November 15, 2018

Chabon’s Criticism Backfires

Celebrated author Michael Chabon caused a stir last week with his sharp criticism of Israel in his speech to the graduating class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His criticism was not new. Chabon has already gone on record as saying, “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

His May 14 speech had some deep and eloquent moments, but on the subject of Israel, Chabon seemed to throw that depth away. This disconnect was captured in a Journal op-ed last week by Morin Zaray, a graduate student who attended the commencement ceremony.

“Chabon, as eloquent as he was, viewed Israel in black-and-white terms,” Zaray wrote. “He condemned Israel’s security wall, proclaiming, ‘Security is an invention of humanity’s jailors … putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.’”

In response, Zaray wrote: “Unlike Chabon, I lived in Israel throughout the Second Intifada, and know that the security wall is not a prison. It is a lifeline. I know that the fear of people on the Israeli side is not driven by fake fear or government propaganda, but by constant terrorism that we experience and the loved ones we have lost. I know that the same wall he said he despised enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl.”

Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today.

Zaray’s decision to walk out with her family after the speech added fuel to the controversy, and it became a national story in the Jewish world. JTA characterized Chabon’s criticism, which included a questioning of the mainstream mission of in-marriage among Jews, as a “diatribe.” An online initiative began circulating asking HUC-JIR leaders to issue an apology for inviting Chabon.

In an op-ed in JTA, HUC-JIR administrators responded to the criticism:

“As both an Israeli and American institution, belonging to two proud democracies defined by lively civil discourse, it does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a pre-emptive fear of controversy,” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, the interim president and chancellor emeritus, and Joshua Holo, the dean of the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR. “On the contrary, we know that the confidence to invite challenging ideas both defines and validates democracy in the first place.”

As a free speech junkie, I fully endorse Chabon’s right to criticize Israel and HUC-JIR’s position not to “quash or vilify” this criticism.

My problem is not with the criticism per se, but rather, with the nature of the criticism itself. Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today. Chabon may sincerely believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life,” but how much does that add to the conversation?

Has Chabon, for instance, ever considered the possibility that Palestinian elites benefit from the continuation of the conflict, which may explain why they so often have rejected peace offers?

As Ben-Dror Yemini writes in his new book, “An Industry of Lies”:

“The Palestinian refusal to accept any peace proposal is not only due to historical reasons or a sense of injustice. It is not about more or less concessions. It stems from the fact that the Palestinian elites only benefit from the continuation of the conflict. The Palestinians have become not only the ultimate global symbol of a ‘victim’ and an ‘oppressed people,’ who are supposedly fighting against colonialism and occupation. They have become global celebrities.”

I wish Chabon would have met the Palestinian I met once in Ramallah who was terrified that the minute Israel left the West Bank, terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and ISIS would swoop in, destroy Fatah and start murdering thousands of Palestinians. You rarely hear such complications from self-proclaimed moral arbiters who rail against Israel.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address.

Indeed, the danger of Israel critics like Chabon is that their one-sided takes reinforce the erroneous perception that the conflict is all Israel’s fault, which is exactly the narrative promulgated by Israel’s enemies and the BDS movement.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address. No, not all criticism is created equal. Self-righteous diatribes that just pile on and repeat tired tropes are not as valuable as criticism that urges people to consider the complexity of an issue.

As Zaray wrote: “For someone who presents himself as an intellectual — steeped in nuance — Michael Chabon has a remarkable ability to present a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame.”

Maybe she should be next year’s commencement speaker.

How My Graduation Was Ambushed

Screenshot from Facebook.

I was drawn to the master’s program in nonprofit management at Hebrew Union College because I thought it could be a springboard to pursue my passion for deep, thoughtful Israel advocacy. For most of my life, I’ve dreamed of building a career centered around sharing my love for my complex country, Israel, and spent the past two years working for this diploma to advance that goal. My mother flew from Israel to join me for the graduation ceremony on May 14.

With great pride, I marched into the Stephen S. Wise Temple sanctuary and sat in the front row. Our commencement speaker, author Michael Chabon, took the stage.

Very quickly, it was clear that Chabon, as eloquent as he was, viewed Israel in black-and-white terms. He condemned Israel’s security wall, proclaiming “Security is an invention of humanity’s jailors … putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.”

As I heard his one-sided take, I thought: Unlike Chabon, I lived in Israel throughout the Second Intifada, and know that the security wall is not a prison. It is a lifeline. I know that the fear of people on the Israeli side is not driven by fake fear or government propaganda, but by constant terrorism that we experience and the loved ones we have lost.

I know that the same wall he said he despised enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl.

As I heard Chabon’s simplified takedown of my country, the room began to spin.

Chabon also demonized a group of Israeli Jews: “I have never seen a sorrier and more riotous group of convicts than the Jews of present-day Hebron,” who he asserted lived behind a “wall made from the bodies of teenage soldiers.” It was as if horrific terror attacks have never occurred against these Jews — this “sorriest” and most “riotous” group of “convicts” Chabon has ever seen. Maybe he hasn’t seen the virulent Jew-hatred that permeates Palestinian society.

As I heard Chabon’s simplified takedown of my country, the room began to spin. I turned back to look at my brother, who served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He looked sick to his stomach. I got up from my seat and approached my family. I wanted to stand up and scream, but my voice wouldn’t come out. I felt ashamed for being part of this gathering, ashamed that many in the audience were just nodding at this reductionist view of a multilayered and complicated country.

I asked my mother if not seeing me graduate would disappoint her. She responded that she would feel ashamed to see me walk on that stage after what had been said. We stood up and left the sanctuary. Standing outside, I was nearly brought to tears as I heard the crowd of Jews give Chabon a thunderous applause.

