish as well as being gay and being a comedian as well as a mother. Honestly, what Jewish mother do you know who spends her evening in smoky clubs full of drunk people, shouting obscenities over the sound of a blender, and the next day drops off her kids at Hebrew school?”

Diary writer Hillman says sharing story is ‘my duty’


Like Anne Frank, Laura Hillman received a diary as a gift on her 13th birthday in Nazi Germany. In it, she scribbled her girlish poems and observations, including her love of the lilac tree that stood in front of her house in Aurich.

“The tree bloomed every May, around the time of Mama’s birthday, and Papa would sing songs of love and lilacs to her,” the survivor said in a conversation in her Los Alamitos home, where a vase of the flowers graced a table.

Hillman (neé Hannelore Wolff) left the tree behind, along with her diary, when she was deported to the Lublin ghetto on her mother’s birthday, May 8, 1942. It was not until several years ago that she completed her Holocaust memoir, “I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree” (Atheneum, 2005), which reads like a teenager’s journal of life in eight labor and concentration camps. The lyrical, brutally honest book recreates her youthful musings — echoing the most famous of the Holocaust diarists, Anne Frank.

Next week, 83-year-old Hillman will read excerpts from her memoir and poetry during a newly re-imagined staging of Grigori Frid’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” by Long Beach Opera (see main story.) She will personify “what Anne might have become if she had survived,” said Andreas Mitisek, the opera’s artistic and general director.

In the two-person piece, the survivor will sit at a desk and, in her speaking voice, engage in a kind of parallel dialogue with the soprano portraying Anne. After the opera’s Anne sings about her father’s dread of life in hiding, Hillman will describe the harsher fate that befell her own father (her family received an urn containing his ashes in a box postmarked, “Buchenwald”).

Hillman later was made to rake dirt over rotting corpses in mass graves, shovel salt in Polish mines, witness her 15-year-old brother succumb to a vicious beating and endure a brutal rape by an SS officer. She also met and fell in love with her future husband, Bernhard Hillman, a fellow prisoner in the Budzyn camp, and was saved from Birkenau by Oskar Schindler, who had placed her on his famous “list.” Throughout the nightmare, she was sustained by a promise — essentially a marriage proposal — from Hillman: If she survived, he would plant her a lilac tree to remind her of her childhood home.

In the opera, Hillman will recount how, like Anne, she discerned possibilities for love and hope during unimaginable times. Yet she found it too painful to document her own Holocaust experiences — except in poems — for decades after the war. Only when her husband lay dying of heart disease in the mid-1980s did she begin to write down memories en masse: “I wondered why Dick had to suffer so much, after all he had been through, and the details came flooding back.”

A division of Simon & Schuster eventually bought her book, which was featured in a Newsweek story about the plethora of such memoirs being published to meet the needs of Holocaust curricula in 25 states. While Anne’s 1947 “Diary of a Young Girl” remains an icon of the genre, newer books like Hillman’s appeal because they are “genuinely good” and “don’t sugarcoat the truth,” Newsweek said.

The survivor gave many readings, but was initially hesitant when Mitisek called about the opera several months ago.

“When I speak too often, I become very anxious, breathing is difficult, and my blood pressure rises,” she explained. Although she said she is ordinarily optimistic, “after each appearance, I’m so completely drained that I sleep — then I take my car and drive somewhere, anywhere, to get away from the memories.”

Even so, she said she agreed to appear in the opera because “it’s my duty. It doesn’t matter if it hurts, because I was lucky enough to survive, while so many others perished.”

Call to ‘write and record’ brings new books on Shoah


“Write and record,” historian Simon Dubnow urged his fellow Jews, as he was taken to his death in Riga. Over the decades since Dubnow’s murder in 1941, many have taken his words to heart, and scholars, survivors, novelists, poets, members of the second and third generations continue to publish new work on the Holocaust. This season, in time for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, there are impressive historical works, memoirs of lost childhoods, personal testimonies and artful works of fiction; many written by those who feel an obligation to those whose voices were stilled.

