“The Golem of Hollywood”: A grisly L.A. mystery

They have a way of scaring you, of chasing sleep away, these psychological thrillers that send your heart thumping. Imagine, then, what you are in for when two masters of the genre decide to collaborate. The result is “The Golem of Hollywood,” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) by bestselling authors Jonathan Kellerman (The Alex Delaware series) and his son, Jesse Kellerman (“Potboiler,” “Trouble”), a story infused with mysticism, mythology, Jewish rituals and fantastical creatures. There’s the Golem of the title, of course, but also a mysterious woman, a serial killer (or more) and a bug — yes, a mean, jealous beetle that has a way of rearing her horned head at the most inappropriate time to haunt our poor protagonist, Jacob Lev.      

Detective Jacob Lev is the son of Sam Lev, a kindhearted rabbi and one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. Jacob’s mother, Bina Reich Lev, is an accomplished artist, but her psychological problems make her appear like a “terrorist” to her son, “holding all of them hostage. She argued with voices. She broke things. She stayed in the garage for days without eating or sleeping.”

No wonder Jacob is depressed and has a drinking problem. 

And, to add to his woes, he wakes up one morning to a blurry memory of having spent the previous night with a blonde — or a brunette, he is not sure —  who has disappeared, leaving him wondering about his state of mind. That can be problematic in a story that deals with fantasy. Are the strange events that follow truly happening or are they a figment of Jacob’s imagination?

Soon after the mysterious disappearance of the woman, Jacob is assigned a top-secret case.

A severed head has been discovered in a deserted house in the Hollywood Hills. “The bottom of the neck had been sealed … pinched together as if pulled by a drawstring.” There is “explosive vomit in one neat pile.” You’d better have a stomach for such gory stuff.  

The Hebrew word “tzedek,” meaning “justice,” is burned into the kitchen counter close by. It appears, then, that the only reason this case is assigned to Jacob is his Jewish background. 

Jacob embarks on a complicated, often chilling journey of discovery that takes him from Los Angeles to Prague and London. The story moves back and forth between modern times and the biblical account of Cain and Abel and their sister, Asham, who covets her brother Abel. The contemporary dialogue is clever and fast-paced, but it becomes jarring when biblical characters speak in the same manner. Imagine Cain handing Asham a stick and saying, “Here. … You look like you could use it.” Or Asham telling Abel, “Last I checked …” Or “Don’t exaggerate.” I doubt this is the way the offspring of Adam and Eve would have communicated. It is not until well into the novel that the connection between the past and present stories becomes clear, and this reader felt herself being yanked away from the present of the story and longing to return to the real action.

Among the pleasures of reading The Hollywood Golem,” especially for an Angeleno like myself, is trailing detective Lev through the familiar streets of Los Angeles on his quest to solve the mystery of the severed head. Equally enjoyable is revisiting the legend of the Golem of Prague, albeit an entirely different type of Golem than the one that the 16th-century talmudic scholar and mystic Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the Maharal of Prague) fashioned from clay to protect the Jewish populace from persecution. But, above all, it is a pleasure to witness the developing relationship between Jacob and Sam and how life forces father and son into acknowledging, accepting and even appreciating their differences. 

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.

Billboard mystery ends with interfaith twist

The mysterious billboards went up across the Los Angeles area just after the High Holidays. Each used a variation on the same theme, juxtaposing illustrations: Latkes or fries? Bagels and lox or sushi? Yarmulke or cap?

They carried no other information, and from the beginning it had the Jewish community guessing.

Was it a new kosher deli appealing to ba’alei teshuvah? A catering outfit hoping to penetrate the interfaith market?

Try Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

Yes, the big reveal last week that stretched from Westwood to Westlake Village featured the name of the Sinai Temple-founded cemetery, which has locations in the Hollywood Hills and Simi Valley. And the edgy twist is that Mount Sinai is reaching out to interfaith couples.

While many Jewish cemeteries with consecrated land bury Jews only, non-Orthodox cemeteries are increasingly making arrangements to include interfaith couples and families.

