The Real World: Warlord


Imagine an Uzbek warlord who takes time between mortar attacks to remove his clothes and display his manhood in the bunker. Now, imagine that he willingly does this for a camera operator, who films the chieftain and his family for an “Osbournes”-meets-“Sopranos” reality-TV show.

It sounds almost plausible in the age of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor.” But, in fact, this is the setup for a fictional reality-TV show at the heart of Peter Lefcourt’s new novel, “The Manhattan Beach Project” (Simon & Schuster, $24).

Lefcourt, who quips that he is “a card-carrying Jew,” will discuss his latest social satire at the Jewish Book Festival, which will run from Oct. 30 through Dec. 11. The event is organized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys and will feature a wide range of writers.

It will kick off with Bruce Bauman discussing “And the Word Was,” his debut novel about the aftermath of a Columbine-type tragedy on the life of a doctor. Also appearing will be Ursula Bacon, author of “Shanghai Diary,” a memoir about a young girl’s journey from Europe to Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust.

Bookended by scenes at a Debtors Anonymous meeting, “The Manhattan Beach Project” takes off when a bankrupt CIA agent convinces a down-on-his-luck producer — a fellow debtor — to pitch a reality-TV series about the daily activities of a warlord in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The warlord has the typical dysfunctional family: a mistress, an angry wife who never leaves her room, a lesbian daughter, one teenage son who is an onanist and another who joins the Taliban. Unbeknownst to the producer, the rogue agent has turned the warlord’s basement into a safe house for pirated videos, the ultimate no-no in Hollywood.

With or without a Jewish theme, “The Manhattan Beach Project” skewers Hollywood the way Tom Wolfe lampooned Wall Street in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Lefcourt shows the callowness of these show biz Masters of the Universe.

Over the past 30 years, Lefcourt has written and produced television dramas like “Cagney & Lacey” and miniseries like “The Women of Windsor,” but it’s his novels that most closely reflect his comic sensibility. His best-known prior book, “The Dreyfus Affair,” depicts with dark humor a gay romance set in homophobia-ridden big league baseball.

“The Dreyfus Affair” has been optioned several times by movie studios but never produced, so Lefcourt is intimately familiar with the reptilian nature of Hollywood executives in the mold of Sammy Glick, and the difficulties in getting a project green-lighted.

Lefcourt cites no particular inspiration for “The Manhattan Beach Project,” but says that he was “so attached to” producer Charlie Berns, hero of his first sardonic novel on Hollywood, “The Deal,” that he wanted to bring him back. Berns, an erstwhile Oscar-winning film honcho, resurrects his career in “The Manhattan Beach Project” by entering the world of reality TV, which Lefcourt calls “the crack cocaine of the TV business. It’s addictive, debilitating and noninformative…. It seems to have peaked, but it will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time, like a flu epidemic.”

“The Manhattan Beach Project’s” overarching metaphor, show biz as a top-secret, clandestine society, where anyone can be whacked, has always been apt, particularly in recent times. He’s no fan of Michael Eisner and his ilk, and concludes his acknowledgments by sarcastically thanking Eisner for “going down with the ship.”

Would Mikey have green-lighted “Warlord”? According to Lefcourt, Eisner would have “yellow-lit it” — keeping it at arm’s length “in case it blew up in his face.”

Peter Lefcourt will read and discuss his book on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena.

Also at the festival: The Jewish Journal will co-sponsor a Nov. 30 event with author Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.” For festival information call (626) 967-3656.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

Mizrachi Options to Liven the New Year


While apples and honey are de rigueur among Ashkenazim for celebrating the New Year, Middle Easterners turn to the more exotic, like dates, quinces or pomegranates during the High Holidays. So if you’re looking for some unique recipes this High Holiday season, you might want to turn to Faye Levy’s latest cookbook, "Feast from the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible" (HarperCollins, $29.95).

Levy lived in Israel for nearly 12 years, where she met and married her husband, Yakir. A cooking novice until her mother-in-law took her in hand, she soon developed a love for the varied, bold flavors of her adopted home. She went on to train at the renowned La Varenne in Paris and to produce more than 20 cookbooks and writes with authority and passion on the cuisine of the Middle East.

"It is amazing how all these people who can’t get along eat the same things," observed Levy, whose cookbook highlights cuisines of over ten countries.

"Eating together and discussing food and recipes is a great way to bring people closer," Levy continues. "Arabs and Jews share a lot of the same food. The Islamic rules of halal are similar to our laws of kashrut. We both don’t eat pork. Arabs do eat shellfish, and they don’t have a problem mixing milk and meat, but they hardly ever do it.

While the book explores the foods of all faiths and nationalities of the region, so many of the dishes are perfect for Rosh Hashanah because of the Middle Eastern fondness for incorporating local fruits, a perfect way to wish guests a sweet New Year.