History

Archivist Bonnie Gureswitsch quotes historian Simon Dubnow in the opening of her essay, “Documenting the Unimaginable: Recording the Truth, Telling the World,” in a companion book to a new exhibition opening April 16 in New York City at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, titled “Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust” (Museum of Jewish Heritage).

Edited by curator Yitzchak Mais, with essays by Holocaust scholar David Engel, psychologist Eva Fogelman, Gureswitsch and Mais, the book documents individual and group acts of resistance through excerpts of diaries, oral histories and letters — some never before published — illustrated with photographs and artwork produced clandestinely in ghettos and camps.

As Mais writes, he and his colleagues have “sought to change the widely held perception that Jews, by and large, failed to resist. The question is not, as some would pose it, why did Jews fail to mount cohesive and effective resistance to the Nazis, but rather, how was it possible that so many Jews resisted at all?”

“The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust,” by Mordecai Paldiel, with a foreword by Elie Wiesel (Collins), includes about 150 well-written profiles of ordinary citizens who risked their lives — who wouldn’t apply the word hero to themselves, but indeed personify that word. They were selected from among the more than 21,000 people who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. The author, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and was helped during the war years by a French priest profiled in the book, serves as director of the Department for the Righteous at Yad Vashem.

Mordecai Paldiel’s “Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust” (Ktav) details the lives of diplomats around the world during World War II, often on routine assignments, who, as Ambassador Richard Holbrooke explains in an introduction, found themselves “in an unexpected moral dilemma of historic dimensions.” Often using unorthodox methods, these diplomats risked their own lives to try to save others, motivated by their sense that official policies were wrong.

Some of the diplomatic heroes are familiar names, like Chiume Sugihara of Japan and Giorgio Perlasca of Italy. Paldiel also includes many others from China, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil,Yugoslavia and the Vatican.

In the book’s epigraph, Paldiel quotes German writer Lion Feuchtwanger: “Who has not gone through a country shaken by internal troubles, by war or foreign occupation, who does not know the significant role that an identity card or an administrative rubber stamp can play in a person’s life?”

“The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945,” by Saul Friedlander (HarperCollins), is a follow-up to his earlier work, “The Years of Persecution,” which together provide a remarkable comprehensive history. The author, who was born in Prague and spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied France, is a distinguished professor of history at UCLA and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. The work is based on letters, diaries and memories, as well as archival documents.

Fiction

A post-Holocaust story, “The Polish Woman,” by Eva Mekler (Bridge Works), opens when a 29-year-old woman arrives at the law offices of a man who — as she informs him — is the nephew of her late father. At first, the lawyer doesn’t believe that this woman is the long-lost child, who had been hidden by a Catholic family in Poland. A powerful story unfolds, as the lawyer and young woman try to verify her account and her identity.

Born in Poland immediately after the war, the author spent her first few years of life in a displaced persons camp in Germany and now lives in New York.

Aharon Appelfeld is a storyteller who spins his craft with delicacy and compassion. When his first book was published, a critic wrote, “Appelfeld doesn’t write on the Holocaust, but about its margins.” Some 20 books later, he’s still writing in the margins, creating stories drawn, in part, from his life.

In his latest novel, “All Whom I Have Loved” (Schocken), a young son of divorced parents moves back and forth between their homes and lives. The book is set in Europe in the ’30s, and the story prefigures what is to come for the Jews. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Appelfeld lives in Israel.

Memoir

“Dark Clouds Don’t Stay Forever: Memories of a Jewish German Boy in the 1930s and 1940s,” by Werner Neuberger (Publish America), is a personal story that also conveys a larger perspective on prewar life in Germany. The author left Germany on a Kindertransport, came to the United States at the age of 13 and later served in the U.S. Army. As the title implies, he has managed to sustain his positive, life-embracing attitude. He writes with humility and insight.

“Bread, Butter, and Sugar: A Boy’s Journey Through the Holocaust and Postwar Europe,” by Martin Schiller (Hamilton Books), is told in the third person. It’s the story of young Menek, who would later become Martin, now a 73-year-old electrical engineer specializing in pollution control.

The author captures the child’s point of view: Schiller was 6 when the Nazis invaded Poland and 9 when he and his family were interned as slave laborers. He survived Buchenwald with the help of a German political prisoner.