For someone who presents himself as an intellectual — steeped in nuance — Michael Chabon has a remarkable ability to present a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame.

Such a careless disregard for depth and complexity dishonors an institution of higher learning —  particularly a Jewish one — particularly on a graduation day. I wish we would have heard from someone such as Yossi Klein Halevi, who, in my opinion, best captures the complexity of an intractable conflict, and makes me think rather than just react.

In recent years, as I’ve watched the same caricature that Chabon painted on display across the global media, it’s only renewed my determination to share the story of the country I love, with all of its challenges. Next month, I begin my career in the Jewish nonprofit field, guided by two truths: To live as a Jew at a time when there is a Jewish state is an incredible miracle; and this miracle is not the black-and-white narrative people like Michael Chabon would have us believe, but is full of complicated, challenging and fascinating colors.


Morin Zaray is a 2018 graduate of the Hebrew Union College.

A reply to the Chabons’ ‘An Open Letter to Our Fellow Jews’

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Michael Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, have written “An Open Letter to Our Fellow Jews.”

The Chabons let loose their online Jeremiad—addressed “To our fellow Jews, in North America, in Israel, and around the world: What side are you on?”— targeting the Trump-complicit “Court Jews” in and out of the White House including Jared Kushner, Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohen, Sheldon Adelson, etc., etc., etc.:

“You have counted carefully as each appointment to his administration of a white supremacist, anti-Semite, neo-Nazi or crypto-fascist appeared to be counterbalanced by the appointment of a fellow Jew, . . . . You have given your support to the President’s long and appalling record of racist statements, at worst assenting to them, at best dismissing them as the empty blandishments of a huckster at work, . . . You have viewed him as a potential friend to Israel, or a reliable enemy of Israel’s enemies.”

And then the offer this final  haymaker: “You have tried to allay or dismiss your fears with the knowledge that most of the President’s hateful words and actions, along with those of his appointees, have targeted other people — immigrants, Black people, and Muslims — taking hollow consolation in how open and shameless his hate has been, as if that openness and shamelessness guaranteed the absence, in his heart and in his administration, of any hidden hatred for us. . . . So, now you know. First he went after immigrants, the poor, Muslims, trans people and people of color, and you did nothing. You contributed to his campaign, you voted for him. You accepted positions on his staff and his councils. You entered into negotiations, cut deals, made contracts with him and his government. Now he’s coming after you.”

The Chabons’ diatribe should be read in tandem with Dana Milbank’s execration in theWashington Post of “Court Jews” that reminds me of a curse to idolaters written on a pharaoh’s tomb. “These shtadlan . . . existed to please the king, to placate the king, to loan money to the king. He would dress like other members of the court, and he would beg the king for leniency toward the Jews but, ultimately, his loyalty was to the king.”

The Chabons and Milbank are not only certain that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite. They believe it is a moral imperative for everybody else among our coreligionists to share that opinion.

The Chabons’ is a letter that all of us should indeed read.

Anybody who’s read what I have written in the Jewish Journal knows that I never have been, and am not now, a fan of Donald Trump.

Why then do I have qualms about the Chabons’ open letter?

Their piece is a potent symptom of a powerful impulse that at this moment is turning up the moral heat and not just on Trump Administration Court Jews. All Jewish Republicans and conservatives—unless they dance to the Chabon/Milbank tune—receive, at least by implication, a rhetorical roasting.

The problem I have with such denunciations this. Even if the Chabons are 100 percent correct about Trump, their piece represents the opposite vice of Trumpian moral relativism about Charlottesville:  I mean moral absolutism. No  shades of gray, no nuance, no tolerance or benefit of the doubt for the other guy’s motives or predicament.

Moral absolutism comes too close to a form of totalitarianism: I am not comparing it to the Hitler-Stalin variety, of course.  Rather the danger here is something akin to that of the all-virtuous Robespierre during French Revolution.  He guillotined his fellow Jacobin revolutionaries over  any deviations from his political opinions.  It all did not end well for Maximilien Robespierre (himself guillotined in 1794) and the French—unless you are a big fan of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial dictatorship.

The French Jacobins devoured their own back then. We American Jews should not do the same today.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman undermine peace for Palestine

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

One of the reasons I like superhero movies is because it’s always obvious whom to root for.

Let’s take Wonder Woman, because she’s killing it at the box office, and she has the added cachet of minority status, which makes her even more appealing: It’s a no-brainer to cheer for the beautiful woman with superhuman strength and unassailable moral clarity over the treacherous Ares, God of War, who seeks the destruction of humankind.

Simple plots with uncomplicated characters work just fine in fiction. In nonfiction, not so much.

So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The best-selling novelists, husband and wife, currently are on a press tour for a new book they edited, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” which, given the world-class pedigree of the contributors, would appear to be a marvelous book.

The problem is not the work itself but the way Waldman and Chabon are promoting it. In interviews, they have turned their brief tour of the West Bank into undeniable evidence that they’ve discovered the absolute truth of the conflict: It’s Israel’s fault. And they describe the situation in such shallow and simple terms, I half-wondered if “Kingdom” was a children’s book. (It’s not.)

The book is, in fact, a compilation of stories from assorted contributors, including Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel Laureate, that seeks to illuminate the lives of long-suffering Palestinians who have toiled under Israeli occupation for the last 50 years. It’s a noble endeavor. And the pair deserves credit for their good intentions. But the way these two seasoned storytellers are discussing their “findings” is so one-sided, bereft of nuance and oblivious to history, it made this pro-Palestinian American Jew cringe.

The story of the Waldman-Chabon book begins in 2014, when Waldman returned to Jerusalem, the place of her birth, after a long absence. “We couldn’t deal, like so many American Jews, with what it meant to go back,” she said last week during a live internet broadcast sponsored by the New Israel Fund. “We didn’t want to engage.”