"Sephardic Jews begin the Rosh Hashanah meal with dates, just as we do with apples and honey," Levy noted. "And in Greece, Turkey and Morocco, all around the Mediterranean really, quinces are really important for Rosh Hashanah. Moroccan Jews do dip apples in honey, then dip them in sesame seeds, symbolizing our wish that our people be numerous. Pomegranate seeds are traditional for the same reason."

Chicken in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce, a classic dish of the Persian kitchen, is appropriate for the holiday, Levy said.

"Pomegranate juice and paste are available in Middle Eastern and gourmet markets, because a lot of American chefs, like Bobby Flay, have suddenly become very excited about them. It has become trendy," she said.

If you can’t find either, Levy advises using pomegranate juice, now readily available in supermarkets, and adding less water.

Traditional holiday foods vary from country to country and from family to family. Some people avoid sour tastes for the holiday, like lemons and vinegar.

Persians, however, favor tart over sweet and love a splash of lemon juice on many dishes, Levy noted.

"In fact, I have a friend from northern Iran who says that the pomegranate paste available in this country is too sweet, so he asks his relatives from Iran to bring some from home when they visit." Some people avoid black ingredients for the New Year, so they use golden raisins instead of dark and do not serve eggplant. Since the word for leeks in Hebrew means "destroyed," many serve leeks to convey the wish that our enemies be destroyed.

Some people will not eat walnuts, but will use almonds; others eliminate nuts altogether.

"In our family we always have rice with toasted almonds and dried fruit for Rosh Hashanah," Levy said. "Middle Eastern cooks have so many delicious ways to do rice, and some, like Almond Apricot Basmati Rice, are so good you could consider them a dessert, a side dish or a main course.

"Sweetness for Rosh Hashanah is more of an Ashkenazi thing," she said, "though certain Middle Eastern Jews do it, too. Moroccans often serve vegetables sprinkled with sugar, but sometimes instead of making food sweeter, they might just tone down the spiciness."

For example, fish is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, particularly served with the head.

Moroccans might make Foil Baked Trout with Red Pepper and Garlic, but omit the jalapeño and lemon for Rosh Hashanah.

"It really depends on your family’s tradition," Levy said.

For Ashkenazim, Rosh Hashanah would not be complete without honey cake, but Sephardim of the Mediterranean may choose Citrus and Spice Quinces with Cranberries or Date Pinwheel Cookies. Honey isn’t found necessarily in desserts in the Middle East, Levy said, though some might use it as syrup on cake. Fruit with Honey, Figs and Dates will appeal to both camps as a sweet ending to the Rosh Hashanah dinner.

"It’s perfect for the season and really easy. And it goes well as a topping for traditional honey cake, too."

Dja’jeh b’Ah’sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey)

Sauce:

2 cups pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup cold water for 15 minutes

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chicken:

5 to 5-1/2 pounds chicken pieces (white and dark meat), skinned

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped yellow onions

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Three 3-inch-long cinnamon sticks

2 cups cold water

Prepare the sauce. Place the prunes and soaking water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the honey and cinnamon. Mix well and simmer until the prunes absorb some water and soften (they should be soft yet retain most of their shape), about five more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft, three to four minutes. Add the chicken pieces and brown, cooking for two to three minutes on each side. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon sticks and water, stir well, and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for one hour.

Uncover the skillet and cook until some of the excess liquid cooks off and the sauce has thickened to a gravy-like texture, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve on large platter, garnished with one cup blanched whole almonds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden.

Ka’ikeh b’Ah’sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze Cake)

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Glaze:

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon tahini

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Prepare the cake. Combine the beaten eggs, tahini, honey and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add to the wet mixture and mix well.

Pour the batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 9-inch Springform pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-35 minutes.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 45 minutes. With a knife, loosen the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the cake pan and flip the pan upside down.

Prepare the glaze. Combine the honey and tahini in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until blended to a smooth consistency, four to five minutes. Add the sesame seeds and mix well. Remove from the heat and immediately pour the hot glaze over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to soak in. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Cut into diamond shapes about two inches long and one inch wide and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

Faye Levy will be signing "Feast from the Mideast" at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.

For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8648.

Judy Bart Kancigor, author of “Melting Pot Memories,”
can be found on the Web at

It’s All About You


It should be pointed out that once upon a time I wrote a little book titled "Life Sentence." It is the definitive treatise on the state of human relations between men and women, vis-à-vis engagement and marriage from the male perspective. Some people think it was anti-marriage, although on page three it clearly states, "For the record — [I] strongly recommend getting married." It remains, in my opinion, the best written and the least-read book on the subject. Ultimately, it seems that the man’s point of view on the subject of marriage is somewhat irrelevant.

