LAMOTH expands Memoir Project with call for more


Gary Steinberg, son of a Holocaust survivor, recently donated to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) signed copies of his father’s memoir.

Steinberg’s father, Manny, died this year at the age of 90, shortly after completing a memoir that had sat, unfinished, in a box for all of Steinberg’s childhood.

So the question that interests Samara Hutman, LAMOTH executive director, is how many more memoirs and manuscripts written by Los Angeles Holocaust survivors continue to sit in boxes, collecting dust?

And on May 1, at the museum’s annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, Hutman plans to announce the museum’s expansion of the Remember Us Memoir Project, which connects high school and college students across Los Angeles with specific memoirs and Holocaust narratives, giving the students an opportunity to personally identify with individual survivors. As part of the project, students meet with the authors or, if they are no longer living, they meet with the survivors’ relatives.

“I know there are many, many more boxes of incomplete manuscripts in closets and garages and storage areas around Los Angeles that risk invisibility if they are not preserved and archived,” Hutman said in an interview.

To expand its Remember Us collection, LAMOTH is inviting donations of Holocaust memoirs from survivors and their families. She said the museum currently has between 75 and 100 memoirs but wants to collect hundreds more.

“Every day, somebody is cleaning out their garage and giving books away, and those precious gems are possibly being given to stores and maybe even meeting worse ends,” Hutman said.

The expansion of the project already has gotten seed funding of $20,000 from LAMOTH board member and Holocaust survivor David Wiener, whose memoir, “Nothing to Lose But My Life,” is currently used in the Remember Us curriculum by students at Milken Community High School and at Loyola Marymount University.

The funds will be used for staffing and for materials needed to archive new memoirs and manuscripts, including shelving, cataloguing and digitizing. The current collection can be seen in the museum’s atrium, and the expanded collection will be accessible in the museum’s library and archives. Portions will also be shown on rotation in the museum’s bookstore and memoir library.

Hutman said LAMOTH will accept self-published books in any condition and any quantity, including manuscripts (partial and completed), notes and documents written by survivors and immediate family members with connections to Los Angeles. She added that the museum hopes ultimately to digitize its entire memoir collection, with the permission of the authors, families or other copyright holders. And for memoirs penned in a language other than English, and those that need further editing, Hutman said LAMOTH will work with translators and editors to “capture the essential soul and ineffable voice of the author.”

Dana Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor from Lvov, Poland, who lives in Beverly Hills and is on LAMOTH’s Survivor Advisory Board, said she remembers first realizing the scope of personally written Holocaust memoirs in the early 1980s, when she attended meetings of local Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust.

She said one of the women in the group gathered up as many personal writings as she could and put them into a spiral notebook to show to the other group members. 

“Many in that community began writing about their experiences,” Schwartz said. “Amazing memories in poetry and stories. It led many to publish or self publish books.”

Schwartz was struck by how much material from Holocaust survivors remains unknown to the outside world, and she hopes that LAMOTH’s expansion of Remember Us will help bring some of those manuscripts out of storage.

“Many of the books were passed among friends and later discarded by future generations, or given to libraries. I have personally seen many of these discarded books in bins to be rummaged through. Many which had a small printing are disappearing,” Schwartz said. “We, the survivors, have many which will hopefully find a home.”

On May 1, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Yom HaShoah commemoration will be held in Pan Pacific Park at 2 p.m. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will have tables with staff and volunteers who can answer questions about the memoir expansion and be able to accept memoir donations. 

Israel and I: The first 60 years


By ship and plane, I’ve traveled to Israel 15 times over the last 60 years and, looking back, my relationship to the Jewish state has a certain Zelig-like quality.

Zelig, you remember, was the Woody Allen character who popped up whenever and wherever some historic event was unfolding.

Or maybe it’s just that Israel is always facing either a devastating crisis or a miraculous triumph so, regardless of the timing, you’re likely to witness history in the making.

So here’s my anecdotal, completely subjective view of modern Israel’s entire lifespan, glimpsed through the eyes of a soldier, reporter and member of my wife Rachel’s vast Israeli mishpacha.

1948-49

I was a junior at UC Berkeley when I decided to go to Israel and join the army of the newly created state. As a World War II combat infantryman, I thought I roughly knew what to expect, but after disembarking from the refugee ship Pan York at Haifa, I learned, not for the last time, that Israelis were a different breed and everything worked differently.

First, I wasn’t assigned to any established unit. Instead, like a feudal baron offering inducements to the local peasants to fight under his banner, an American ex-major appeared at my holding camp one day.

He asked whether I would like to join an English-speaking “Anglo-Saxon” unit he was forming (by some special alchemy, Jew boys from Britain, South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia were transformed into “Anglo-Saxim” upon stepping on the soil of the Holy Land).