But then Waldman was invited to attend the Jerusalem Writer’s Festival. Afterward, members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers seeking to expose and end the occupation, offered to show her around Hebron. There, she saw the impact of Israel’s occupation for the first time — poverty, oppression, injustice. Then she went to Tel Aviv, where she “had an amazing time, [and] got drunk every night.” She decided to do something about this unfair contrast.

She returned home to Berkeley and suggested to her husband that they take up the Palestinian cause through a writing project. “I thought he wouldn’t want to alienate his Jewish audience,” she said, somehow unaware that a majority of American Jews support a two-state solution. “To his credit, without hesitation, he said instantly, ‘Of course, yes, we’ll do this.’ ”

In the spring of 2016, they brought 29 of the world’s most eminent writers to visit — exclusively — the West Bank, East Jerusalem and even Gaza, if they pleased. Afterward, Chabon declared to the Forward that Israeli military occupation is “the most grievous injustice I have seen in my life.”

He should get out more.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s disappointing when you discover that your literary heroes sometimes are myopic and obtuse. That they would spend far more time immersing themselves in the lives of one of their characters than they spent zipping through one of the most complex regions in the world is perplexing. But that hasn’t stopped Waldman and Chabon from casting themselves as daring literati, shining a light in Israel’s dark corners.

“As soon as you start asking questions,” Chabon said, “everything comes back to this massive bureaucracy that …  exists only to remind Palestinian people that they are utterly subject to Israeli power. And the way that power demonstrates itself most effectively, demoralizingly, is not by dropping bombs, bulldozing houses, it’s the everyday tiny indignities to which Palestinians are subjected: What it takes for a Palestinian who needs dialysis to get dialysis, what it takes a Palestinian businessman … to arrange a meeting. The way the rules get changed so whimsically, [it’s] so clear it’s being done on purpose to demoralize, to dehumanize.”

Not everything Chabon says is untrue. I trust he saw “indignities.” But he fails to mention the indignity of total Arab-Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state since the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, and at least half a dozen times since then. For someone who’d be short a few novels without Jewish history, how conveniently he chooses to ignore it.

For “Kingdom” Chabon wrote about Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman he admires for persevering despite the odds, for “building this glass palace while missile strikes are occurring all around him.” That Israel experiences much the same thing is an irony apparently lost on him.

The conflict that has mystified and humbled generations of experts and world leaders is, for these two writers, superhero simple: Palestinians, good; Israeli government, evil.

But this is what happens when serious writers engage in conflict tourism. And it is unworthy of their gifts. What a shame to marry such weighty voices to a shortsighted conclusion. It gives their experience, and their book, a gravitas it hasn’t earned.

“This conflict is not a morality play where one side is all right and the other is all wrong,” American diplomat Dennis Ross said when I reached him by phone. Ross has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an envoy, expert and direct negotiator serving the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.

“When you demonize one side, you don’t make it easier for two sides to reconcile,” he said. “You make it harder.”

An interview with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman about confronting the Occupation

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

half-century ago, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I attended a rally in support of Israel at the Hollywood Bowl. At that moment, Israel was fighting for its life, and the anxious crowd did not yet know the war would be over in only six days. We could not even imagine that victory on the battlefield would change not only the shape of Israel but its identity and destiny, too.

Best-selling authors, and husband and wife, Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Ayelet Waldman (“A Really Good Day,” “Love and Treasure”) — perhaps the most accomplished literary couple in contemporary American letters — have chosen the anniversary of the Six-Day War to call our attention to the darker aspects of Israel’s historic victory in “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” (HarperPerennial).

The book is a project of Breaking the Silence, which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

The authors will participate in a public conversation about “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence at 8 p.m. on June 5 at the Pico Union Project on Valencia Street. The event is co-sponsored by IKAR, the New Israel Fund and HarperPerennial. (Information and tickets for the event are available at olivesandashtour.nif.org.)

When Waldman attended the Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival in 2014, members of Breaking the Silence took her on a tour of Hebron.  The experience inspired her and Chabon to recruit some two dozen writers to visit the West Bank and Gaza and report on what they saw for what would become “Kingdom of Olives and Ash.” The contributors include Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron; publishing powerhouse Dave Eggers; Chabon’s fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Lorraine Adams and Geraldine Brooks; and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. In their essays, all of them serve as eyewitnesses to life on the ground in the territories that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War, and their testimony shines a light on aspects of the daily conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that are mostly invisible in media coverage.

“Storytelling itself — bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered — has the power to engage the attention of people, like us, who had long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up,” Waldman and Chabon explain in their introduction to the anthology.

In advance of their upcoming appearance, I spoke with the authors by phone.

Jonathan Kirsch: You write about yourselves that “we didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.”  What caused you to shun the subject for so long, and what attracted your attention now?

Ayelet Waldman: What caused us to shun the subject was the incessant cycle of oppression and violence, the refusal of Israel in particular to acquiesce to any meaningful peace process, the round after round of failed endeavors, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. We decided that, as people who believe in equal rights and the principles embodied in the United States Constitution, we couldn’t rationalize our moral values with the Israeli governmental policies. But it also seemed like we couldn’t do anything or change anything. And so we just turned our back so we wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. The change happened when I went to Hebron and saw the reality on the ground, which was infinitely worse than my worst imaginings. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I realized that I couldn’t turn my back on the injustices that were taking place an hour’s drive away.

JK: The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is the occasion for celebration in most Jewish circles. What has been the reaction to your book, which is decidedly not celebratory?