In fact, the guy seems to be incidental to the whole marriage process. When I went with my long-suffering fiancée, Alison, to register for wedding gifts, there was a catalog with a beautiful bride (there is no other kind, evidently) on the cover, shot with slightly out-of-focus artiness. By contrast, the yellow, 72-point headline was clear enough that I could read it from across the room. It said: It’s All About You.

Later that day, Alison bought one of those brides magazines at the newsstand. There are tons of these things, all 2-inch- thick monsters, with yet more beautiful brides and recycled stories full of clichéd advice. (Have you noticed that there is not one magazine for grooms?) I leafed through it when she wasn’t looking, and was somewhat surprised to find that there was scarcely one picture in the 500 pages of glossy color ads with a guy in it. As if the whole marriage thing would be so much simpler without those unseemly men mucking it up. Just whom do they think all these brides are marrying, anyway?

We went shopping for wedding rings the other day. Alison took me to a joint called Cartier in Beverly Hills. When you ask to see the women’s wedding ring selection, they do a whole choreographed number, with "I Feel Pretty" playing over the sound system, great velvet-covered trays of sparkly jewels being proffered by eager, perfumed saleswomen.

By contrast, when you ask to see the selection of men’s wedding rings, they snap back, "Gold or platinum?" The girls get to choose from 31 Flavors, and we get chocolate or vanilla. (I found it interesting that the women’s rings seem to be somewhat more expensive than the men’s. Fascinating.)

Even the registry is all about her. Why don’t we go to the Home Depot? Do we really need a cake plate more than a nail gun? Which is going to be more useful in the future? Have you ever tried to install molding with a cake plate? They’re useless.

Alison didn’t want it to be all about her. She didn’t even want a bridal shower where your friends give you all that kitchen stuff. To be fair, Alison doesn’t know her way around the kitchen. Not at all. If left to her own devices with a raw chicken, some vegetables and herbs, she might starve to death.

I, however, am a very handy fellow to have around in the kitchen, and I like all that stuff — the All-Clad pots and Le Creuset pans, for example. (While writing this story, I was informed by The New York Times that I’m a "metrosexual," a straight guy in touch with his inner Julia Child.) So my sister, who also happens to be my gender-bending best man, threw a kitchen shower for me and all her gal pals. We had a spa day at which I had a scrub, a wrap and a massage. I was going to get something called a "polish change," but was told it didn’t apply to me.

Over salads (with the dressing on the side), the gals took turns offering me marital advice. In turns, it boiled down to this: empathy, focus, persistence, don’t sweat the small stuff, and the "Serenity Prayer" (Lord, help me to accept the things I cannot change). How can I go wrong?

It’s all right with me if the wedding is all about her. There would be no "us" without her, no wedding plans to fight over, no honeymoon to look forward to. I just hope I get my picture in the wedding photos next to the beautiful bride.

It’s all about J.D. Smith at www.carteduvin.com.

‘Light’ From Darkness


What a year! Struggle and loss, the threat of war, earthquakes and elections. Like many of us, I’d begun to feel as though peace, not to mention peace of mind, was always going to stay just one upheaval away.

And then the man in UPS brown arrived. He brought an envelope containing a beautiful ray of hope, an exceptional picture book by Jane Breskin Zalben titled "Let There Be Light: Poems and Prayers for Repairing the World" (Dutton Books, $15.99). Zalben is well known as an illustrator-author, providing art for her own writings as well as others. With "Beni’s First Chanukah," she began a popular series of picture books for the very young about various Jewish holidays ("Papa’s Latkes," "Pearl’s Passover," "Goldie’s Purim," "Beni’s First Wedding," etc.) Some of her more recent works are specifically aimed at enhancing Jewish family, food and fun.

In this new book, however, she turns instead to many different cultures and faiths, trying to offer universal reassurance to young readers in an uncertain time. Culling poems and prayers from across the world, Zalben chose simple texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as African, Inuit and Native American traditions, and included the words of such leaders as Ghandi and the Dalai Lama. Often departing from her usual dry brush watercolor technique, she matched each quote with an illustration drawing on its cultural art, materials and patterns. Cut paper, collage and paint are used. Japanese rice paper, Egyptian papyrus, African bark paper and papers from Nepal, India and Italy were sought out; Persian miniatures, Islamic tiles and many other sources served as inspiration.

Zalben has included a serene Asian scroll illustrating the sixth-century words of Buddha and a smiling, curly lamb safe in its field opposite the 23rd Psalm. She shows a simple flower from seed to the dropping of its last petal opposite Kohelet 3:1-9, while the limitless purple-shadowed sky over a prayer for peace from Zimbabwe is as soothing and uplifting as the artist obviously hoped it might be. Through her work illuminating ageless words of love, faith, purpose, friendship and understanding, Zalben has contributed to tikkun olam and can help heal your family’s world.

Rita Berman Frischer, long active in the fields of library and literature, currently works as a freelance writer, lecturer,reviewer, instructor and book group leader.