His inducement was that the anti-tank unit in the making would be “democratic,” i.e. no rank, no saluting and, except in combat, all decisions would be made by majority vote. It was an offer no ex-GI could refuse.

When I joined my fellow Anglo-Saxons, they were training on a wooden dummy gun. “Where are the weapons?” I asked. “We don’t have any,” responded our Israeli liaison. “But as soon as our infantry captures a gun from the Arabs, we’ll be ready to go.”

And that’s what happened.

It was a great time to be in Israel. There were about 600,000 Jews in the country, roughly the same number as are now in the Los Angeles area. Everybody seemed to know everyone else, nobody was obscenely rich but nobody was starving, and even macho sabras allowed that it was nice of the foreign volunteers to come over and lend a hand.

By American Army standards, nothing worked right, except that the Israelis kept winning all the battles — though at a cost of some 6,000 lives.

1960

Rachel and I, 3-year-old Orlee and 9-month -old Alina took a ship from Marseilles to Haifa to meet my wife’s mother and six married siblings for the first time.

The ship’s Israeli crew had been drilled that it didn’t necessarily violate the egalitarian spirit of the land to treat passengers with a modicum of courtesy.

It didn’t always work. One afternoon, at “High Tea,” the waiter brought a piece of cake, but no fork. When I mentioned the oversight, he looked at me in frank astonishment, and, genuinely puzzled, asked, “So why can’t you use your fingers?”

Rachel’s mother lived in a small house in Shaarey Hessed, an observant, but not black hat, quarter of Jerusalem, where chains blocked entrances to streets on Shabbat.

There my mother-in-law had raised seven children, without benefit of a gas range, washing machine or second bathroom. Neither she nor any of her children’s families had a phone, and the idea of owning a car was beyond fantasy.

I used my one-month visit to write six articles for the Mirror, the afternoon sister paper of the Los Angeles Times. Fortunately, Rachel’s five sisters and one brother, and their spouses, ranged politically from far left to far right, so I had an instant crash course on Israel’s chaotic political scene.

The discussions were lively and emotional, something I sorely missed years later when I learned that the debates had stopped. By that time, opinions and frictions had hardened to the point where frank discussions had to be discontinued to preserve some semblance of family harmony.

Here is an anecdote to illustrate something basic about the Israeli character:

We had rented an apartment in the Rehavia quarter of Jerusalem, and a half a block from our place was a neighborhood grocery store.

One day I put Alina in a baby stroller to pick up some groceries. It was a hot day, so I took off her blanket and stowed it next to her.

I had walked but a few steps, when a middle-age woman peered into the baby carriage, clucked her tongue, looked at me disapprovingly and without a word took the blanket and covered Alina.

I immediately pushed the blanket aside and after a few more steps, another yenta appeared, and went through the same routine. Before I could reach the store, the minidrama was repeated for a third time.

At first, I was furious. What possessed these people, total strangers, to butt their noses into what was purely my business? Then I had a second thought. If I were in Los Angeles and decided to throw my baby in the gutter, it is doubtful that the passing cars would even slow down.

These thoughts led to my first rule on the Israeli personality: In normal times, Israelis can drive you up the wall. But when I’m in trouble and need help, it’s the Israelis I want next to me.

There were a couple of happenings during our stay to spice up the narrative.

Jerusalem was all atwitter because a Hollywood star and film crew were in town to shoot a movie, which was released later in the year under the title, “Exodus.”

Then, toward the end of our stay, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion rose in the Knesset for an announcement. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, had been captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial.

Briefs: UCLA’s Friedlander awarded Pulitzer Prize, Rabbi Weil to head O.U.


Friedlander Awarded Pulitzer

UCLA historian Saul Friedlander, a child Holocaust survivor, has been awarded a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his definitive account of “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945.”

The $10,000 award in the general nonfiction book category honors the 75-year-old scholar and Israeli citizen for his remarkable ability to evoke the entire Nazi era through a combination of meticulous research and a novelist’s eye for personal, human detail.

Born in Prague, Friedlander’s parents found a hiding place for their 10-year-old son in 1942 in a French monastery, where he was raised as a Catholic and at one point planned to enter the priesthood. He did not learn of his Jewish identity until after the war.

Meanwhile, his parents attempted to cross the French border, were turned back by Swiss guards and subsequently delivered by French police into German hands. Both parents perished in Auschwitz.

In an ironic twist of history, Friedlander was appointed in 1997 by the Swiss government to an international commission of nine eminent historians to evaluate and judge Switzerland’s conduct during World War II.

In 1948, Friedlander immigrated to Israel, studied and later taught in Tel Aviv, Paris and Geneva, and in 1987 joined the UCLA faculty as holder of the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies.