AW: Where you see the real rage is in the idea that, “This is my goddamn holiday — how dare you not let me celebrate it?” The Six-Day War was a moment when, yes, the Israeli army was victorious over other armies that sought to end the country, but it was also the beginning of this brutal occupation that has now lasted for 50 years. If there were no occupation, there would be no book. If there were no occupation, I might be dancing a horah in the streets of Tel Aviv.

JK: American Jews who hold dissenting opinions about Israeli policy sometimes feel awkward about expressing them out loud and especially in public on the grounds that our children are not the ones at risk. What makes you feel empowered and even obliged to speak out?

AW: It’s a convenient tool of oppressors to say: It’s not your business. On the most basic level, we are all taxpayers. Israel is the single largest beneficiary of American foreign aid. As long as $4 billion go to a government that is oppressing millions of people, we have the right to say no. On a higher level, we are humans, and as humans we have a right and a duty to speak up against oppression. And if Israel calls itself the homeland of the Jews, and we are Jews, we have the right to say: Not in my name.

JK: In your introduction to the book, you chose to refer to “Palestine-Israel” rather than Israel and Palestine. Did you discuss that choice of language?

AY: Endlessly, back and forth, back and forth. But we didn’t have a rule for the other writers who contributed to the book. Even the simplest thing — the word you use to identify a place — is such a fraught decision that we told the writers: You’re just going to have to figure it out for yourself.

Michael Chabon: Maybe we should just call it “Semite Land.”

JK: Do you see a constituency for a two-state solution?

AY: It has become very convenient for the government of Israel to pretend to support a two-state solution in order to prevent a full-scale international boycott. If Israel admitted that they have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state, there would be no more travel to Europe for people with Israeli passports, no more diplomatic relations, and Israel would be cut off as a pariah state. The pretense is that Israel is willing to accept a two-state solution but the Palestinians are not.

MC: And while the Israel government is saying it, they are making it absolutely impossible.

JK: You quote an Israeli Defense Ministry official as saying, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” The thought will occur to more than a few of your readers that the Palestinians don’t Gandhi very well, either. Do you see a solution to the problem that is created when Palestinians turn to violence as an act of protest and Israel responds with violence?

MC: Those who hurt other people are simultaneously hurting themselves, but that’s equally true of Israel. The attempt to combat the perceived or actual violence coming from Palestine is doing great harm to Israelis.

AW: I do think that the best way to combat a violent oppressor is controlled nonviolence. Suicide bombers give the Israeli government the cover it needs to continue to oppress. On the other hand, when people are traumatized and hopeless, the trauma and hopelessness leads to violent behavior.

JK: Michael, you write about how every experience in the West Bank is freighted with political meaning, even flushing a toilet, since water is scarce for the Palestinians and plentiful for Israelis. And you make the point that privation is as much a part of the occupation as checkpoints and barbed wire. Are you concerned that there is much talk about sovereignty but much less talk about poverty and scarcity when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians?

MC: That was my primary takeaway from my brief encounter with the occupation — the realization that what’s happening right now has ultimately nothing to do with the one-state solution, the two-state solution, the right of return and all of those other issues that everyone gets themselves entangled in. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is irrelevant whose fault it is. What’s relevant is how to put a stop to it immediately so the suffering comes to an end. The vast majority of people — children, families, ordinary people — are not terrorists; they are just trying to survive. It’s a burning house. When a house is on fire and people are trapped inside, you don’t stand around outside and argue about who started it. You put it out.

JK: Are you concerned that some politicians in Israel have called for the exclusion of writers and activists who criticize the policies of the current Israeli government?

MC: Ayelet actually tweeted an open challenge to [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu to try and keep her out.

AW: I gave him our flight number and arrival date to make it easy for them. We will wait and see. 


JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.

At what price progress?

Michael Chabon, the literary wunderkind, won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which conjured up the American comic book industry in the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s. His latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue” (HarperCollins: $27.99), flashes forward to the embattled America in which we live today and focuses on the ragged edge of our popular culture, where comic books, trading cards and vinyl records have been reduced to the status of swap-meet “collectibles.” Still, Chabon continues to see something essential and even metaphysical in the fabulous variety of such cultural artifacts.

The focal point of the new novel is Brokeland Records, a used-record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose very existence is threatened by the planned opening of a megamall known as the “Dogpile Thang.” The arch villain is Gibson Goode, a former pro quarterback who has reinvented himself as a business mogul, “the fifth-richest black man in America.” The battleground is found among the multiethnic neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, a place where — at least as Chabon imagines it — a former Black Panther who works his own rough justice on a local drug dealer with a sawed-off shotgun can end up on the City Council. 

The heroes of the piece are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of Brokeland Records, and their spouses, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe (“the Alice Waters of midwives”), who operate Berkeley Birth Partners and are waging a war of their own against corporate medicine. What’s at stake in the lives of all of Chabon’s characters, however, goes far beyond the threats posed by the shopping mall or the for-profit hospital. A moral code, a civilizing aspiration and a whole way of life — all symbolized here by the subculture of the collectible — are endangered by the corporate commercialism.  

“Though Mr. Nostalgia loved the things he sold, he had no illusion that they held any intrinsic value,” writes Chabon of one character who trafficks in trading cards of various kinds. “They were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you.  Their value was indexed only in the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist.”

The same cosmic calculation applies to the vinyl records that Archy and Nat buy and sell out of their storefront operation on Telegraph. One of their valued customers, for example, works as an attorney to support his habit as “a three-hundred-dollar-a-month abuser of polyvinyl chloride.” But the owners of Brokeland Records are growing weary of “the gloomy professional prospect of endless Dumpster dives and crate digs, every day dropping like a spindled platter on top of the next.” From their discouraged perspective, selling out to the diabolical mall developer sometimes seems like a kind of salvation.

“You’re offering me a job,” Archy says to Goode, who replies: “You could look at it that way. Or you could look at it, I am offering you a mission.”

The threat that the Dogpile Thang poses to Brokeland Records is almost beside the point, because, as Chabon explains, “the truth was, they were already f—ed.” The real problem is that the very earth beneath their feet is shifting, and the little cracks in the American economy that once sheltered marginal guys like Archy and Nat were closing up. “Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind,” writes Chabon, “Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.”

The narrative thrust of “Telegraph Avenue” — a long, leisurely and lyrical novel — runs on several parallel tracks, including the familial yearnings and failings of its leading characters, the hothouse politics of the idiosyncratic East Bay, and the seismic tremors that unsettle contemporary America. I suspect that all of these story lines are close to Chabon’s heart; he is, after all, writing about the place where he lives and works, and he breathes life into characters that could exist nowhere else.

But Chabon’s real genius is the fuguelike language of literary ornamentation that adorns all of his work, the riffing and raving of a writer in love not only with the meaning of words, but also with their rhythm and sound, “a strange fizz of wonder [that] seemed to engulf him, as if he had been dropped like an ice cube into a glass of sparkling water,” if I may repurpose one characteristic flourish.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Coen brothers, Chabon teaming up on ‘Yiddish Policemen’

” border = 0 width = ‘300’ vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘right’>collaboration is sure to stoke the imaginations of Yiddishists and Jewish film buffs alike. And also like “Munich,” it’s sure to engender some controversy, too.

Set in Sitka, a fictional Yiddish semi-state in Alaska created to shelter Jewish refugees after Israel’s lost war of independence, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a noirish crime novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Sitka is a place filled with Yiddish pimps and prostitutes, drug addicts and degenerates. Where the Chasidic kingmakers are the scheming villains, and the hard-living detectives turn out to have hearts of gold.

The plot turns on the murder of the wayward son of a Chasidic rebbe, a drug-addled chess prodigy found dead in his room at a seedy hotel. Meyer Landsman, the hard-boiled homicide detective investigating the murder, gets more than he bargained for — as noir detectives always do — when he uncovers a plot by Jewish zealots to ignite a war in the Middle East and retake Jerusalem.

Richly conceived and phenomenally detailed, Chabon’s Sitka is home to just the sort of improbable characters that populate Coen brothers films. It is the Coen brothers, after all, who gave the world The Dude, the hero of their 1998 film “The Big Lebowski,” a blissed-out stoner and bowling devotee who finds himself negotiating the return of a bimbo wife from her supposed kidnappers.

And their love of genre films, particularly screwball comedies and film noir, seems perfectly suited to a novel that contains distinct elements of both.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” was released to critical acclaim in 2007. But among some Jewish writers, the book created a sense of unease, and even barely suppressed outrage, some of which is sure to resurface when the film is released.

Claiming Chabon was sending a clear anti-Zionist message, Ruth Wisse, a noted Yiddish scholar at Harvard University, demolished the novel in a withering essay in Commentary magazine, calling it a “sustained act of provocation,” among other denigrations; Commentary’s editor-in-waiting John Podhoretz and journalist Samuel Freedman offered similar criticisms of the novel. A decidedly less scholarly view was expressed in a New York Post story, headlined “Novelist’s Ugly View of Jews.”

One can only imagine what these critics will have to say once the Coen brothers, with their Jewish fluency and twisted sense of humor, get their hands on Chabon’s prose.

The upcoming film is being produced by Scott Rudin, who reportedly bought the rights to the book five years ago, before it was even completed, and the film is not expected before mid-2009. But industry skeptics are rightly wary. The film version of one of Chabon’s earlier novels, the award-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” has been reported to be in the works for years, with direction by another famous Jewish filmmaker, Sydney Pollack.

But regardless of whether the film version of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” ever sees the light of day, the news alone has been enough to set the blogosphere on fire with overheated speculation.

“This is the greatest fit ever,” one Israel-based blogger heaved. “I can’t picture any other director tackling this book and doing it right. What a great fit. Yiddish Noir!!!”

Chabon novel spins dizzying tale of alternative history, and Alaska

In 1913, Dr. Emanuel Lasker wrote a 500-page book advancing his idea of a macheide. A macheide, meaning “son of battle,” is a being whose senses are so sharpened by evolution, by struggle, that he always chooses the best and most efficient method of perpetuating himself.

On the chessboard, for example, the macheide would always make the best move, which would result (as a chessmaster once remarked) in the sad result that after the first game between two macheides, chess would cease to exist.

Lasker was a remarkable man: the longest-reigning chess champion, friend of Albert Einstein (who wrote the forward to a biography of Lasker). Lasker pestered Einstein with plausible but mistaken objections to his theory of relativity. After some neglect, Lasker is making a kind of comeback.

Not the real Lasker, perhaps, but the anti-Lasker. For the crime victim who goes under the name “Lasker” in Michael Chabon’s new book is the opposite of a macheide. He always makes the wrong choice and so do the many eccentric, eloquent, farcical and fascinating characters who try to unravel his fate. In fact, this Lasker turns out to be tied in to uprooted rabbinic dynasties and the ultimate redemption of the world. Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an easy book to love but a hard one to describe.

Shysters chase ambulances; critics chase influences. How to characterize this Chandler-Babel stew? Let’s try the Hollywood idiom. “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is Woody Allen meets Cornel Woolrich. No, better, deeper: S.J. Perelman meets Y.L. Peretz meets Harry Turtledove. Martin Amis meets Stanley Elkin who is chatting with Sholom Aleichem about Jorge Luis Borges.

Enough. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen of the Jewry, is a virtuoso of language speaking what Cynthia Ozick called for years ago — a “new Yiddish.” In other words, English inflected to the platzing point.

Chabon’s sentences cry out for anthologizing: the night “has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat”; the coffee machine “hawks and spits like a decrepit Jewish policeman after ten flights of steps.” One man is described as “sober as a carp in a bathtub.”

Chabon is not only writing about Yiddish, his metaphors have picked up a Yiddish flavor. He can still let fly with a more conventionally stinging description — a group of girls is as “vehement and clannish as schools of philosophy” — but he has basted his language in another world, and it comes out, well, geshmeckt.

Much has been made of Chabon’s mixing of genres. There is a noir mystery, a counterhistory narrative (in which Israel is no more and the Jews have set up an unstable colony in Alaska), a tall tale, a rapid-fire vaudevillian exchange of quips. Many of the tropes are familiar from detective stories. The lead detective is thrown off the case; he has an ex-wife whom he still loves; his partner tries to coax him from various beckoning forms of self-destruction, but the genre mix is a showcase.

The core of the enterprise is to convey the expressive tang of Yiddish in a modern, self-conscious novel. When Saul Bellow was advised by his English teacher to give up literature, because it was not “native” to him, he resolved to show he could run monarchical rings around the king’s English by mixing it with the demotic and savvy sound that was his birthright.

The generations have reversed their position. Bellow was the immigrant determined to show up the native. Chabon in this book is the native novelist proving that he can recreate the angled prose and wistful alienation of the immigrant. “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an elegant act of reclamation.

A plot summary is almost beside the point, although the plot itself is not beside the point.

The detective, Meyer Landsman (like Meyer Lansky, but one of us), is a self-destructive, disenchanted Jewish nebbish with a hint of power. Crossing his path are other transplanted Jews, the native Alaskan tribe and a mystery that begins small and grows. Like all the best mysteries — and this gives the book its essential noir flavor — what we see is only a part of the whole. We have to intuit more, feel more; this is Alaska, after all, the land of icebergs.

Counterhistorical narratives are popular these days.

Some eminent historians, like Niall Ferguson, have published volumes of what might have happened but did not. They fall into two categories — what we escaped and what we lost. Chabon’s book is both: What we escaped was the destruction of the new state in its cradle, a second blow from which the Jewish world might never have recovered. What we lost was the chance to set up elsewhere a relatively pressure-free existence, where the remnant of Yiddish life would have assumed new and improbable forms.

Obviously, the loss would have been far greater than the gain, but that is part of what makes the exercise so fascinating. This is a peculiarly nostalgic book, nostalgic for what never was.

There is a sweet sadness at its heart. No one should open it with the expectation of reverence, however. Reverent novels exist, they have dun-colored dust jackets and gather reverent dust. Those who open books in the hope of wild imaginings, vertiginous, spiraling, motor-powered language, a driving plot with characters whose struggles are in equal parts funny and absurd, will find it here in spades. Sam Spades. Sam Spadowitz.

Oh, never mind. Read the book.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books will appear monthly in The Journal.

In Spring a reader’s fancy turns to thoughts of … books

Michael Chabon’s Alaskan Adventure

In Michael Chabon’s invented world, Yiddish is spoken in the Alaskan panhandle.

After World War II, the Federal District of Sitka in Alaska — not Israel — became the homeland for the Jews.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins, May, $26.95) is the much-anticipated novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” While Chabon has published short stories, a novella and a novel for young adults, this is his first full-length work of fiction since 2000. Film rights have already been bought by Scott Rudin.

Sitka is “a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, across Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl….”

The novel is set in the present, and Sitka is reverting to Alaskan control, after 60 years of prosperous times for the Jews. Homicide Det. Meyer Landsman of the District Police discovers the corpse of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, but his investigation is mysteriously ordered closed. This is a hard-boiled detective story that’s an homage to 1940s noir, a love story, a meditation on identity and faith and a celebration of language, spiced with Chabon’s distinctive humor.

Chabon’s first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” was originally written for his master’s degree from the University of California, Irvine, and became a national bestseller. His other novels include “Wonder Boys” and “Model World”; his adventure novel, “Gentlemen of the Road,” is now running in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.

Born in 1963, Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community with utopian aspirations, and has lived in California for the last 20 years. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children.
Chabon will embark on a 15-city author tour, making two unusual stops — in Anchorage and Juneau.

Chabon will speak in Los Angeles on May 9, 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles; and May 10, 7 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, visit www.michaelchabon.com.

Einstein, Times Two



Two new biographies look closely at the life and work of the 20th century’s most celebrated mind, Albert Einstein, whose name — and shock of hair — has come to symbolize genius.

Veteran journalist Walter Isaacson, formerly managing editor of Time magazine and chairman and CEO of CNN, who now heads the Aspen Institute, has written “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (Simon & Schuster, April, $32), following his best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin.

A journalist with a background in physics, Jurgen Neffe is the author of “Einstein: A Biography,” translated by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May, $30). His book was a bestseller in Germany when it was published in 2005, on the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Isaacson’s book is based largely on newly released personal letters of Einstein. More than 3,500 pages of correspondence between Einstein and his two wives and children, along with photos, were released last year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The release was made in accordance with the will of Einstein’s stepdaughter, Margot.

Isaacson probes Einstein’s private side, as well as how his mind worked. He sees Einstein as a rebel from childhood, always questioning conventional wisdom; his character, curiosity, creativity and passion for freedom were interconnected, driving his life, science and politics.

As Isaacson writes, “His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe….”

Isaacson is also the author of “Kissinger: A Biography” and co-author of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made”; he lives in Washington, D.C.
Neffe looks at Einstein as a parent and physicist, as a citizen and a Jew and as an American. He writes of his complicated subject: “He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction. Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other. He was a friend to some, an enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends.”