Given that 47 percent of all newlywed Jews and one-third of all married Jews are intermarried, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Jewish cemeteries like Mount Sinai are marketing to interfaith couples who would otherwise turn to secular or non-Jewish burial sites.

“In my travels around this community, there were tremendous misconceptions as to what most Jewish cemeteries in Southern California, and especially Mount Sinai, would or would not do. And I felt very strongly, as does my board, that we need to set the record straight,” said Len Lawrence, Mount Sinai’s general manager. “This was an opportunity that we took to tell the community that the rules are different for Mount Sinai.”

According to Rabbi Paul J. Citrin, an L.A. native and pulpit rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, it is acceptable to bury a non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish cemetery. When Jewish cemeteries disallow burial of non-Jews, they are citing custom, not Jewish law.

The Talmud states that for the sake of peaceful relations, non-Jews can be buried in Jewish cemeteries (Gittin 61a). However, non-Jewish clergy are not allowed to officiate in a Jewish cemetery.

The Mount Sinai advertising campaign was developed six months ago by GSS Communiqations, and the revealed billboards will remain up until mid-December.
Mount Sinai’s Lawrence is satisfied with the buzz generated by the campaign, and he expects to see a bump in traffic on the cemetery’s Web site in the next month.

Before the reveal last week, Lawrence said he heard speculation from colleagues and his own college-age sons that the billboards likely had something to do with interfaith couples.

“We think it did what it needed to do,” he said.

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,

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery

In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them — albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today — and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.”

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the “Ketef Hinnom amulets” — named for the place where they were discovered — were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script — in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn’t read it clearly. And they weren’t even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible’s language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the “heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world.”

“We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work,” said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

“We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other,” he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called “patching,” which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and “patched” it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: “May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil.”

“It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet,” Zuckerman said. “And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world.”

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

“It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored — and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don’t mean just for Jews,” Zuckerman said. “The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we’re doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions.”

For more information on the project, visit www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp.

Yeshiva Spy Kid Videos Find a Niche

Eight-year-old Sruli Slodowitz from Pico-Robertson likes dressing up as his favorite hero; no, it is not Batman, Superman or even Harry Potter — but Agent Emes, “an ordinary kid with an extraordinary mission” who is the 11-year-old protagonist in a new mystery adventure video series for Jewish children.

Agent Emes (from the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the word emet — truth in Hebrew) learns in yeshiva by day and battles the forces of evil at night. As a yeshiva student he wears black pants, a white shirt and a yarmulke — at night, as Agent Emes, he dons a trench coat, fedora, mustache and sunglasses and he heads down to the Tov Me’od (Hebrew for very good) Headquarters by way of a revolving bookcase and foils the evil plans of Dr. Lo-Tov (Hebrew for no good).

The “Agent Emes” videos are the latest attempt to do what some educators and Jewish producers say is absolutely necessary in this visual age — to give children Jewish content in a language they understand: the media. While the Christian community has managed not only to entertain their own, but infiltrate the mainstream children’s video and film markets with funny series like the 3-D animated “Veggie Tales” series, which teaches theology and values to kids, the Jewish community is still struggling to find the money and vision to produce videos, DVDs and television shows that Jewish children will watch because they want to, not just because they have to.

“Jewish educational videos and DVDs for use in schools, camps or in Jewish homes are a very important complement to the other kind of learning that Jewish children engage in,” said professor Sara S. Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. “I think that the Jewish videos are good, but they can’t compete with the millions of dollars that are invested [in children’s shows] for PBS. That’s unrealistic.”

But people like Leibel Cohen, the Pittsburgh filmmaker who produces the “Agent Emes” series, or Jay Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) and the executive producer of JTN’s “Aleph… Bet… Blastoff” puppet series, which is broadcast on public television and sold as videos, think that the Jewish community can produce programming of which they don’t have to be embarrassed.