On being notified of the Pulitzer Prize award, Friedlander described it as “a great honor … an American prize that has great meaning in this country.”

In a 1997 interview with The Journal, following publication of his initial volume, “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939,” Friedlander noted that the Holocaust retained its grip on the world’s consciousness, but not because it marked a turning point in history, such as the French or Bolshevik revolutions.

Rather, he said, in its most profound sense the Holocaust forces mankind to face the ultimate question: What is the nature of human nature? What are the limits of human behavior?

As the Nazi era recedes in time, attention to the Holocaust is not slackening, but increasing, Friedlander noted.

“With the passage of time,” he said, “we are slowly grasping the vastness of the amplitude and ramifications of the Hitler period.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

L.A. Rabbi to Lead the Orthodox Union

Rabbi Steven Weil, Senior Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, has been offered the post of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which serves as the education, outreach and social service organization for Orthodox synagogues, according to a reliable source. Weil would neither confirm nor deny the report.

The O.U. has been engaged in a year-long search to replace Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, the current executive vice president, who will finish his term in June 2009. (He will stay on at the O.U. for three more years). Weinreb is 68 years old.

The O.U. executive committee considered 150 condidates and on Wednesday evening, April 9, approved Weil, 42, whose Orthodox synagogue is the largest outside the New York region. According to an O.U. official, who asked to remain anonymous, Weil is expected to come to the O.U. as early as January 2009; the official said Weil insisted on having enough time to help his synagogue search for a new senior rabbi.

Weil is expected to send out an announcement on the move this weekend to his congregation, which numbers 750 families. The O.U. is expected to officially announce the post on Monday.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Iran, Israel and U.S.

In Sunday’s inaugural Southern California Symposium of the Washington Institute titled, “Iran, Israel, and the U.S.: Confrontation or Engagement in 2008?” a panel moderated by Executive Director Robert Satloff focused mainly on the looming possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Although the National Intelligence Estimate judged in December that Iran would not have nuclear capabilities until 2010, the speakers at the symposium all believe that the actual date could be much sooner and discussed possible causes and courses of action with that timeline in mind.

Several dignitaries were in the audience, including Jacob Dayan and Elin Suleymanov, the consul generals of Israel and Azerbaijan, respectively.

Patrick Clawson, the institute’s deputy director for research, introduced the idea that the main threat from Iran was not nuclear armament itself, but the fact that Iran obtaining nuclear arms would break the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraging other countries in the area, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to follow suit. All panelists were disinclined to think that Iran would simply bomb any neighboring countries; Michael Eisenstadt, a fellow at the institute, pointed out that the Iranian government usually acts rationally and any bombing on its part would ensure the end of the current regime, as well as most of the people living in Iran.

Much of the symposium was dedicated to discussing Israel’s possible reactions to a newly nuclear Iran. Chuck Freilich, this year’s Ira Weiner fellow, introduced the topic, saying that once diplomacy runs its course — everyone was confident that it would quite soon — Israel has two options: military action, or doing nothing and learning to live with a nuclear Iran. He also expressed skepticism that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, but described the situation as dire, saying, “Dire threats are important enough that they don’t always need to be existential.”

Though Israel officially has a policy of opacity concerning its own nuclear status, most panelists seemed to feel that Israel either has nuclear arms or is well on its way, and suggested that confirming this might be a useful strategy.

Regime change in Iran was brought up as an unlikely, though intriguing option. Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting fellow at the institute, said that the regime is more afraid of a cultural invasion than of anything else. “We need to invest in the women’s movement in Iran,” he said at one point.

The keynote speaker of the evening, retired Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu of the Israeli air force, also favors limited military responses to Iran. His main point, during his speech, was that the best tactic to deal with the threat of Iran would be a combination of diplomatic and military coercion. Rather than relying solely on diplomacy — which is not working — or relying solely on a military strike — which he was not sure Israel has the capacity to accomplish at the moment — he said that the best course of action might be to strike a limited number of targets in Iran, choosing carefully to hurt the regime. Afterward, Iran might be more inclined to deal diplomatically with Israel.

THE GREAT WALL OF BERNSTEIN



Over the course of a year, I collect books I should read and books I
want to read, but — should have/would have/could have — many I never
get around to reading.

Over the last few months, as last year came to a close and this new one
began, and as a side benefit of watching less TV during the strike, I
decided to tackle a stack of them.

As is often the case, the books I read could be classified as, to
borrow a title from Sergio Leone, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Although the great majority were not worth discussing, one stood out.

Every so often, I read a book that is extraordinary, a book that is so
good, so well written, so moving, so memorable that you just want to
holler out: Read this! Such a book is “The Invisible Wall” by Harry
Bernstein (Ballantine, $14).