He adds, “Rarely has a single individual been so far-sighted and myopic at the same time.”

The English version was updated to include information from the recently published 10th volume of Einstein’s collected papers.

Isaacson will discuss and sign “Einstein: His Life & Universe” on April 27, 7 p.m., at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena.

Memoirs from Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber, both 95

In this age of memoir, two new volumes are particularly notable for their wisdom and the age of their writers: Both Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber are 95. Bernstein is a first-time author, making his literary debut with “The Invisible Wall” (Ballantine, March, $22.95), and Gruber is a veteran author and journalist. “Witness” (Schocken, April, $27.50) is her 19th book.

The wall of Bernstein’s title is the figurative barrier running down the middle of the street in a northern English mill town on the eve of World War I. On opposite sides were Jewish families and Christian families; the two didn’t speak, although they had much in common in terms of poverty as well as prejudice. Written from the perspective of a young boy, the memoir details how the author’s sister crossed the line, falling in love with a brilliant young Christian man. Harry was the go-between, hiding their secret. He describes the atmosphere inside their home and outside in the fear-filled world.

Bernstein, who lives in Brick, N.J., began this book about four years ago after his wife died. At his age, he says, people have less of a present and no future, so the past becomes larger. When he started thinking about his childhood, the memories came easily.

Chabon Crusades for Fun Literature

“The Final Solution: A Story of Detection” by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $16.95).

Depending on their authors’ predilections, so-called “literary” novels are often unsettling, disturbing, enlightening or tragicomic. They are not, in the main, much fun. Fun is left to hacks, those genre writers who churn out the chick-lit blockbusters, weepy romances, thrillers, sci-fi fantasies and blood-and-guts horrors that dominate the best-seller lists.

Michael Chabon is the shining exception to this rule. He’s a literary writer on a crusade to put the pleasure back into our reading experiences. In his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the fun begins in the title — “Amazing,” a word not often deployed in contemporary literature — and carries through all 639 pages. Chabon next reclaimed the “low” genres (the mystery, ghost story, etc.) by editing “McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,” a collection of such yarns by famous literary and genre writers intended, in Chabon’s words, to remind us “how much fun reading a short story can be.” (Although it received mixed reviews, the anthology was successful enough to warrant a sequel, the forthcoming “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.”)

“The Final Solution” — a brilliant and unswervingly entertaining novella — is Chabon’s latest sally against the dastardly forces of literary dreariness. As the subtitle proclaims, this is a “Story of Detection,” a good ol’ fashioned whodunit complete with slaying, sleuthing and a coterie of suspects. But while mystery keeps tension high until the last page, the book’s ultimate interest lies less in discovering the murderer and more in the author’s exuberant unfolding of the stories of all those involved.

At the core of “The Final Solution” are 9-year-old German Jewish refugee Linus Steinman and an African gray parrot named Bruno. Linus never speaks; Bruno habitually recites curious series of German numbers — “Neun neun drei acht zwei sechs sieben” — and both are highly surprising to discover in the British countryside in July 1944, while World War II rages on the continent. As such, they are a “puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies” for a long-retired and once-famous detective who has spent the past several decades in secluded retirement, consumed with beekeeping. When Mr. Shane, a guest at the boarding house where Linus and Bruno live, is bludgeoned to death and Bruno disappears, the old detective reluctantly agrees to take the case.

In each short chapter, Chabon’s omniscient narrator perches on a different character’s shoulder and relates events as seen through the eyes of that person (or, in one example, the bird). Among the picturesquely odd personages embroiled in the murder and bird-napping are Kumbhampoika Thomas Panicker, “who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a boot heel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar” and proprietor of the boarding house; Reggie Panicker, the vicar’s delinquent son and the police’s primary suspect; and Parkins, a supposed architectural historian who, strangely enough, works at a local “Research Dairy,” which, strangely again, is guarded by National Security.

While everyone hopes to retrieve Bruno and the intriguing string of German numerals in his brain, no one involved seems particularly perturbed by the murder itself. Mr. Panicker, for one, is delighted that Mr. Shane’s untimely death has brought into his life the old detective and “the unlikely possibility, all the more splendid for its unlikeliness, of adventure.”

For the careful reader, “The Final Solution” is an equally delightful adventure, not only because of the swift and engrossing plot but also on account of Chabon’s extravagantly rich prose. Inset in his elegant sentences are words and names as rare and dazzling as precious stones: “ecru laid,” “mundungus,” “serried,” “ignus fatuus,” “rep necktie,” “Webley,” “blackthorn,” “Der Erlkonig.” Far from pretentious, Chabon’s diction welcomes the reader into lost worlds — for example, the world of British beekeeping circa 1944. One piece of advice: Don’t read Chabon without Internet access – you’ll find yourself wanting to Google something on almost every page.

Along with offerings of humor, adventure and linguistic luxuriousness, Chabon finds time for pathos and poetry. His story transpires in an England scarred by war, and the attempted extermination of the European Jews alluded to in the title hangs over the book. This is a story of survival and survivors. Referring to London, the narrator says: “They had bombed it; they had burned it; but they had not killed it.”

The parrot’s German numbers occasion beautiful musings on the powers and curses of memory, many of them articulated through the perspective of Bruno himself. The numbers “lingered far longer and more vividly in his mind than any of the thousand other songs he could sing, for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy’s mama and papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them.”

I am unable to offer further interpretation of the fascinating ways the solutions to Chabon’s mysteries intertwine with the legacies of the Holocaust, lest I spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that in Linus Steinman, the mute refugee with the parrot on his shoulder, Chabon has created an immensely resonant and original figure of the survivor. That he’s able to touch on issues of such seriousness, in a novella that is such fun to read, is just one more sign of his immense talent.

Reprinted courtesy of The Forward,

-->

Boys Wonder

Joe [incredulous]: Jewish superheroes?

Sammy: What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick up a name like that for himself.

A day after Yom Kippur, Michael Chabon, with his telegenic looks – long dark locks, piercing clear eyes – does not stand out amidst the young and the beautiful circulating through Chateau Marmont. However, as a writer, the 37-year-old – best known for the 1995 novel “The Wonder Boys” – has stood out in the publishing world since graduating from college in the mid- 1980s.

Chabon’s latest, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (Random House), chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Clay and his Czechoslovakian refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier – cartoonists who create, then lose control of their biggest creation: the Escapist. Set in the World War II-era Golden Age of comic books – when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism – the story echoes the real-life tragedy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers who concocted Superman, only to naively forfeit the rights.

Five years in the making, Chabon’s novel not only encapsulates the author’s childhood-forged passion for superhero comics, but also his recent rediscovery of his own Jewish culture. The book’s strength lies in its rich universe of Jewish characters and metaphors, as the Golem of Prague, Harry Houdini and Europe at the dawn of World War II all figure prominently. And while some publishers might consider a saga containing the double whammy of overtly Jewish themes and comic books as an elixir for disaster, Chabon was surprised by how receptive his associates were to his concept.

“I was sort of talking initially to my agent about various book ideas,” Chabon told The Journal, “and it was the one she jumped on right away. My editor had the same reaction. She’s not Jewish, she never read a comic book in her life.”

Researching “Kavalier & Clay,” Chabon conducted firsthand interviews with legends of the field: Marvel Comics’ guru Stan Lee, “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner, Martin “Green Lantern” Nodell, and on and on. As Chabon learned, “Almost all of the major characters – with the possible exception of Wonder Woman – were created by Jews. I wondered, ‘What was that about?’ As soon as I started thinking about it and doing some reading into the history of comics, especially superhero comics, it’s immediately apparent.”

Indeed, the Golem of Prague looms large in Chabon’s book, as symbolic of the Jewish storytelling tradition; as precursor to the modern superhero idiom; as a reminder of Kavalier and Clay’s Ashkenazi roots. While Chabon originally included the Golem in a passing reference, his chat with Eisner, who referenced the legendary champion of the Jewish people, led Chabon to reevaluate the clay giant. Several drafts later, the Golem had insinuated itself into a greatly expanded role. Like the original Golem rising in a besieged medieval shtetl, Chabon said the character “popped into my life kind of right when I needed it.”

The link between the Golem and the American superhero is clear to Chabon, who cites the “messianic” component of early Superman editions, when the Man of Steel – with powers less godlike and more earthbound (Superman originally did not fly) – served as a champion of the oppressed.”It was not about fighting supervillains,” said Chabon, “but rescuing people from bosses that were exploiting them.”

One eye-catching item in “Kavalier & Clay” comes at the end of the lengthy acknowledgments, where Chabon dedicates not only this comics-themed work but every story he has ever written to Jack Kirby – co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and hundreds more. Chabon never did meet the prolific cartoonist, a tough Depression-era New Yorker born Jacob Kurtzberg who died in 1994.

“The greatest thing about Kirby that I ultimately find so inspiring,” said Chabon, “is the sheer fecundity of his imagination. The way he could just toss off, in a throw-away story, seven or eight different ideas that other writers would be happy to have an entire series built around. He was such an unstoppable force.”

For years, Chabon was somewhat disconnected from his own Jewish heritage.”As I had children, I found myself coming back to it and looking at it in a whole different light,” said Chabon, who lives in Berkeley.

With his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3, Chabon actively attends a Jewish Renewal congregation called Kehilla Community Synagogue and sits on the synagogue’s board.

“It is through Kehilla that I see myself, at least in the foreseeable future, defining my Jewish identity,” said Chabon.

Like many young men of his generation, Chabon’s entry into literature began with comic books, particularly the steady diet of Marvel titles he avidly consumed in the 1970s. By his own account, his childhood was “a standard suburban Jewish upbringing in Columbia, Maryland,” where his family occasionally attended synagogue. Chabon’s parents have Polish, Lithuanian and Russian roots. His father, a former pediatrician and lawyer, now works as an executive for Mutual of Omaha, his mother as an attorney. The family name is either Moldavian or Belarussian and means “shepherd.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon attended the University of California at Irvine, where his professor, MacDonald Harris, forwarded Chabon’s thesis to a literary agent. That project became Chabon’s well-received 1988 debut, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and that literary agent, Mary Evans, represents the writer to this day.

In the early 1990s, Chabon agonized over, then abandoned his original follow-up to “Mysteries” after amassing thousands of pages. His critically acclaimed sophomore novel, “Wonder Boys,” hit movie theaters earlier this year starring Michael Douglas and directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”). While the film version failed to find its audience, Paramount believes in it enough to rerelease the movie this month, in time for Oscar consideration. And producer Scott Rudin has tapped Chabon to adapt “Kavalier & Clay” as a motion picture.

“It’s going to be incumbent on me not to be too protective as a screenwriter,” said Chabon, who was pleased with Steven Kloves’s “Wonder Boys” screenplay.

By translating his book to celluloid, Chabon hopes to direct new interest to the long-maligned medium he cherishes.

“Comics had already existed for 40 or 50 years as this art form that nobody had paid attention to,” said Chabon. “There was never a critic who stood up and had the guts to say, ‘I read comics. I like comics.'”

Fortunately for comic book fans, one writer has.