“I wanted to create something that was done on a professional quality level,” Cohen told The Journal. “What was out there until now [in Orthodox children’s entertainment] was very inexpensively produced, and recognizable as being subpar to the other programs that are out there. Within our obvious budget limitations, the ‘Agent Emes’ videos are well acted and professionally lit, and the sound is good and the writing is good.”

So far there are two episodes in the “Agent Emes” series: “The Fish Head,” where Agent Emes makes the world safe for shofar blowing by preventing Dr. Lo-Tov from creating rotten rams horns, and “Rabbi Napped,” where Agent Emes retrieves his kidnapped rebbe (teacher). Cohen’s son, Sholom Ber, plays the title role.

Cohen produced the videos for $20,000 each, and though they have a certain corny sweetness to them, it’s possible that children raised on visual diets of gargantuan budget productions like “Finding Nemo” or “Toy Story” will be unimpressed. Nevertheless, the nascent series is fast becoming a hit in Orthodox homes across America, and Cohen is hoping to market the series to Conservative and Reform homes and schools, as well.

Orthodox parents contacted for this article said their children watch the videos repeatedly, and the Agent Emes Web site guestbook has myriad testimonies from people all around the world who profess their love for the videos.

While “Agent Emes” is at the mid- to lower-budgetary scale of Jewish children’s entertainment and primarily aimed at Orthodox households, the “Aleph… Bet… Blastoff” series, which costs JTN about $100,000 per episode to produce, is on par with a program like “Sesame Street” and is specifically aimed at children who are less educated about their Jewish identity. In these videos, the Mitzvah Mouse sprinkles the puppet children with magical matzah meal and takes them on journeys to meet famous Jewish people, like Abraham and Maimonides, and teaches them lessons about why it is cool to be Jewish. Sanderson estimates that the shows have been watched by millions of children, and he thinks that the community should be producing more of them.

“Strong Jewish programming has a particular value, because it makes Jewish children feel like they are a part of something,” he said. “The Jewish community seems to have unlimited resources to spend on education, but it’s the same old, same old. Generally, the Jewish community just wants to build another day school, but 75 percent of Jewish kids are not even going to consider going to those schools. Who is going to reach those kids who sit in front of a TV? The Jewish community has been afraid and reticent to speak the language that kids want spoken, which is media and which will make them feel like their identity is important.”

For more information on Agent Emes, go to
www.agent-emes.com. For more information on the Jewish Television Network, go to
www.jtn.com .

Miriam Mystery

Like all women, Miriam is a complex human being, whom I cannot fully understand. In this week’s portion she dies suddenly, leaving me as puzzled as I have always been with her role as a leader.

I am left with many unanswered questions. Why is she the only woman in the Torah called a prophetess? The rabbis teach that because she knew that her younger brother Moses would be Israel’s liberator she saves him from the Nile. A beautiful thought. Yet something seems to be missing. Unlike the prophetesses Hulda or Deborah, no one ever approaches Miriam for counsel. Which makes me wonder whether there were other unrecorded stories of her prophesy, other untold tales that circulated among the women about her unique wisdom, insight or strength, lost in the oral chain of tradition.

Even her 15 minutes of fame was truncated and unoriginal. Once the Jews cross the Sea of Reeds we read, "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’" (Exodus 15:20-21) Here Miriam repeats, almost word for word, the beginning of Moses’ song. What else did she sing? How was her prophetic message any different? Perhaps it was in the way she moved, in her dance. Was it that her body spoke louder than her words? Was Miriam’s dance the vowels surrounding Moses’ letters?

Why do we never read whether Miriam marries or has children? We first hear about Miriam’s childhood as an unnamed sister in the early life of Moses. As the biblical narrative develops, we learn about Moses’ and Aaron’s marriages and even the names of their children, but silence surrounds Miriam’s home life. Is it because the Torah sensed that being a "super mom" by giving 100 percent to one’s family and another 100 percent at the office (or in the struggle for liberation) is nearly impossible? Is it because in order to justify Miriam’s position as a community leader, the Torah chose to make her asexual? And if these are true, then where does that leave women today who attempt to move between the private and public worlds?