“The Invisible Wall” is a memoir of growing up in Stockport, a small
factory town in Northern England, not far from Manchester, in the years
just before and following the First World War. It is the tale of Harry
Bernstein from age 4 to 12 and of his Orthodox observant family and of
life in the poorest section of town, on a narrow street where one side
was populated by Jews and the other side by non-Jews — an invisible
wall separating them. Although the book is about the extreme poverty,
harsh conditions and bigotry under which they lived, it is also a Romeo
and Juliet tale of the romance between his older sister and a boy from
across the street.



In no way am I discovering an unknown book. “The Invisible Wall”
received glowing reviews in a wide variety of publications, and there
several features appeared about the author. Bernstein received
considerable attention as an author making his “debut” at the age of 96.

In truth, Bernstein had been published before — a few short stories in
his 20s. He had tried a novel in his youth, which was not published. He
turned to a career writing for trade magazines. In 1950, he wrote a
three-part recollection called, “Twelve Years in a Jewish Ghetto,” for
a Jewish newspaper (he was paid a reported $100). Despite this, he did
not really return to writing about his childhood until recently.

As Bernstein explained to Mokoto Rich in the International Herald
Tribune, two events contributed to his writing his memoir. One, his
wife died; he found the loneliness overwhelming and to fill the time he
began to write. Second, having lived past 90, Bernstein found that his
early memories came back to him so strongly that he had to write them
down. He had tried as a younger man to render these stories as fiction,
but the truth behind them was too great to fictionalize.

“I realized then why I had failed in writing novels,” he said, “because
I turned away from personal experience and depended on imagination.”

Despite the reviews and features, I was unprepared for the way the book
draws you in. “Dickensian” is the word that comes to mind for the world
Bernstein describes; “Hobbesian” for the brutishness of his father;
“heartbreaking,” for the events that occur. I found myself hurrying to
pick the book up, yet needing to take a breath at each chapter to
recover from the sting of events. All this speaks to the artistry and
to the truth with which Bernstein renders his story.

Bernstein has an uncanny ability to make you appreciate the inner lives
of his characters, their dreams, their ambitions, their struggles and
disappointment — not only on his side of the street but also in the
lives of the non-Jewish residents he comes to know. Bernstein plays a
part in their lives, wittingly and unwittingly, and every event is
deeply felt.

He was the fifth of seven children born to Polish immigrants who had
come to England and were living in a city where the non-Jews worked in
the textile mills, and the Jews in the tailoring shops servicing them.
Although their religion informs and insulates their lives, we see how
World War I and its casualties bring each side together, and also how
the Russian Revolution and the promise of socialism affects the
idealists among them. (There is a marvelous portrait drawn of a newly
arrived young rabbi from Russia, who tells a disbelieving listener
about how the revolution, made to promote equality, has already turned
against the Jews.) It is a world where bigotry reigns on both sides of
the street and where hopes, like Icarus, fall when they dare to fly too
high. That being said, the strength of Bernstein’s book is that it is
not critical or judgmental. It is a book about surviving one’s past —
yet cherishing the details of that lost world as well.

“The Invisible Wall” reminds us of all the things we take for granted
from the shoes on our feet, to the food on our plate, to our
educations, to our choice of spouse and the way we live our lives. Part
of me cries out to read this book to my daughter at night, but that may
put me back in the should have category.

In my case, certainly, the reviews were the reason I bought Bernstein’s
book, but, at the same time, the articles about Bernstein himself may
well have been the reason that I didn’t get around to reading “The
Invisible Wall”: I thought I knew what the book was. I forgot:
Sometimes a book transcends what you assume it is by being great.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.

Memoirs From the Orthodox ‘Minefield’


A quick surf on Amazon.com or a stroll through the local bookstore suggests that we are living in the era of the political memoir. Anyone with enough time to wade through at least a sampling of the abundant “I was there” autobiographies from Beltway vets will end up not only with a better understanding of how the American policy sausage is made, but also with a more intimate portrait of the public servants who do the actual grinding.

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of an editor at a Jewish newspaper, our communal leaders traditionally don’t do memoirs. The result is an incomplete record of a community that operates a multibillion-dollar charity network, has helped frame the debate on domestic issues from civil rights to church-state separation and wields increasing power on the international stage.

The ideal choices to rectify this dearth of insider memoirs would be juicy tell-alls from Abraham Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein. But for now, Dr. Mandell “Mendy” Ganchrow’s recent “Journey Through The Minefields: From Vietnam to Washington, an Orthodox Surgeon’s Odyssey” (Eshel Books) serves as a good first step.