“My Dog Lala: The Touching True Story of a Young Boy and His Dog During the Holocaust,” by Roman R. Kent (Teacher’s Discover), is, as the author describes, a love letter to his pet, also a casualty of the Holocaust. When Kent’s family was taken from their Lodz home to the Ghetto, Lala — whose name means doll in Polish — would find the way to the family at night, sneaking in and out of the Ghetto. Kent, a businessman who is active in Jewish organizational life related to the Holocaust, has used the story of Lala in speaking with young people as a way to promote tolerance.

Take a stroll down memoir lane with the family


Somewhere between the frenzied search for that perfect gift, entertaining out-of-town guests and feasting on latkes and soufganiot, perhaps this year we might slow down just long enough to blissfully watch the glow of the chanukiah candles reflected on our children’s faces.

Amid this seasonally induced excitement, if we are lucky, we’ll be spending more time with our families — both nuclear and extended. But since we don’t get to choose our relatives, we not only see a great deal of our nearest and dearest, we also see crazy Uncle Sy, boorish Uncle Boris and, of course, supremely dull Cousin Celia.

According to Loren Stephens, a writer, editor and documentary filmmaker, these get-togethers are a golden opportunity to mine our family’s rich past. Stephens is the president of Write Wisdom, Inc., the company she founded to both guide and assist people in writing memoirs.

“Everyone has some extraordinary experiences and stories to tell,” says Stephens, who believes there is great value in both the telling and the hearing of these stories.
She speaks from both professional and personal experience.

Her documentary films have centered on the interplay of history — both specific events and long-standing traditions — and individual lives. Her film “Legacy of the Blacklist,” produced for PBS, described the impact of the Hollywood blacklist on families who survived what Stephens refers to as “that horrific experience.” Another documentary, “Los Pastores: The Shepherd’s Play,” explored Hispanic folk traditions in the Rio Grande Valley and showed “the importance of family, tradition and faith.”

In 1996, Stephens’ experience documenting and contextualizing lives melded with her interest in her own family’s history, when she approached her mother about writing her memoirs. Born in 1915, Stephens’ mother graduated from Smith College and studied to be an opera singer. Her life was, in many ways, “emblematic of the changing role of women during the 20th century,” according to Stephens. Although initially resistant to Stephens’ pleas, her mother eventually relented. For two years, Stephens traveled back and forth to New York to conduct interviews. She researched relevant historical periods in order to add accurate background and detail, and in 2000 she published her mother’s life story through her own imprint, Provenance Press.

“It was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” Stephens says.

The process of working on the memoir deepened her relationship with her mother, and after its publication her mother enjoyed being “a star once again.” When her mother died in February, Stephens delivered the eulogy.

“I took passages from the book, so I was able to give her her voice one more time,” she said. “It was such a beautiful closure to her life.”

Forming Write Wisdom, Inc. seemed a natural next step for Stephens — an outgrowth of her filmmaking, her long-standing interest in personal history and her experience writing her mother’s memoir. Stephens’ company provides a wide array of services, from teaching skills for eliciting and writing memoirs (one’s own or others’), to performing all of the interviews, then writing and publishing the book for a client.

Since completing her mother’s memoir, Stephens has researched, written and published three others, including one for a Holocaust survivor who was in his late 70s. Believing that “each ethnic community has an emblematic story to be told, and that for the Jews it is the Holocaust,” Stephens says her subject was motivated by a number of factors.

He saw his own story as “a cautionary tale, as well as a way of trying to make sense of something that was so completely senseless,” Stephens says. And “the fact that he is alive, that he survived when so many others didn’t, was a very strong motivation for him to tell his story.”

Thankfully, not everyone’s life includes such trauma. Nevertheless, nearly everyone has interesting stories in their family. But how and where do you begin, especially if you’re not a writer, an editor, or a filmmaker — much less all three? According to Stephens, family gatherings are a natural place to start: “We often hear the same fabulous family stories, over and over again, especially during holiday gatherings.”

Some families already have an unofficial keeper of family lore, but many don’t.
“Anyone can bring up the idea,” says Stephens, but “expect to be rebuffed at first.”

As flattering as it is to be asked to recount the details of one’s life, people are often reluctant to open up. Stephens suggests returning to the topic at another time, gently insisting, reminding the person how much everyone enjoys their stories or how important their life experiences are in helping others appreciate the family.

When people protest that they have nothing unique to tell — which they often will — Stephens suggests reminding them that “no one else sees the world quite the way they do.”

Ultimately, what wins many people over is hearing that “the lessons of their lives can affect someone in a positive way, a way that they may not be able to anticipate or to ever even know,” Stephens says.

Stephens recommends using a simple audio tape recorder, rather than a video camera.
“A camera makes most people too self-conscious,” while a tape recorder is less obtrusive and takes virtually no skill to operate. The tapes can then either be kept as final documents, or used as a springboard for writing the memoir.

Once your subject has agreed to tell their story, Stephens says, the biggest hurdle is over. After that, “you simply start with ‘tell me where you were born.'” But she suggests not trying to force a chronological telling, since “people’s minds don’t really work that way.”

Stephens is “amazed at the way memory works: The experiences that are the most emotionally charged are the ones that we remember in the greatest detail.”

They may not be recalled in a linear sequence, but they “are so firmly imprinted on our brain that it takes very little effort for them to be recalled.”

You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom


The following excerpt is the prologue to “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom,” (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.

My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public — a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, “See, I can be funny, it’s not my fault the shows are terrible.”

And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past — years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. “Better than Broadway!” I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn’t know the family, and worse, didn’t know me — but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard’s bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn’t funny at all, but that didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn’t change the urgency of my warning.
“Karen,” I started. “There is still time to run.”

I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: “Philip, we got the pears.”

“Oh, that’s good, Ma. You like them?”

“Yes, they’re very nice, but please . . . it’s an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There’re so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don’t ever send us any more food again, okay?”

I said, “Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month.”

She said, “What? More pears?”

I said, “No, Ma, a different fruit every month.”

“EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Most people like it. You eat it … You share it with your friends.”
“Which friends?!”

“I don’t know … Lee and Stan.”

“Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!”

“Oh my God, Ma…”

“Why did you do this to me?”

“What is happening?”

“I can’t talk anymore, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

I went on to describe my father’s misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. (“You think we’re invalids? We can’t get our own fruit?”) The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they’d received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.

My warning didn’t take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.

I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That’s right, Oprah, and I’ll swear it’s all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We’ll also, if you’re interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We’ll see how it came to be, how “writing what you know” is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone’s life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We’ll use, for example, my life — where I’m from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers’ Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn’t work anymore. And all of it is here — in the hope that you’ll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You’ll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.

I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all “too much.”

You still there, Ma?

On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

For more information, call (800) 764-2665 or visit

Book Review: Tools to fight terror: big dreams, good friends


“Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” by Jeff Goldberg (Knopf, $25).

The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet “Prisoners” is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like “The Night Porter” or screenplays like “The Servant.” Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a “stillness” and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.

Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word “lynching” by saying to his captors, “Well, that was Ramallah…. What do you expect?”

He then writes, “Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however.”

Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.

That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.

After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder, that the Sheik’s “preternaturally calm” statement that Israel “was created in defiance of God’s will” is “pathetic.” He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.

Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:

“The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they’re doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people.”

In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, “I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word.”

He says that, as a military policeman, “I should have done more to try to change things I didn’t like,” instead of being a “get-along, go-along kind of guy.”

Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.

Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League’s Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.

“I’ve always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool.”

He adds, “There’s an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.

Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do.”

Goldberg’s interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of “Jew Penny.” Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.

If he didn’t stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn’t in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.

In “Prisoners,” he characterizes his upbringing this way: “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.

“If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn’t exist,” he says, pointing out, “Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea.”

Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says “were not nice places, especially in the first uprising,” are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza “became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them.”

He states without hesitation that the “baroque cruelty” and “sexually charged sadism” of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.

While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends “Prisoners” with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, “This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us.”

Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.

So many authors, so little time


Chick lit, pulp comics, historical fiction, gumshoe action and a dash of Los Angeles noir.
 