Finally, why is Miriam’s death so sparsely recorded in what amounts to a half a verse? "Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the desert of Zin in the first month and the people lived in Kadesh and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation and they gathered up against Moses and Aaron." (Numbers 20:1-2) Aaron dies later in this portion on a mountain in the full view of the community and Moses dies in a valley before God. In both instances we are told that the entire people mourned for 30 days. But Miriam’s death takes place in a vast, nondescript desert and does not move the Israelites toward a sense of grief. In sharp contrast, we are told that their tears metaphorically dried up in the form of a drought. The Talmud explains that the drought was the drying up of Miriam’s Well, a special source of water due to Miriam’s merit that followed the Jews through the desert on their journeys. It died when Miriam died. If this is true, what was in Miriam’s well? What stories, teachings, wisdom or memories flowed from that female source of sustenance? And why did it end with her death? What kind of leader doesn’t plan for the future?

As Miriam dies I leave this portion feeling a bit empty, unfulfilled and wanting. Like a surviving great-grandchild who hears bits and pieces of her great-grandmother’s life — Richa, the Eastern European town where she was born that no longer exists; the fact that she davened three times a day; the story of how she sold bootleg out of her bathtub on East 76th Street — I have to admit that I really don’t know who Miriam the prophetess was. I don’t know what made her tick or whom she loved. The vacuum calls out to each of us to write, dance and create in Miriam’s memory. Perhaps then her hidden depth will come alive.

Unsolved Mysteries

Although I am occasionally called a know-it-all, it’s not modesty alone that prevents my ever making the claim on my own behalf. The truth is that there are any number of things about which I know absolutely nothing. Right off the bat, I can think of several, ranging from soccer to Eastern religions, and from farming to trigonometry. I’m not playing Humble Harry here; I mean, get me started on baseball or movie trivia, and stand back!

There are, in fact, a frightfully huge number of things I have never begun to understand. For one, why can’t we ever compare apples and oranges? Maybe one would be hard-pressed to compare jet planes and roses, for heaven’s sake, but apples and oranges?! Compared as fruits, I prefer apples; in juice form, I prefer oranges.


There is a similar mystique surrounding the question about the beating of one’s spouse. Not too long ago, when a leading presidential wannabe was asked when he’d stopped using cocaine, he complained that it was tantamount to asking a man when he’d stopped beating his wife. What is so hard about saying that you never had to stop because you never began? What, exactly, is the tricky part that I seem to be missing?

Another thing I have never understood is how the world goes about deciding which individuals to celebrate and which others to ignore. Why, for example, has so much been made of Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille and Darryl Zanuck, men who simply made movies or ran studios? The obvious colossus of the industry was the fellow who first came up with the brainstorm of putting salt on popcorn — in one fell swoop turning packing material into a snack, and the concession stand into a gold mine.

Another genius who has gone generally unnoticed is the person who invented shampoo. Actually, coming up with the product was child’s play, as its only prerequisites were that it smell nice and work up a decent lather. What separated this boy from the pack was that he somehow had to convince us that, although regular soap was just fine for cleaning all our other body parts — many of which are, themselves, covered with hair — when it came to our scalps, only a really high-priced concoction could do the job.

What I, personally, would like to know is how it is that only where I faithfully shampooed did I go bald, whereas in way too many of those areas I regularly soaped, hair has managed to sprout in supernatural abundance. I can’t help wondering if I might possibly have a legitimate case against Head & Shoulders.

However, as clever a puss as the inventor of shampoo was, even he was trumped by the brainiac whose idea it was to state in the directions that once you have shampooed and rinsed, you must repeat the procedure. Think of the originality of that concept! Think of the cleverness! Think of the chutzpah! Imagine if other companies had glommed onto that sales ploy: (Campbell’s) “Have a piping hot bowl of tomato soup. Now wipe your mouth and have another”; (General Motors) “Buy a brand new Chevrolet. Good. Now, run out and buy an Olds”; (Trojan) “Have sex. Okay, now do it again right away.”