A retired colon-rectal surgeon, Ganchrow arguably has done as much as anyone else to transform the Orthodox community into a growing political force in American and Jewish communal life. From his base in Monsey, N.Y., Ganchrow founded the pro-Israel Hudson Valley PAC, which, under his leadership, became for a time the country’s 100th-largest political action committee. He also helped open the door to significant Orthodox participation in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. During his six-year stint as president of the Orthodox Union (OU), from 1994 to 2000, he put the organization on the national political map by opening its Washington office and increasing its profile on a range of public-policy issues.

All this, of course, is fleshed out in Ganchrow’s book, as is his role as a leading American Orthodox opponent of efforts by Reform and Conservative rabbis to secure government recognition in Israel. (Of particular interest is his account of a top-secret meeting between representatives of all the denominations and the Israeli chief rabbis, apparently the only meeting in 20 years in which Ganchrow had nothing to say.)

The book’s most dramatic sections come at the beginning and end, with the opening pages recounting Ganchrow’s tour of duty in Vietnam and the second-to-last chapter outlining how he led the OU as it was engulfed by a sexual abuse scandal not of his making.

In Vietnam, in 1969, Ganchrow, then a U.S. Army surgeon stationed at the American base at Long Binh, found himself leading a Passover seder for 400 GIs. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, enemy rocket fire hit just 500-1,000 yards away. It stopped just as quickly, but no one could be sure what would happen next.

After thinking for a few seconds, Maj. Ganchrow jumped up onto the table and shouted: “Men, I am the ranking officer in this room. I give you my solemn word that God will allow no harm to befall you if you now perform the mitzvah of sitting back down and finishing the seder.”

Ganchrow would execute a similar maneuver almost a quarter-century later, with the OU reeling from an article in the New York Jewish Week alleging that union officials had spent two decades ignoring credible sexual assault allegations against Rabbi Baruch Lanner, its top youth group leader. With some other prominent OU board members advocating a closing of the ranks, Ganchrow, who to this day insists he learned of the allegations against Lanner from the Jewish Week article, argued that such a step amounted to organizational suicide. Instead, he successfully pushed for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the scandal and to issue a report.

The ensuing investigation led to the resignation of the organization’s top professional, Rabbi Raphael Butler, and the commission’s scathing report appears to have gone a long way toward rehabilitating the OU’s public profile. Still, according to some unofficial estimates, the commission ended up costing $1 million; and some critics on the board still believe that the whole mess could have been settled had Ganchrow simply fallen on his sword and resigned (though this strikes me as a case of wishful thinking). Today, according to Ganchrow, he is essentially a persona non grata in OU circles (and the feeling is apparently mutual, judging from his critique of the direction taken by the organization since the end of his two-term stint as president).

Whether one looks at Ganchrow and sees an endearing streak of spunk or a grating case of stubbornness, he has often proved himself an effective Jewish activist and organizational leader. In addition, it is hard to dispute that the OU appears to be recovering from the Lanner scandal in large part because of Ganchrow’s decision to create the commission and appoint Richard Joel, now president of Yeshiva University, to be its chair.

Of course, this last point probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to any of the American boys sitting at the Passover table in Southeast Asia in 1969, when the Ganchrow gambit was attempted for the first time.

All the soldiers stayed till the end of the seder; no casualties were reported.

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Ami Eden is national editor of The Forward.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.

Sunday

Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).

Monday

Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.

Tuesday

The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96. www.amazon.com

.

Wednesday

Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. www.yiddishecup.com .

Thursday

Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.

Friday

The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

When Marriage Sinks Into Madness


Over the past 40 years, Ted Solotaroff has developed a reputation as a distinguished literary critic and editor. Then, in 1998, at 70, he suddenly appeared, full-blown, on the literary stage as a writer, winning the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for the first volume of his memoirs, "Truth Comes in Blows."

In that narrative, which was also nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, he described a sad, blue-collar American childhood, bracketed by the Depression and World War II; a fractured Jewish world that mirrored the breach between him and his father.

Now Solotaroff offers us postwar America in the 1950s. The memoir, "First Loves," which Solotaroff recalls with an eager and almost innocent candor, is unsparing as it recounts how he fell in love, pursued and eventually married Lynn Ringler, only to lose her as necessary realities — economic and psychological — made their claim on his life. It would seem to be a timeless, perhaps universal, story. But in Solotaroff’s retelling, it is embedded in a struggle with economic hardship and a sense of despair at being the Jewish outsider. It is a portrait of a particular time and place for Jewish Americans.

Solotaroff emerged from the Navy in 1948 looking for access to America. The G.I. Bill was his ticket out of the house and into to the University of Michigan.

When Solotaroff first meets Lynn at a Long Island summer resort, she is a dining room waitress, smart and beautiful. He, in the more menial role of "staff waiter," is smitten at once. She is more distant and mocking; even rejecting at first. Theirs is not an easy courtship; nor, after its successful arc, an easy marriage. They are battered by poverty, by the struggle to complete college, then graduate school and, eventually, to forge two careers. They are not helped by what sounds like a too early side trip down the road of parenthood and all the accompanying pressures of rearing two young boys.

In the end, it is the personality each has brought to this first love that dooms the marriage. She is bright, funny and ambitious, but also mercurial; dependent as well as rejecting. Near the end of their marital wars they discover that she is bipolar, in need of therapy and psychopharmacological help. He, too, requires a leg up from a therapist.

As he and Lynn dance away from and then toward one another, he recognizes that they each have brought dysfunctional personalities to the marriage bed, almost like a strand of DNA passed along by their parents. Still, letting go seems almost impossible. But at the conclusion of 13 years, in 1963, the end becomes inevitable. With advice from her therapist, Lynn is able to push Solotaroff out of the house, and they are finally free of one another.

The title of the memoir is "First Loves" and clearly it refers to the personal conflict — the ups and downs of courtship, marriage and divorce; his first love as a young adult. However, much of the passion and pleasure of those days is reserved for Solotaroff’s other love — the path he pursued to become a literary critic. Today, that energy and drive would probably follow a different path to Hollywood and films, especially in Los Angeles. But in the 1950s the noblest profession for a young Jewish intellectual was to become a writer, and the journey often was not the one Solotaroff took through graduate school, writing programs and studying at the feet of the academic New Critics. We meet, through him, writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Richard Stern, Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz and a host of professors and literary critics.

Solotaroff carries the reader along as he struggles to become a writer of short stories, first as an undergraduate in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Soon enough he is forced to face his own limitations: He is not a fiction writer. It helps that one of the competing writers at Chicago is the young Philip Roth.

His professors encourage him to consider a career as a literary critic and scholar. However, nothing in English and American literary studies relates to his own experience or his Jewish identity. Indeed, the process of getting his doctorate looks as though it requires that he assume a different voice and identity, one that is academic, derivative and Christian.

But fortune was with him. The ’50s were the decade when Jewish American writers — Saul Bellow, Malamud and the early Roth — became a major presence on the literary stage. An appreciative review of Roth’s "Goodbye Columbus" for the Chicago Review secured Solotaroff an assignment (with a little help from Roth) from The Times Literary Supplement for a long essay on Jewish American writers; that in turn indirectly landed him a job as an associate editor with Commentary Magazine. He had his own voice now and his own subject, as well. It was a first love that enabled him to enter the Jewish world of letters, which, because of the times, opened the door into America for him.

It was a heady time of discovery, of clearing the way for subsequent generations of Jewish American writers, men and women who would start with a different assumption: of belonging, of knowing that to be Jewish was to be American. Their American experience understandably has occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century, and their memoirs, when they begin to appear in the decades ahead, will illuminate a different Jewish life, complete with its own first loves — and its own very particular journey, as well. It is almost as though time itself helps define what it is to be a Jew in America.


Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

People of the Book Festival


Jewish books are hot these days.

Jonathan Fass should know; he’s directing the People of the Book – Jewish Book Festival, a program of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, which turns four years old this week. The emergence of the festival is part and parcel of the Jewish book renaissance that’s been sweeping the nation recently.

At a time when Jewish continuity is in, Holocaust memoirs are everywhere and Jewish-themed tomes grace the book reviews of major daily newspapers, the festival has prospered. Several thousand Angelenos attended the 1999 fest. And at this year’s event, Nov. 12-16, you can catch Myla Goldberg (“Bee Season”) and Nomi Eve (“The Family Orchard”) whose stunning debut novels have gleaned national attention (see sidebars). Author Rich Cohen, who’ll read from his partisan saga, “The Avengers” (see story below), had lengthy excerpts of his book published in Newsweek.

Significantly, it’s not an exclusively Jewish shop that is providing the 250 tomes for festival “bookstores” at the West Valley and Westside JCC’s. Rather, it’s the upscale Century City Brentano’s.

Fass has a theory about the explosion of Jewish books. “Jews are the People of the Book, so if there’s a reinvigorating of Jewish identity, it follows there’s a reinvigorating of Jewish literature,” he says.

The festival has come a long way since it was whipped up from scratch by the JCC’s Seville Porush in 1997. The 2000 fest is smaller and more focused than in years past, so it’s more polished, and events aren’t competing against themselves to draw patrons in the megalopolis. “We’ve been learning what works and what doesn’t in a huge city like L.A.,” Fass explains. “We’ve also been trying to reach out to audiences we haven’t targeted before.”

For the first time ever, there’s a singles event, co-sponsored by JDate.com, featuring Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, himself a single guy. Goldstein will talk about his book, “God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places,” chronicling how he set out to find God in tough, scary situations like dog sledding in the Arctic.

Also debuting is a panel discussion highlighting the lesbian Jewish experience, where you can hear Zsa Zsa Gershick, editor of “Gay Old Girls,” profiling lesbian pioneers of the gay liberation movement.

The 10 festival programs, moreover, include children’s storytelling events; Tova Mirvis reading from her book, “The Ladies’ Auxiliary,” set in the Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn.; and a mystery night with “A Conspiracy of Paper,” David Liss’ tale of an 18th century London Jew investigating the mysterious death of his estranged father. Richard Krevolin’s monologue “Boychick,” starring Richard Kline, is another tribute to a misunderstood father by a son out of touch with his Jewish roots. (“Boychick” will run Nov. 18 and 19, but the Nov. 16 performance has been canceled. Advance reservations are necessary to guarantee the festival admission price of $6 per person.)

The goal of the festival is simple. “We wanted to present as wide a range of Jewish literature as possible,” Fass explains.

And while the fest does not yet break even from ticket sales, that’s not the point, adds Fass, the JCCs’ Jewish education specialist. “We lose money,” he says, candidly. “But the goal of Jewish education is not to turn a profit. It’s to help Jews grow Jewishly.”

All festival events are $6 except children’s programs, which are free. A $24 pass allows admission to all events. For more information and to obtain a festival brochure, call (323) 938-2531, ext. 2207.

Israel to Release Eichmann’s Memoirs


Israel has decided to release the memoirs Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann wrote prior to his execution in Israel in 1962.

The decision followed consultations in the Justice Ministry on whether to make the document available for American scholar Deborah Lipstadt in the ongoing London defamation suit brought against her by Holocaust revisionist David Irving.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said Monday the decision reflected Israel’s “historic sense of responsibility” to do “everything possible to fight Holocaust denial.”

Prior to Monday’s decision, the Justice Ministry had been discussing how to release the memoirs, which have been in the state archives for nearly four decades and have been viewed by only a handful of researchers.

Rubinstein said the request to use them in the Holocaust-denial suit expedited the process.

“This trial speeded up the decision to make it available,” Rubinstein said.

Along with publishing the 1,200-page memoirs, Israel will provide a copy of the manuscript for Lipstadt’s lawyer.

Irving is suing Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and her publisher, Penguin Books, charging they libeled him in Lipstadt’s 1994 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”

Irving, who denies that Jews were systematically exterminated at Auschwitz, is claiming that Lipstadt ruined his career by labeling him a Holocaust denier and accusing him of distorting historical data to suit his ideological predilections.

Irving has claimed that Hitler did not know until the final stages of World War II about the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to exterminate European Jewry.

During the Justice Ministry deliberations regarding the release of the memoirs, it was pointed out that Eichmann wrote several times that Hitler was aware of the plan.

While Eichmann maintains in the journal that he was only a mid-level official carrying out orders, he does not deny the Holocaust occurred.

The Lost Bird


Yvette Melanson is a woman who might say the Sh’ma before going to sleep, and in the morning light whisper the Navajo prayer, “May I walk happily and lightly on the earth.” Both are deeply felt, authentic expressions of her soul. As she explains, “I know that I’m Jewish. I feel Jewish. I’ve been raised Jewish. I’m also Navajo.”

Her book, “Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots,” written with Claire Safran (Avon), chronicles her extraordinary life journey. At 43, after facing many sad upheavals but persisting in embracing life, Melanson, who had been adopted by a Jewish family as a young child, learns shocking details about her identity: She was born in a lean-to on a Navajo reservation, stolen from her parents at birth along with her twin brother and passed through a net of underground doctors, nurses and orphanage officials, moved frequently, until she reached her adoptive family in Queens. “Lost bird” is the name that Native Americans give to their lost children, and Melanson asserts that hundreds of thousands of Navajo children were stolen, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Her family never stopped looking for her.

At a time when many memoirs are being published, this one stands out for the astonishing true story it unfolds, written with an open heart. The narrative moves forward and back in time, describing Melanson’s early life with Bea and Larry Silverman, the years after she left their Neponsit home, her experiences among her newly found relatives on the Arizona reservation. Interwoven with her well-told anecdotes are Navajo teachings. One proverb that particularly speaks to Melanson: “Walk in harmony with the universe by being aware of who you are.”

Praised and pampered by the Silvermans, the fair-skinned, green-eyed Melanson grew up in an upper middle-class world of piano lessons and art classes, repeatedly reminded that her parents chose her because she was so special. In her early teens, the protective cocoon was burst when Bea died; Larry remarried a woman who cast her new stepdaughter out of their home. Melanson lived with neighborhood friends until Larry and his wife offered to send her to Israel. There, she lived on Kibbutz Sa’ar in the northern Galilee and flourished, learning Hebrew, falling in love and marrying a fellow kibbutznik. During the Yom Kippur War, she was wounded and her new bridegroom was killed. Larry convinced her to return to America. Although she thought she would return to Israel, she never did.

Still unwelcome in the Silverman home, she joined the U.S. Navy, distinguishing herself for her work. She married a Naval officer who proved to be violent, and she then divorced. When she gave birth, the Silvermans insisted that she give the boy up for adoption, but she resisted, raising Brad with the help of a friend’s family. She later married Dickie Melanson, who had six children, and together they had two daughters, carving out a life in Maine.

Like many adoptees, she never ceased to wonder about her birth family, and began to use the Internet to investigate her background. After her initial correspondence with a woman representing the Navajo family (they had no computer on the reservation), she was skeptical that she, with her fair complexion, could be a Native American. The possibility seemed too unbelievable. But the details of their stories seemed to match, and in a close perusal of the Silvermans’ papers (Larry had died), she found the names Betty Jackson and Yazzie Monroe — the Navajo parents she would come to claim as her own. When Yazzie, a Navajo medicine man, saw her photograph, he knew it was his daughter. Betty had died eight years earlier of esophageal cancer —

the same disease Melanson had suffered from. At the invitation of the Navajo nation and trailed by a pack of reporters, Melanson visited the family in Tolani Lake and received a warm welcome as though she were coming home. Although among Navajos, it is considered impolite to stare, she couldn’t help looking long into the eyes of her brothers and sisters, “drinking in the look of my family, looking for little resemblances between them and me.” She found many similarities. In an interview, she notes, “It was very uncanny the way I slid into this family. I usually hold back. But they thought just the way I did, acted the way I did. It shouldn’t have been — we were raised totally different. But it was just like putting on a kid glove.”

Melanson, her husband and two young daughters then moved to the reservation, eager to get to know their family and to learn the Navajo ways. She also sought to know her mother, and found the woman in the stories people told, by walking in her steps and by learning to weave rugs, as she had done. The Melansons participate in their clan’s rituals and learn about Navajo spirituality and healing, the necessary harmony between body and spirit.

One aunt shows Melanson the exact place where her umbilical chord had been buried. “For Navajos,” she writes, “it’s very important to know where that place is. They believe that if you don’t know where your umbilical cord is buried, then you may be fated to spend all of your life searching for it.” Although life on the reservation is difficult, the experience is a rich one. Ultimately, she finds her twin brother, who had been adopted by a Catholic family, and they are reunited on the reservation.

Melanson, 46, now splits her time between Tolani Lake and her home in Newport, Maine, where her husband is able to get better medical care than in Arizona. In Maine, they support themselves by selling produce along the side of a major road, and she also weaves rugs according to traditional patterns and sells Navajo crafts through a Web site. In a telephone conversation from Maine, the Queens layer of her story is still very evident in her voice.

Comfortable as both a Navajo and a Jew, Melanson continues to celebrate Passover in her home, and her daughters also are confident with their dual Jewish and Navajo identities. She points out several connections between Jewish and Navajo cultures, from dietary restrictions and laws about slaughtering animals to respect for elders and for the land. Reflecting on the circle as a sacred shape for the Navajos, she recalls a conversation with her grandmother about the symbolism of the circle at Jewish weddings, representing the eternal cycle of life. For Melanson, living on a reservation is similar to her experience of living on a kibbutz, with its communal sense of purpose and caring for one another.

Her daughters, now 13 and 14, adore their new grandfather, and they all speak the Navajo language with him. Melanson now understands that her firstborn son’s hyperactivity is common in their family. And, she has learned that she also had some white ancestors, which explains her complexion. When asked about the Silvermans and how much they might have know about her background, she is convinced that Bea didn’t know she was a lost bird.

In the last pages of the book, she writes: “I had gone searching for my family, but I had found myself. I was discovering a new harmony. As a white woman, I had beaten my head against stone walls and broken my heart trying to change what couldn’t be changed. Now I was learning the great Navajo secret — how to live in the world as it is, how to adapt, how to bend in the wind so as not to break.

“I was learning what to leave behind, and what to keep with me forever. I was following a new road of life, but in the Navajo way, it ran parallel to my old Moses road. I was still a woman who looked in the rearview mirror, but I had found the switch that clicked the view from day to night, from now to then, from the glare of pursuing headlights, always there, always following, to a clearer vision.”

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