Add celebrities such as Jackie Collins and Tommy Chong and you begin — just barely — to get a taste of the eclectic stew that will be the fifth annual West Hollwood Book Fair, Sept. 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in West Hollywood Park. Up to 20,000 participants are expected to check out what’s become perhaps the second largest local event of its kind, after the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: more than 200 authors in dozens of workshops, performances and panel discussions on subjects ranging from architecture, first novels, poetry, true crime and the vampire tome.
 
Plenty of Jewish authors will be in the mix, including former New Yorker Jerusalem correspondent Amy Wilentz, as well as Bernard Cooper (see story on Page 40), who’ll talk about memoir writing at an event moderated by Jewish Journal religion editor Amy Klein.
 
Fair organizers even moved the event up from its usual October date in deference to the High Holidays.
 
Here’s a sampling of other Jewish authors who may be of interest to Journal readers:
 
Author: Tod Goldberg
Panel: “The Short and Short of It: Writing the Short Story”
Time: 11-noon
Buzz: Goldman’s quirky short story collection, “Simplify,” with tales almost all told from the first person, spotlights young men who experience odd (and univited) apparitions — from the Loch Ness Monster to Jesus to a bleeding picture of Elvis, according to the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg will show a more familial side of himself on the panel “Sibling Writerly” (1-1:45 p.m.), with his sisters, the nonfiction authors Karen Dinino and Linda Woods and his brother, Lee Goldberg, who’s written novels based on his own TV shows, such as “Monk” and “Diagnosis Murder.”
 
Author: Rosa Lowinger
Panel: “Cuba: Fact or Fiction?”
Time: 12:15-1 p.m.
Buzz: Lowinger’s “Tropicana Nights,” co-written with Ofelia Fox, describes a chic pre-Castro cabaret from the point of view of the owner’s wife (Fox), who recounts its glory days as a hangout for socialites, gangsters, artists, models and celebrities such as Hollywood bombshell Carmen Miranda.
 
Author: Peggy Lipton
Panel: “Shining the Spotlight: Life Stories by and About Great Actors”
Time: 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Buzz: Lipton (yes, she’s Jewish!) may have become the ultimate 1970s It Girl and fashion icon for her role as Julie on the hit series, “The Mod Squad”; but while her memoir, “Breathing Out,” dishes about the expected experiences of psychedelia and sex (with Elvis, among others), it also describes her battles with depression and memories of child abuse in a striking yet volatile era.
 
Author: Allan Heinberg
Panel: “Pulp, Grind, Manifesto: Writing the Monthly Comics”
Time: 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Buzz: Heinberg wrote and co-created “Young Avengers” for Marvel Comics and “Wonder Woman” for DC comics and — in a decidedly noncomic endeavor — now writes and produces for the hit ABC medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
 
Author: Bettina Aptheker
Panel: “Left Is Right: Progressive Voices on the State of our State”
Time: 3-4 p.m.
Moderator: Erin Aubry Kaplan, Los Angeles Times columnist (and occasional Jewish Journal contributor)
Buzz: Aptheker’s autobiography, “Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel,” will be out next year.
 
Author: Aimee Bender
Panel: “Faces and Places: Breathing Life into Characters and their Stories”
Time: 3:30- 4:30 p.m.
Buzz: Bender’s “Willful Creatures,” just out in paperback, is another surreal and transcendent short story collection. Sample: A jilted bride drives through the desert, the road spreading before her “like a long, dry, tongue” until she suddenly — and excruciatingly — craves a mango.

 
Jewish Journal September 15, 2006 43

The Perfect Reads for Those Lazy Days of Summer


I read and write during several days of rain in New York City, and I think about Los Angeles beaches, bleached with sunshine. So reclining on a couch isn’t the same as stretching out on a blanket and listening to the surf, but there’s a certain similar lazy quality, with pockets of time best filled with books.

This season brings engaging reading in a mix of genres: literary fiction, comedy, love stories, detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and books that break genre boundaries; books by veteran authors and others not-yet well-known.

After not publishing fiction for a decade, Hilma Wolitzer makes a fine comeback with “The Doctor’s Daughter” (Ballantine). Wolitzer’s 17th novel is a lively and poetic novel about a 51-year-old book editor who wakes up one morning with a strong sense that something is amiss — beyond the facts of her troubled son, faltering marriage, halting career and the increasing needs of her father in a nursing home.

Her father, who was once a top surgeon, is losing his memory, as she is combing through hers for clues about her family history, her marriage and the choices she has made. Wolitzer, the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, captures ordinary life with tenderness and humanity.

In the opening pages of “The Attack” by Yasmina Akhadra (Talese/Doubleday), a suicide bomb is detonated in a Tel Aviv restaurant, as a children’s birthday party is taking place and other diners sit down for what they assume will be a pleasant lunch. Many are killed instantly, and scores are wounded. Dr. Amin Jaafari, an accomplished surgeon, is called into emergency service in his hospital, which echoes with wailing and screaming.

The son of Bedouins, Dr. Jaafari has become a naturalized Israeli citizen and leads a life that’s well-integrated into Israeli society; he’s much respected by his medical peers.

The hospital is quickly crowded with the terrorist’s victims. Just as soon as Dr. Jaafari finishes with one patient, another is wheeled in and by the end of the night, he has lost count of how many people he has operated on. Soon after leaving the hospital thoroughly exhausted, he is called back and asked to identify a body: It is that of his wife, and authorities are convinced that she was the suicide bomber.

Dr. Jaafari is confounded that his wife, with whom he shared a close, loving relationship, who was equally integrated and comfortable with their Jewish friends, could have had a secret life — that something unknown to him could have driven her to this most heinous act. Ostracized by the community for his wife’s action, he sets out to understand why she would sacrifice herself for a cause that seemed to have little place in their life together and, from what he’s aware of, in her life.

This fast-paced novel is provocative and well-written, leaving the reader with powerful questions. Yasmina Akhadra is the feminine pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer living in France who is the author of five other books published in English, including “The Swallows of Kabul.”

On her blog, Village Voice sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel names Santa Monica author S. Hanala Stadner’s new memoir the most offensive book title of the season, “My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” (Matter Inc.). But once readers get over the title, they may be struck by the author’s clear and honest voice. Stadner continues to shock as she unravels her life story of a Montreal childhood shaped by her parents’ Holocaust experience, her efforts to leave home for Hollywood and their world behind her.

Her journey takes her into the world of drugs and alcoholism, obesity and anorexia, all of which she details, along with her failed relationships and her efforts toward recovery and healing. Her humor is on the edge. Stadner is known around Los Angeles for her popular cable access television program; this is her first book.

“You Gotta Have Balls” by Lilly Brett (Morrow) is another book that might have been served well by a different title. The Australian author whose last book, “Too Many Men” was a best-seller, Brett sets this comic novel in downtown Manhattan, where she now lives. In that novel and this one, she touches lightly on the lingering psychological impact of the Holocaust on the second generation with humor. Here, Roth Rothwax — the heroine of “Too Many Men” — is at first skeptical about the latest project undertaken by her father, a survivor.

He backs a Polish friend with a skill for making variations on meatballs in a new restaurant, and the place becomes an overnight success, the kind of New York restaurant where people make reservations weeks in advance. The book title is the name of the restaurant, and the novel features recipes.

“Adverbs” by Daniel Handler (Ecco) is about people trying to find love. The publication marks the return to adult fiction by the author of a number of popular children’s books written under the name Lemony Snicket, collectively titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Here, the chapters are titled, “Immediately,” “Obviously,” “Collectively,” “Truly,” and 13 other adverbs; the interconnected, inventive stories about searching for love in its many forms are set in a taxi, courtroom, diner and back in a taxi, among other places.
As the author says, “It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.

In “Triangle” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Katherine Weber creates a novel revolving about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The author of several previous novels including “The Little Women,” Weber tells of the granddaughter of the tragedy’s last survivor, as she tries to unravel the facts, while a feminist scholar gets in her way as she tries to do the same. This absorbing novel probes the borders between memory and history. Weber’s own grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.

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