Finally, would some smarty pants please explain the logic behind bigotry to me? I mean, what could be dumber than hating large groups of human beings for no better reason than their race, religion or sexual proclivity? After all, it requires so little effort to get to know people as individuals, to discover their little quirks and eccentricities — and thus come to hate them for really good reasons.

Burt Prelutsky has written for the New York Times and numerous magazines He has also written for such television shows as “Diagnosis: Murder” and “MASH.”

Mysteries of the Jews

The big surprise of the holiday season, if you caught it, was Jerry Seinfeld’s wedding.

It turns out the man whose television persona perfectly embodied men’s fear of commitment was, in real life, simply waiting for the right Jewish woman. Once he found her, baddaboom, baddabing, you’ve got a traditional Jewish wedding, chuppah, broken glass, the works. It’s so traditional, the crabmeat canapes come out only after the rabbi leaves. They even saw to a kosher Jewish divorce for the once-married bride. Who knew television’s darkest satirist was such a sentimental traditionalist offscreen?

O.K., so it wasn’t as big a surprise as the absence of global chaos at the passing of the millennium. Still, the wedding touched a nerve. It was one of those media moments that periodically come along to remind us how little we really know about our fellow Jews.

Another such moment came last spring, when Israel’s daily Ha’aretz carried an interview with Hollywood actor-producer Michael Douglas. The reporter kept asking typical Hollywood-insider questions, like why movies are so violent and what it’s like kissing Demi Moore. Douglas kept turning the interview around to his own angry question: How dare Israel tell him he’s not Jewish?

There’s a shocker. Douglas is the half-Jewish son of screen legend Kirk Douglas. Papa Kirk only recently reembraced his Jewish roots after a lifetime, so he says, of neglecting them. Son Michael never evinced any visible Jewish attachment. Now, offered a chance to woo a million Israeli fans in their own language, he’d rather vent about “Who is a Jew.” Who knew he cared?

If you’re like me, you’re wondering what the heck is going on out there in the American Jewish hinterland. Well, so are a lot of highly trained social scientists. Increasingly, scholars of Jewish identity are concluding that much of what they thought they knew about the hearts and minds of American Jews is simply wrong.

After years of gloomy reports about declining observance and galloping intermarriage, evidence is piling up to suggest American Judaism is stronger than anyone realized. A great many Jews seem, like Seinfeld, to care more than anyone suspected. And a great many children presumed lost turn out, like Michael Douglas, not to be.

Of course, social scientists don’t base their research on People magazine. They prefer weighted samples and focus groups. Lately, though, their picture isn’t much clearer than ours. They keep bumping into the statistical equivalents of Seinfeld and Douglas, and they can’t account for them. The more they learn, the greater the mystery.

Take that study of Jewish population surveys just completed at the University of Miami. The study, alert readers recall, compares local Jewish surveys conducted in 40 different cities in recent years. Printed alongside are numbers from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, presumably to provide a national context.

If you’ve been following the news, you already know the national survey is completely out of whack with the local ones. Whatever range of Jewish behavior the local surveys show, the national average is nearly always lower than the lowest, which makes no sense at all.

For instance, Jews who say they usually or always attend a Passover seder range from a high of 86 percent in Baltimore to a low of 62 percent in Denver. The national survey shows a figure of 60 percent. Similarly, lighting Chanukah candles ranges from 95 percent in Boston to 59 percent in Sarasota. The national figure: 57 percent.

At the other end, the percentage who have visited Israel ranges from 61 percent in South Palm Beach to a low 27 percent in Hartford. The national figure: 26 percent.

Then there’s that 52 percent intermarriage statistic, the most famous figure in the 1990 national survey. According to the Miami study, it was all a misunderstanding. It counted non-Jews with Jewish ancestry as intermarried Jews. Counting only actual Jews, the 1990 survey found a 43 percent intermarriage rate. But that’s clearly still too high. If every other measure of assimilation in the national survey is inflated, intermarriage must be inflated, too. The true intermarriage rate is probably between 33 and 38 percent.

All in all, the Miami study badly undercuts the 1990 survey. That’s trouble for the survey’s sponsor, the United Jewish Communities. They’re planning a $4 million follow-up survey this year, and all its methods are suddenly suspect. It was put on hold last month while UJC leaders figure out what to do. Then they have to explain how they managed to ignite a worldwide intermarriage hysteria with a statistical error.

The really interesting part, though, is what happens when that’s all settled. The mystery remains: What, exactly, makes American Jews Jewish?

We know from surveys — the accurate ones — that about four-fifths light Chanukah candles and attend a seder. Close to that number observe Yom Kippur. About 40 percent have visited Israel. Just 20 to 30 percent follow other Jewish practices, like attending synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles or joining Jewish organizations.

How do the majority — the 50 or 60 percent who only observe Chanuka, Passover and Yom Kippur — relate to being Jewish? Do they think about it only three times a year? Or is something else going on that surveys don’t detect?

Increasingly, scholars think something else is going on. Today’s Jewish identity is fluid, idiosyncratic and reinvents itself constantly throughout adulthood, says Brandeis University sociologist Bethamie Horowitz. The focus might be traditional observance, Holocaust literature, klezmer music or pro-Israel activism. “It’s like a salad bar, and everybody these days is putting a different collection of items on their plates,” says Horowitz, whose 1999 “Connections and Journeys” is becoming a bible of the new Jewish identity studies.

Reworking the questionnaire is the other reason, besides the 1990 survey’s flaw, that the Year 2000 national survey was put on hold. The researchers need to figure out how to measure a host of subjectively changing attitudes, from spiritual searching to pluralism-related anger at Israel. “We need to widen the way we define Jewish identification to include the idiosyncratic things people relate to Jewishly,” Horowitz says.

They need to tell us why, despite low levels of traditional practice, so many Jews actually end up marrying Jews. They also need to tell us what the Jewish community will look like as growing numbers of half-Jews opt in, bringing their mixed heritage with them.

Until we clear up these mysteries we will never be, as Seinfeld once said, masters of our own domain.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

Art Imitating Life for Mystery Writer

The idea for Rochelle Majer Krich’s new mystery, “Blood Money,” goes back to the day she discovered some startling photographs in her parents’ china closet.

Krich, then 13, saw her father with an elegantly dressed woman beside a baby carriage holding a baby girl. “‘That’s Gusta, your father’s first wife,’ my mother said quietly when I showed her the photos,” Krich recalls. “Those are his daughters, Yiska and Ruzza. They were all killed in Auschwitz.”

Krich, dumbfounded, had not known that her father had been married before. “I couldn’t get out of my mind the uncomfortable knowledge that if Gusta hadn’t perished, I wouldn’t exist,” says the award-winning author, who is known as an Orthodox Agatha Christie.

Over the years, Krich’s thrillers have focused on a fertility doctor who has strayed from Orthodoxy (“Fertile Ground’); a maniacal husband who won’t give his wife a get (“‘Til Death Do Us Part’); and an LAPD Detective, Jessie Drake, who discovers that her mother was a hidden child during the Holocaust. Krich says she unconsciously named Jessie after one of her murdered stepsisters, Yiska.

Now Jessie returns in “Blood Money,” which is based in part on the war experiences of Krich’s own father, Abraham Majer. In the novel, an elderly survivor, Norman Pomerantz, is found murdered in Rancho Park; his death may have something to do with the Jewish assets that were plundered by the Nazis and deposited in Swiss banks. Jessie, in turn, discovers she may have her own family connection to the Swiss banks scandal.

Writing “Blood Money,” Krich says, was a cathartic way to explore her feelings about her father’s first family. Like Majer, the fictional Pomerantz tells of the last time he ever saw his wife and children: “They were being taken away on a train. His wife had his little girl wave to him and he waved. That haunts me,” Krich says. — Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor