Segal’s debut novel, ‘The Innocents,’ wins $100,000 Rohr Prize

Francesca Segal’s debut novel, “The Innocents,” won the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in fiction.

The novel, which the U.K. Guardian described as “part ambiguous morality tale, part guidebook on north London Jewish community culture,” already had won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for fiction.

A runner-up award of $25,000, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice Award, went to Ben Lerner for “Leaving the Atocha Station.”

The prizes, which were announced by the Jewish Book Council, were to be awarded on May 30 at the Center for Jewish History in New York at an event emceed by the Jewish writer Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature was established in 2006 to “encourage and promote outstanding writing of Jewish interest,” according to a statement released by the Jewish Book Council.

Other finalists for the sixth annual prize were Shani Boianjiu for “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” Stuart Nadler for “The Book of Life” and Asaf Schurr for “Motti.”

Gina Nahai: Leonard’s story

Years ago, I created a class, “Writer’s Marketplace,” dedicated to the business side of writing. It was inspired by all the I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now moments in my own career, the realization that good writers often are clueless about how to sell their work, and that writing schools are often remiss in communicating the practical aspects of the profession to their students. I’m not talking about every third rich housewife who’s bored with her charities and aged out of volunteering at her kids’ schools, who pays a vanity press or an online publisher a few hundred dollars and produces what a friend of mine calls “a booklike object” she can sell to her charity and school friends. My concern is the truly talented writer who takes out a $100,000 loan, spends three years in graduate school writing a novel or a screenplay, then drops out of the race because he’s too broke and in debt and disheartened. 

So I teach the class every semester, start and end it with a firm the-only-rule-is-that-there-are-no-rules announcement, then spend 13 weeks belaboring the rules. One of these, as you might imagine, is, “Whatever you do, don’t quit your day job.” Not when you’re in graduate school, not while you’re finishing the work, not even after you’ve got a contract and cashed your first check. Unless you have a $2 million deal and no mortgage, children or dogs: Don’t quit your day job. 

There are many reasons for this, not all of them financial. I was busy enumerating these for my new class at the start of last semester when a student interrupted me. 

“So what would you say,” he asked, “to a person who’s quit a steady job with a pension and gone into debt and moved across the state just to come here and write?” 

For a minute, I was truly at a loss. Nothing good; especially if you’re older, as you seem to be. 

“Is that you?” I asked, and he nodded. 

“Do you have a rich wife?” And is she willing to support you for the rest of your life, if need be?

He shook his head. 

“A lot of savings?” 

He shook his head again. 

I weighed the benefits of telling an enthusiastic new student that he had done a crazy thing he couldn’t easily undo against the temptation to admire his reckless disregard for reality in favor of pursuing a dream. 

“I’d say you’d better write a great book and make sure it’s published.” 

That was in January. By August, Leonard had written 100 pages of a novel, a few short stories and a screenplay. He was 51 years old, a former river-rafting guide and public school teacher who had give up a steady income with summers off and health insurance to be a full-time writer. He wasn’t going to waste a minute. Right before school started this fall, he wrote to say he wanted to mail to me his novel so we could work on it as his thesis project. Two days later, he died.  

Just like that. He had been walking four miles a day and doing hot yoga two out of every three days. He was gifted, exuberant, charming and optimistic. He was writing a big book, full of intrigue and adventure and beautiful young people who didn’t think twice before risking life and limb in defense of a noble idea. Then he developed a cough, went to see his doctor. 

The first thought that occurred to me after the initial blow of the news itself was that I had yet to receive the novel he had mailed. I had read enough of it in the previous semester to know the plot and the characters; now, I was taken by the thought that they were all floating out there on paper and on line, orphaned and disconnected from their creator, yes, but existing nevertheless. Leonard’s life was over, but these other characters continued to exist. They wouldn’t disappear because he did, but nor would they grow up or old. They’d be frozen in time, so many Dorian Grays who would outlast both the painter and the canvas upon which he drew them. 

Then I thought about the conversation we had that first day in the Marketplace class. What if he hadn’t quit his job when he did, waited through a few more of what he once called “soul-crushing years,” saved his money, planned for retirement? 

At the memorial service we held for Leonard at USC, one side of the chapel was occupied entirely by men and women in loud Hawaiian shirts. These were Leonard’s writing buddies who honored him by dressing in his favorite get-up. The opposite side of the room was lined with prim and proper women in pearls and sweater sets — Leonard’s relatives, one of whom, it turned out, had met him only once. In the middle was as eclectic a group as you’ll find in any memorial: fraternity buddies, fellow white-water rafting guides, middle-school teachers, a guy who ran the cigar bar where Leonard played chess for three hours every Saturday afternoon, members of our own faculty. You could tell, just by scanning the room, that Leonard had had a few, rather divergent, lives. But you had to hear people speak about him to realize that the single constant narrative thread throughout those lives had been his dream of being a writer. 

“I warned him against leaving his life and coming down here to write,” every person who stood up to talk confessed. “I said it’s a bad idea. I’m so glad he didn’t listen.” 

I, too, am glad he didn’t listen — to them or to me or to any voice other than his own impatient heart. 

What would I say, these days, to any reasonably sane person about to trash his income, job title and daily agenda in favor of chasing a fantasy? I hope no one asks, because if they do, I’ll have to tell them Leonard’s story, how good sense and planning, hard work and patience may not be such a good idea after all.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday in Westwood

More than 100 James Joyce enthusiasts, performance artists and Irish descendants gathered at Westwood’s Hammer Museum on June 16 to celebrate Bloomsday. Taken from the name of Leopold Bloom, the assimilated Jewish protagonist in Joyce’s monumental book, “Ulysses,” the event celebrates the life of the Irish writer and relives the events of the day the tale is set: June 16, 1904.

With plastic cups of Guinness in hand, attendees warmed to the sounds of traditional Irish music played by the Sweet Set as they waited for the festivities to begin.

Stanley Breitbard, organizer for Bloomsday at the Hammer, says the event draws a wide demographic. “We get a very mixed crowd every year,” he said. “Academics, veterans, actors and people of Irish descent.”

A worldwide celebration established in 1954, Breitbard said the appeal of Bloomsday was understandable.

“He was the greatest writer who ever lived, and clearly I’m not the only one who thinks that,” he said.

Phil Hendricks, a Jewish man in his 60s, said it had been 20 years since he last read “Ulysses,” adding that it felt like a completely different book as he read in the Hammer’s courtyard. A sign of a timeless classic. Hendricks also addressed why Joyce would choose to make his protagonist a Jew in a predominantly Catholic country.

“The Irish themselves were outcasts amongst the British, so I think there is a similarity between them and the Jews,” he said. “The juxtaposition between Jews and Irish Catholics are very well known. Bloom was definitely more Jewish than he was Catholic.”

The buoyancy of the late afternoon hushed when attendees were asked to enter the Billy Wilder Theater, where a reading was performed by a host of Irish and American actors, including Jonny O’Callaghan (narrator in “Gangs of New York”) and James Lancaster (“Pirates of the Carribean 2”).

The seventh episode of the book, “Aeolus,”  was chosen to be read in full by nine actors. Introduced by Breitbard, the story unfolded with the Irish accents of O’Callaghan and Lancaster, which eased the process of imagining an early 20th century Dublin. The reading gave beautiful insight into Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, taking the listener right into the minds of the characters. A difficult narrative to follow at first, the story was peppered with humorous intervals, provoking laugh-out-loud responses from the standing-room-only audience.

Margot Norris, author and former president of the James Joyce International Foundation, intervened during the readings, providing insights into Joyce’s choices of syntax and literary devices. One of the questions she raised: Why would Joyce reveal Leopold Bloom’s Jewish heritage so far into the book, in the seventh episode?

Actor O’Callaghan told The Journal that it had to do with counteracting the blatant anti-Semitism of that era.

“I think it was revealed so late to get people to like him,” O’Callaghan mused. “You got to know and like the character. Then, when someone states what people are thinking, it lets the readers heal and all their walls go down.”

Richard Levy, 52, said Joyce may have been inspired by friends to make his protagonist Jewish.

“Joyce actually had a lot of friends who were Jewish and I think they had a big influence on him,” he said.

Levy, who lived and worked in Ireland for a year, says “Ulysses” can act as more than a book.

“ ‘Ulysses’ is actually the perfect map of Dublin when you visit,” he said. “It’s amazing how you can catch every street the book is set upon.”

The reading concluded with an excerpt from the episode read by Joyce himself – a 1924 recording made at HMV studios in Paris at the insistence of Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach.

After the event concluded, Breitbard weighed in with his own insights as to why Joyce made his main character a Jew.

“Joyce met Jews in Trieste, Italy, and they were the biggest role models and influences in creating characters for ‘Ulysses,’ ” he said. “I think he made Bloom Jewish to make him different from other Dubliners. He was the nicest character in the book, and a very sympathetic character.”

Himmler’s Brain

Not long ago, I reviewed Peter Longerich’s benchmark biography of Heinrich Himmler in these pages—a work of meticulous and compelling scholarship about the master architect of the Final Solution, a mostly ordinary human being whose claim on history is that he succeeded in putting Hitler’s apocalyptic fantasies about mass murder into operation on an industrial scale.

Himmler’s second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, figures importantly in the Longerich biography, and so I read with special interest the much-talked-about novel by Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $26), translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Indeed, the title of the book is an acronym for the German phrase “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” (translation: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) that was used to describe the crucial relationship between these two men, each one a monster in his own way and, together, the executors of the Final Solution.

What intrigued Binet, as he readily confesses, were the dramatic possibilities of the incident that ended Heydrich’s life. Two commandos, one Czech and one Slovak, were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the mission of assassinating Heydrich. They succeeded in causing his death—Heydrich was only wounded in the attack but later died of an infection—but only at the cost of their own lives and the lives of hundreds of wholly innocent victims of the revenge campaign that the Nazis carried out, including the entire population of the town of Lidice.

As a novelist, Binet decided to present the story under the guise of fiction. But he is also mindful of the moral dangers of fictionalizing the events of the Shoah, and so he breaks the narrative frame to address the reader with the bitter realities that lay just beneath the surface: “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,” he writes, “you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”

But the frankness can be unsettling. He confesses that his research methods included leaving the TV set on the History Channel, and that he didn’t bother to consult the memoir that Heydrich’s wife wrote about the war. At one point, Binet makes much of his assertion that a character in Charlie Chaplin’s famous allegory of Nazi Germany, “The Great Dictator,” is actually a depiction of Heydrich. A few pages later, he announces: “I just said that one of the characters in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it’s not true.”

The juxtaposition between artifacts of popular culture and authentic historical research make for strange bedfellows in the pages of “HHhH.” For example, he muses on “Conspiracy,” an HBO dramatization of the Wannsee Conference—the planning session for the Final Solution over which Heydrich presided—and expresses admiration for Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which depicts Heydrich as capable of both affability and authoritarianism. “I don’t know how accurate it is,” the author quickly confesses. “I have not read anywhere that the real Heydrich knew how to show kindness, whether real or faked.”

The same color commentary runs throughout “HHhH,” which narrates the life of Heydrich in fits and starts but is decorated and enlivened by Binet’s interior monologue, his candid announcements to the reader and his blunt confessions about his own problems with the book itself. “You’ll have gathered by now that I am fascinated by this story,” he confesses, on page 47. “But at the same time I think it’s getting to me.”

Indeed, he is perfectly willing to accuse himself of breaking faith with the heroes who are the focus of his book. He depicts a decisive moment in the life of one of the two commandos, Jozef Gabčík, and then he acknowledges his crime against history and identity: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet—a man who’s been dead a long time, who cannot defend himself,” writes Binet. “To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee.”

What Binet has done here deserves attention and even admiration, and it is provocative from beginning to end, but it comes with a caution and a risk. Binet is a novelist rather than a historian, and “HHhH” is neither a work of history nor a work of fiction in any pure sense. Rather, I would characterize the book—which I could not put down—as the troubled musings of an imaginative author on a subject that beggars the imagination.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Author Anthony Horowitz to write new Sherlock Holmes novel

Jewish author Anthony Horowitz has been commissioned by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to write a full-length Sherlock Holmes novel.

Horowitz, author of the popular young adult series about teenage spy Alex Rider, told The Guardian Tuesday that he set about writing “a first-rate mystery for a modern audience while remaining absolutely true to the spirit of the original.”

Horowitz said he fell in love with Sherlock Holmes stories when he was 16.

The book, the fifth Sherlock Holmes novel ever written, will be published in Britain in September. Doyle also wrote 56 short stories about the popular detective.

Books: It’s mom vs. daughter in Weiner’s latest novel

What bestselling author Jennifer Weiner remembers most about her bat mitzvah is her hair.

“It was really unfortunate hair, really tragic — like short and feathered and awful,” said Weiner, author of “In Her Shoes,” which was adapted as a 2005 film starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

But her embarrassingly off-color hairstyle mirrored her unpretentious 1982 celebration, a simple affair where a few relatives joined her for lunch after her Torah reading.

“I remember the first big bash at a country club,” Weiner said about her first encounter with b’nai mitzvah excess. “The parents rented a Pac-Man video machine that you could play without having to put quarters in — I don’t think I have words to say how incredible that was for us kids.”

It’s a far cry from today’s b’nai mitzvah, where the emphasis has been placed on the red-carpet party and not the religious ritual. And it’s the shift in tradition that motivated Weiner’s latest novel, “Certain Girls” (Atria Books, $26.95) in which an eccentric, nontraditional family prepares for a daughter’s bat mitzvah. In the book, Weiner attempts to reconcile generational differences in a varying family fabric as her characters confront both the superficial and meaningful aspects of the Jewish rite of passage.

“I’m always interested in moments of rupture, dissention, controversy and change in my characters’ lives,” Weiner said about why she chose to explore a girl’s bat mitzvah in her sixth book. “It seemed like an easy place to start — there is so much there to fight about!”

Especially when your narrators are a mother and daughter.

Because “Certain Girls” is a sequel to Weiner’s earlier work, “Good in Bed,” she wanted to look at her lead character through a different set of eyes: “Who is a harsher judge of a mother than a daughter?” Weiner, the mother of two daughters, wonders aloud.

The story is told from the point of view of dual narrators, Cannie Shapiro and her daughter, Joy, as they each grapple with the social and religious demands of the occasion, clashing in their opposite attitudes regarding the tradition.

Cannie, confused by her own less-than-desirable bat mitzvah experience, feels a bit like a b’nai mitzvah pariah and wants a meaningful occasion. Joy, on the other hand, is completely apathetic toward the religious rite and more concerned with fitting in with the fashionable crowd at school. The solution, for Joy, means throwing a lavish, expensive party contrary to everything her mother values.

At a synagogue informational meeting, mother and daughter are asked to write down the words that describe an ideal b’nai mitzvah. Joy finds herself at a loss: “I stared at my blank page, thinking. Everybody happy, I wrote. Then Broadway theme. And CD favors with music from ‘Grease.’ I looked at my mother’s paper and saw that she had written Judaism and tradition and God.”

Dress shopping is even more polarizing and, naturally, Joy is petrified when she discovers her mother’s plan to wear something she (gasp!) already owns to her only child’s bat mitzvah.

The generational divide between mother and daughter illuminates the contrast between Weiner’s youth, when fancy parties were not the central focus, and today, when they represent the zeitgeist of young adulthood.

But party planning isn’t the only thing that has detracted from enjoying a meaningful religious experience. For many families, the b’nai mitzvah process can become a source of deep tension and conflict. Weiner chose to explore a “blended” family in order to exemplify the shifting definition of modern Jewish families — which might include divorced parents, adoptive parents, interfaith or mixed-race couples.

In the novel, mother and daughter, biological father, adoptive father and gay grandmother are all at odds regarding the details, but eventually find comfort in sharing the lifecycle event that marks a child as an adult in Jewish tradition.

The portrait of adolescence also provided a framework for Weiner to explore another favorite theme: self-image.

The book’s heroine, Cannie, is famously a “larger woman” who was traumatized when her ex-boyfriend wrote a humiliating column about his affair with an overweight woman. Throughout her career as a journalist and novelist, Weiner has often written about full-figured women who get the guy. She recently signed a seven-figure development deal with the ABC network, in which she hopes to spotlight diverse female characters.

“I always write about the big girls getting some kind of happy ending, because I think that’s an important story to tell,” Weiner said. “In an age when you pick up any celebrity tabloid, you would read that and think women came out in two sizes: 0 and 2.”

Hollywood already figures in Weiner’s work. She notes a particularly disturbing scene in “Certain Girls” when a mother hires fake paparazzi to take photos of guests as they arrive at the b’nai mitzvah party. The bit was inspired by a real-life situation in which one of Weiner’s friends was asked to do the same thing at a celebration, but Weiner sees no place for such shenanigans at a ceremony that is supposed to be about religion, community and God.

As the mother of two young daughters — a 5-month-old and a 5-year-old — Weiner is already pondering what kind of experience she hopes her own girls have when they come of age.

“Honestly, I think this book was working through my own anxiety about the parties my daughters will demand when they’re old enough,” Weiner said, adding that, if that happens, she and her husband will lay down the law. She hopes her daughters will embrace their Jewish adulthood at their current congregation, Philadelphia’s Society Hill Synagogue, where they feel part of a community.

In the end, Weiner says, a b’nai mitzvah is about compromise and finding a place where everybody is “happy enough.”

“I think that no matter how the ceremonies change or parties change or discussion around them changes, there is something timeless and transcendent about the [b’nai] mitzvah, about ‘You are now an adult and have responsibilities and obligations,’ and that’s a beautiful, holy thing,” Weiner said. “I am scared and excited to see how my daughters will handle it.”

Books: Leaving Russia behind — somewhat

When Perestroika came in 1985, anti-Jewish feeling in Russia became even more overt than it had been during the Soviet era.

There were flyers announcing threats to burn down Jews’ homes, and one night, on national TV, a nationalist leader announced they were planning a massive pogrom. “It was very matter of fact, and my parents freaked out and called a meeting. We didn’t feel safe anymore,” said Ellen Litman, the Russian-born author of “The Last Chicken in America” (W.W. Norton), a novel set in stories about the Russian Jewish immigrant experience. The book has been nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction as part of the Los Angeles Times 2008 Book Prizes to be awarded April 25 as part of the Times Festival of Books.

When she was 19, after two years of deliberations, Litman’s family decided to move to America. She and eight family members went to Pittsburgh, where her mother’s sister — and many other Russian Jews — lived.

“At first I was devastated. In Russia, you live in Moscow; you don’t move around that much, you expect your whole life to be in the same city with the same family and the same friends — then you leave the country and never see people again,” said Litman. “I was pretty devastated at first and gradually came to terms with it — but it was pretty disorienting and lonely.”

These tales of disorientation and loneliness are at the heart of “The Last Chicken in America,” which alternately focuses on a young new immigrant, Masha, and her family, as well as other Russian Jewish immigrants who live in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where the Litmans lived.

So is this an autobiography? Not exactly. While Litman lived in Pittsburgh and completed her degree in computer programming at the University of Pittsburgh she took notes on the characters. “Some of the characters resemble the experiences of what we went through and things I’ve seen, and a lot of it is a hodgepodge of reality and imagination; some stories are triggered by a certain sentence,” she said. But it’s “very much fiction; I do associate with the main character, those experiences are the closest to mine.”

Masha is just out of high school, and her parents, former scientists who are unemployed as new immigrants, eventually get blue-collar jobs. She must serve as their translator and guide as they all navigate this new world of English classes, low-wage pay and beginning life anew.

“All the passengers stood and applauded their pilot and one another. They had arrived. It was the end of one struggle and the beginning of many others, though no one seemed to be thinking about that yet,” reads the story “What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?” about an old widower named Liberman who spends his time with Mira, another older lady, at the local JCC.

“In the lunchroom Russians seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets — bright, excessively painted and cheerful.”

Many immigrant novels have been written about America — including many immigrant Jewish novels. But “The Last Chicken in America” provides a modern, fresh take with its focus on the differences between Russians and Americans — how Russians see Americans.

Americans are “so goddamn joyful,” and live in a “soulless society,” while Russians are “sensitive, foolish, illogical” and “live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from next drunken bout,” says Victor Harlamov, a visiting Russian literary professor and crush of Masha’s in the story “Russian Club.”

American Jews and their practice of Judaism is also a mystery to the Russian immigrants, who lived without religion for decades.

“My grandparents were born right around the revolution — and all this time they were alive, they were living in society where religion was opiate for masses, and we believed that,” she said. But they all knew they were Jewish — they couldn’t forget it, being stamped on their passports, listed as their nationality.

“We weren’t Russian; we were Jews,” she said. But there was no connection to Jewish ritual, or to the Jews in America.

“American Jews had it easy. They all seemed well-off, and except for Chassids they weren’t too conspicuous; in the proverbial American melting pot, they could pass for Italians or Greeks. Not that they had any worries. They took pride in their Jewishness, they celebrated it by building community centers and synagogues and by sponsoring immigrants from Eastern Europe,” Masha observes.

Litman, who got her MFA at Syracuse University, working with mentor George Saunders, wanted to write about the immigrant experience from different perspectives: the passionate Harlamov, the older Liberman, the young Masha, her middle-aged parents.

“I wanted to create this immigrant community, and I wanted to show how the immigration process went,” she said. “I wanted people to know as many sides of the community and the experience,” she said in a phone interview.

She succeeds not only because she lived many of the experiences, but also because her worldview, and her language, is Russian and American. While Litman knew some English when she moved to America at 19, she had to really learn it when she left her parents’ home in 1995, and learn to write in it as well. She still speaks with a soft Russian accent.

“My accent will probably stay with me forever, but I’m comfortable with that,” she said, even as she comes to her 18th year in America.

“Most of my friends are Americans, I feel like an American. There is also part of me that is Russian — I remember where I came from,” she said. “There are two parts. I don’t want to completely blend in.”

Books: Pot-smoking antihero proves cathartic for her creator

Twenty-nine-year-old Dahlia Finger, the antihero of Elisa Albert’s debut novel, “The Book of Dahlia,” has an inoperable brain tumor and an attitude.

Before her diagnosis, Dahlia spent her days smoking pot, watching cheesy movies and eating toaster pastries in the Venice, Calif., bungalow her father bought her. She lazily considered getting a life, although she was convinced that life sucks. After learning she has cancer she confronts her mortality — between medical marijuana bong hits — with the assistance of a “self-help” book, “It’s Up To You: The Cancer To-Do List.” (Her diagnosis, she is convinced, is “negativity.”)

She also scrutinizes her past for causes of her cancer, including her absent, selfish Israeli mother, her well-meaning but ineffectual father, her cruel older brother (a clergyman she nicknames Rabbi Douchebag), and her own propensity for grudge-holding, as if “the wrongs had piled up, a clusterf— of wrong. In her brain.”

The 29-year-old Albert, who has earned mostly laudatory reviews for her irreverent fiction about disaffected Jews, didn’t want Dahlia to experience a cliched kind of redemption.

“I resisted the temptation to make her too likeable,” said Albert, who grew up on the Westside.

“I didn’t want her apologizing for herself in any extended way, because we don’t do that in our private thoughts. I didn’t want to minimize the extent of her private rage and hurt to make her more palatable to John Q. Reader.”

Rather, Albert said, “the narrative is pointing a finger, in the form of Ms. Finger, at the limits of our empathy, at the shortcomings of those who are supposed to protect and guide us, and at the culture of shallow, relentless positivity.”

Dahlia is Albert’s latest not-so-nice Jewish character in distress. The protagonists in her short-story collection, “How This Night is Different,” include a teenager perplexed by her own boredom during a youth trip to Auschwitz, a mother who realizes her marriage is “so over” during an inebriated haze at a bat mitzvah, a hipster bewildered by her promiscuous best friend’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism and a woman who worries about her Passover yeast infection. In the collection’s final story, written in the form of a mock letter to Philip Roth, Albert claims to be a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick-lit.”

The sardonic tone of her work is often matched by the dire circumstances of her characters.

“When things seem bleakest, the decisions we make — wittingly or unwittingly — define us,” Albert said. “I check in with characters at precisely those moments, because that’s when things happen, when people turn things around … or don’t.”

“The Book of Dahlia” is, in a way, a response to such a time in Albert’s life. When she was in her mid-teens, her oldest brother, David, then working toward his doctorate in astrophysics at Tufts University, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor (his response was upbeat, which, in part, led Albert to “create Dahlia in all her negative glory, a reaction against just how positive and strong he was”).

At the time, Albert said, she was already depressed: Her parents’ marriage had been in the process of a slow (if amicable) unraveling, her father had spent long periods away on business, and Albert saw herself as a social misfit and “chronic underachiever” at Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles Hebrew High School and Camp Ramah. Her Jewish activities were mandatory and alienating: “I just didn’t seem to be capable of being what I was supposed to be in those settings — which was amenable to the party line and really excited about growing up and marrying somebody Jewish,” she said. “And while camp purported to be about Jewish identity, it was actually about who had slept with whom, as in any social context.”

Albert eventually found camaraderie and a calling in the creative writing program at Brandeis University; all the while she watched her brother undergo treatment and remission and, finally, a cancer relapse. He was 29 when he died in hospice care at home in Los Angeles in 1998.

“I was 19 and completely unequipped to process or deal with his death,” she recalled. “Writing this book was a way of belatedly trying to address the specter of those events. As I was barreling toward the age David was when he died, I thought it was necessary to revisit this thing and think about what it means to be a 29-year-old dying of a brain tumor.”

A few years ago, Albert began amassing “piles of books” on death and dying, which in turn helped her create the fictional Dahlia. Especially helpful was Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” which describes cancer, in Western literature, as “the kind of disease that evil, jerky people get … which makes them ugly and dark and fold in on themselves as they die.”

Albert also read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s novella about a man whose family refuses to acknowledge his illness.

“He’s wasting away, and the thing that pains him more than the fact he’s dying is that others around him won’t be straight with him about it,” she said. “All he wants is someone to sit with him and hold his hand and level with him: ‘You’re dying, you’re facing this, it’s going to happen.'”

“I was interested in these ideas, and in the theme as reflected through my own experience with my brother,” she said. “One of the clear memories I have, of the time, is saying to my parents, ‘You know, David’s going to die, of course,’ and they were furious with me. It was like, ‘How dare you suggest this,’ which was an obvious reality to me but couldn’t be articulated or expressed somehow. Of course I don’t begrudge my parents anything they did; they really did the best they could. But a terminal brain tumor is a terminal brain tumor. I can remember having that reality denied and tucking it away in my mind in order to come back to it later.”

Albert continued to be profoundly affected by her brother’s death. While enrolled in the master’s writing program at Columbia University, she met a childhood acquaintance whose brother also had died young — and rushed into a whirlwind courtship.

Books: The end of many things, but not of the Jews

“The End of the Jews: A Novel,” by Adam Mansbach (Spiegel & Grau, $23.95).

Adam Mansbach was at a “garish” family bar mitzvah with his grandfather some years back when somewhere between the bad ’80s music and kitschy dance floor games, his grandfather turned to him and said sardonically, “This is the end of the Jews.”

The novelist filed this great phrase away in his writerly head, only to have it re-emerge when he started writing his third novel, an epic drama about a Jewish family of artists from the 1930s to the present, due out in mid-March.

“When I picked that title, I thought that someone at some point would make me change it,” said Mansbach, 31, by telephone from his Berkeley home. “But the publisher loved the title, and thought it would get attention.”

Attention is probably an understatement for the kind of scrutiny that will be paid to a book with such a hyperbolic appellation. Is it really a book about the end of the Jews?

“In terms of an apocalyptic moment? No,” said Mansbach, who will be speaking this weekend at Jewlicious 4.0, a festival for young, hip Jews taking place Feb. 29 through March 2 in Long Beach. (For other performers/participants, see Calendar, Page 38.)

“I wanted to explore the end of a lot of things — the end of a sustainable community, the end of family structures that sustain us, all these ways of understanding oneself and one’s work are thrown into question in the book by the collective action of the characters,” he said. “It’s the tension between freedom and individuality, between the need to feel you’re part of something bigger — there’s a freedom when these things are central to our lives but at a central cost. At the beginning of the book there’s a lot of people for whom these things have already been destabilized who are striving for new forms of community based on art, memory, love and family, and it gets ugly in the process.”

“The End of The Jews” is a literary family saga built around three narratives in different time frames, opening with Tristan Brodsky, “15 years old, the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter.”

This son of Bronx Jewish immigrants is eager to escape his talmudic roots by studying literature and writing at City College in Manhattan. Escape Brodsky does, to become a famous writer whose own grandson, Tris (or RISK, his graffiti moniker), follows in his footsteps, to his grandfather’s ultimate dismay.

“I didn’t set out to write about Jewish identity,” Mansbach said. “I set out to write a book about people in this family — about a writer and another writer whose ambitions butt up against their loyalties.” But as he researched and wrote the book, the Jewish part became a significant factor. Part of Mansbach’s research included spending summers with his grandfather, a lawyer and a judge.

“He’s always fascinated me,” Mansbach said, “and I spent a lot of time trying to excavate his memories and learn all I could about him — not purposely, for the book — but I was talking to him, and a lot of the book does revolve around me figuring him out.”

The novel is hardly autobiographical, he said, even though there are some similarities, such as a grandfather-grandson relationship, a grandmother who was a poet, a young writer who writes his first novel about hip-hop.

For example, Mansbach’s second novel, “Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay” (Crown, 2005), a satire about race, whiteness and hip hop, tells the story of an Afro-centric white kid who grew up on a diet of hip-hop in the late ’80s and develops an anger toward white people and later becomes a cult hero. But “Angry Black White Boy” was critically acclaimed and is taught in curricula around the country, whereas Mansbach’s character RISK’s book on hip-hop is panned, because he can’t transcend race.

Other stories have their basis in real life, such as when the fictional RISK leaves Hebrew school after “Mr. Pearlmutter: two hundred years old, a staunch Zionist, the kind of guy who spent his Sundays educating the youth because he liked the idea of a captive audience,” said the Jews never turned their backs on their communities and the blacks did. In the book, RISK tells his father, and his father berates the teacher and the kid doesn’t go back.

In real life, Mansbach actually waited until a Hebrew school assembly where he was supposed to recite a prayer — but read the lyrics to Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” instead.

“It was mutually clear to us that neither I nor they wanted me at the school anymore,” he said.

That’s how Mansbach, a disc jockey who grew up in the hip-hop culture, uses reality — selectively, alternately.

“In some ways, a lot of the writing I do is anti-autobiographical: it explores directions I could have gone and didn’t,” Mansbach said.

The Jews don’t really end in his novel either — but that’s not the point. “There’s always some notion of ‘the end of the Jews’ — it might be assimilation and intermarriage that people seem preoccupied with right now, it might be destruction from outside forces — it seems to be on their minds a lot and it shouldn’t be.”

Mansbach grew up in Massachusetts in a Jewish family that was secular for generations, and he is reluctant to make any proscription for the Jews — even as he attends conferences like Jewlicious, REBOOT and Professional Leadership Project.

“I think some of what is going on in those spaces is interesting, whether it’s [REBOOT’s] Guilt & Pleasure magazine, and meeting those cool people, and looking at Judaism as this common denominator, and what — if anything — it means to anybody in the room,” he said. “I think that the notion of connecting to Judaism in cultural ways makes sense to me; it makes sense to me to understand it through the lens of what I do.”

As for the continuation of the Jewish people, he said, “It matters to me, but I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it.”

Adam Mansbach will be speaking/performing at the Jewlicious 4.0 Festival, 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 29 and 2 p.m. Sat., March 1 at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.

For more information, visit

Rabbi’s novel idea draws inspiration from geniza

Some people cap a career by writing a memoir or an exhaustive magnum opus based on a lifetime of research.

But after eight books and 30 years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as rabbi and professor, Burton L. Visotzky decided to write a novel. A work of Jewish historical fiction, to be more precise.

While historical fiction can include a broad range of methods — from simply placing a novel in certain time period to actually fictionalizing a person in history — “A Delightful Compendium of Consolation: A Fabulous Tale of Romance, Adventure & Faith” (Ben Yehuda Press) goes one step further: It might be the first to use the discoveries from the Cairo Geniza for fodder for a novel. (A geniza is a place where religious Jews store holy works before giving them a proper burial, because such objects are not allowed to be discarded.)

According to the book’s introduction, in 1896 two women brought manuscripts from Cairo to England, where Solomon Schechter deciphered a fragment as the Hebrew original of the biblical book of Ben Sirah. Schechter then went to Cairo and discovered the Geniza, which contained some 220,000 documents. He brought 140,000 manuscripts to the Cambridge University Library. The entire holy trove is now disseminated among libraries around the world and includes biblical manuscripts, rabbinic texts, Hebrew poetry, personal letters, business agreements from 11th and 12th century Cairo, a time, the editor’s note says, “when Egypt and its Faitmid Empire held sway over the Mediterranean Muslim world.” This book is a fictional elaboration of one document, “A Delightful Compendium of Consolation,” 11th century midrishim (rabbinic tales) authored or collected by Rabbeinu Nissim in North Africa.

book cover art, A Delightful Compendium of Consolation

Visotzky, the JTS’s Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, reimagines Rabbeinu Nissim and intersperses many of the stories into an epistolary novel of consolation.

The year is 1031. Nineteen-year-old Karimah, the Karaite daughter of Dunash HaCohen al-Tustari, a merchant, runs away with Ismail, her Muslim lover, leaving Dunash to mourn her as dead. The story is written as letters between Karimah and her brother and mother sharing of her Arabian-Night adventures, as well as and letters between Dunash and Rabbeinu Nissim, who tries to comfort the father.

The rabbi shares, for example, a story of Rabbi Meir, whose two children died on Shabbat, but his wife didn’t tell him until after the Sabbath was over so as not to ruin his joy and peace; there’s the story of Nahum who took jewels to a king as a present — but thieves had replaced the jewels in the sack with dirt. When the king saw the dirt he threatened to kill the Jews, but Elijah suggested it was “miracle dirt” to vanquish enemies. The king used it, and rewarded Nahum with jewels. When the thieves saw he’d returned with jewels, they tried to give the king dirt, but their dirt was not magic, and so they were killed.

“These are stories about rabbis to teach us ethical lessons how to live and not to live our lives,” Visotzky said in an interview.

Using this historical material, Visotzky creates his own story.

“It’s a great way of learning Jewish history,” he said. “Stories stir the human heart. Stories bring us closer to God and community. Narrative is a profoundly rabbinic way of confronting the universe.”

As a student at JTS, Visotzky was inspired by Milton Steinberg’s fictional novel, “As a Driven Leaf,” about Elisha ben Abuya, a contributor to the Talmud who lost his faith.

“Fiction moves me,” Visotzky said. “Some of the most important truths we learn by reading fiction.”

While cataloging manuscripts from the Geniza library himself, this particular period fascinated him.

“It struck me as a beautiful moment of Jewish history to write about,” Visotzky said.

It was a period when Jews did reasonably well within a predominantly Muslim society. Visotzky wrote his book from May through December 2001 in New York, as he was experiencing close-hand the devastation when the World Trade Center’s towers were destroyed. He was devastated, and as he counseled many who had suffered from the Sept. 11 attacks, he found his writing in the book darkened as well, he said. “But in the end it strengthened my desire as a Jew and a rabbi to engage in interfaith dialogue,” Visotzky said.

He is active in Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue internationally, working in Warsaw, Rome, Cairo and Doha, Qatar.

“My message as a modern — and I think that it’s a message that the Jews of that period felt as well — [is that] we’ve got to get along with our neighbors. The more we can get along with our neighbors, the more rich our Jewish life can be.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky will be speaking at 3 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 652-7352; and Feb. 25 at 12:15 p.m. at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.

For more about Jewish historical fiction, visit

Books to remember this summer by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Want to hear a story?

So I’m at the Jewish Book Council’s (JBC) open auditions, in the main sanctuary of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, in the front row of the L-Z section of authors who have written a book with a Jewish theme and who would like to sell more than three copies of that book over their lifetime, which is — let’s be honest here — what will happen to most of us if we don’t get invited to speak at a Jewish book fair or two next fall.

My publisher, generous by any standards, has flown me here and put me up in a five-star, Madison Avenue hotel, all expenses paid with two publicists in tow — which isn’t a bad deal, really, I realize, and am terribly grateful — and all he asks in return is that I make a good impression on the good men and women of the JBC during the two minutes I’ll have to make my presentation.

But now I’m looking around at the rows upon rows of authors ready and eager and each carrying a copy of his or her book like a weapon and all I can think of is how much my poor publisher is going to hate me when he sees the first sales figures on my book and realizes he should have invested in a game of roulette instead.

I do like my book, you know, and I do believe it should be read by countless millions — though I will easily settle for dozens — who will mob the bookstores at midnight, dressed in costume, having legally changed their names to those of the characters in my story. But I also realize I’ve come to the world of publishing with a gross handicap — I’ve written a novel, as opposed to something useful, like a book of nonfiction, which is what everyone else seems to have written — and that nothing I can say at the podium tonight is going to tilt the balance in my favor.

You see, nearly 200,000 books are published in the United States every year. More than half of those are works of nonfiction-how-to, inspirational, biography, memoir. Those are the books people buy. People buy them because they serve a purpose — an actual function that justifies the $24 and dozen or more hours of time they consume. The rest — novels and collections of short stories or poems — are useful only as a tax write-off for the publisher, against profits from books of nonfiction, or the occasional novel about kites and wizards, or something that was written 30 years ago and suddenly discovered yesterday by Oprah. So if you’re smart, or semisensible, or at least not of the “don’t change the lightbulb; I’ll just sit in the dark” school of thought, you will write nonfiction.

Tonight, for instance, we hear from a professor of Jewish history who has taught at a major university for 50 years, and has now written a book about it. His facts are solid and his credentials are impeccable. And from a woman who has written about a boat full of Jewish immigrants that, 50 years ago, sank before it reached its destination. And from a rabbi who has written about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States. This is all good stuff, you say, important stuff. And I agree. This is the kind of thing people should read, instead of some little story about things that never happened and people that didn’t exist.

I do agree with you. I really do. I can see why these writers’ careers should rise meteorically while mine lingers in the marshlands of publishing.

But then we have an author who calls himself “an investigative reporter” and who says he has “spent the last five years investigating your marriage.” He says his book will answer all the questions any woman ever had about a man, like “why your husband leaves his socks on the floor.” It’s not a book about Jews per se, he admits, but it could be: many Jews are men, and many of them are husbands.

So he’s over-reaching a bit for the Jewish angle, you say. But he’s spent five years researching this book, and maybe people should care more about socks on the floor than about my little novel, regardless of how much my poor publisher is paying for my hotel tonight.


Edward R. Murrow is followed by a woman who has written a book about bread. Good old ordinary bread. As in the kind you eat. Bread and the many things you can do with it. She holds the book up and, sure enough, there’s the picture of a loaf of bread right on the cover. Look inside and you’ll find the answer to all the questions you’ve always had but were afraid to ask.

The connection between bread and Judaism? Challah, of course.

And then there’s an author who has written a book about aprons. The history of aprons, to be exact. Why they were invented and what they’re good for. The author is wearing one herself, and she carries a cardboard suitcase — like the one Blanche carried to Stella’s house in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In the suitcase she has brought more aprons, each with a different print. Feel free to wear one while you make challah for your Jewish husband.

But here’s the strange thing in all of this: at some point in the course of the evening, I realize I’m not having such a bad time after all. I’m actually enjoying this, actually eager to know what each book is about.

Somehow, this most blatant form of self-promotion, this venue that, until a couple of hours ago, had looked to me like a literary meat market, has suddenly reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place: to tell a good story; a story about Jews; a story that in its own small way continues the tale of this people who have had to struggle, in every generation, to ensure that their story doesn’t end. And I think this is what all the other people in this room have also wanted to do — to write a word, a line, a chapter in that great story, and to make sure our story goes on.

Gina B. Nahai’s new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Her column appears on the first Friday of every month. She will write more about the evening at the Jewish Book Council next month.

Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background

Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner.

There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths, followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of the best American short story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; there are several stories that deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which his own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child with a disability, like his own daughter. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” the divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates in their wanderings, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman at the fraternity house across the street with her boyfriend. The story and the book end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now, he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time, and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

The two oldest of Apple’s four children — often the subjects in “Free Agents” — are writers. Both grew up watching their father at work — that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of co-existence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

So many authors, so little time

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

Jewish Journal September 15, 2006 43

Q & A With Russian Jewish Author Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart is a literary clown with a frown. His biting satire comments on a multi-cultural America in need of self-examination and reassessment.

“Absurdistan” (Random House, $24.95), his extraordinary new novel, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey from post-communist Russia to a mythical former Soviet Union state he calls Absurdistan, with stop-offs in between to his beloved New York City. This Jewish Russian American writer invites us along for the ride. I caught up with Shteyngart earlier this summer in his Manhattan apartment. Shteyngart emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up in Little Neck, N.Y. He currently resides in Manhattan.

Jewish Journal: Would you call yourself a Jewish atheist?

Gary Shteyngart: I would call myself more of a Jewish agnostic. I’m one of these people who would be very happy if there was a god. It doesn’t matter if it is a Jewish God or a Sufi god, or a Christian god. Do I believe it? I’m more than slightly doubtful.

JJ: How important is being Jewish in your writing?

GS: I would say that I am a Russian Jew, or even a Soviet Jew. We are, in our sensibility, a very specific kind of Jew. We lived in a totalitarian system for 70 years where a lot was lost. Jewish humor interests me the most, and Soviet Jewish humor is Jewish humor taken to the max. It’s Jewish humor from the edge of the grave. What’s amazing to me is how Jewish humor has completely permeated this country. I have Korean friends in L.A. who are using Yiddishisms when trying to be funny. Jewish humor is everywhere.

JJ: How would you describe your work? I like the term Jewish burlesque.

GS: There are many different kinds of fiction. There is a kind of restrained style of fiction, and then there is the kind that likes to run around and bare its chest, have a drink and talk to girls. That’s the kind of fiction I write. But there’s room for both.

JJ: When did you know when you were a writer?

GS: Very early on, when I was in Hebrew school. I wrote a take-off of the Torah. I call it the Gnorah and Exodus was Sexodus. I think I wanted to rebel against the very rigid way we were being taught. Most of us needed an outlet, and I tried to supply it. I showed it around, and it was a way to make friends and meet girls. After that, I started to write stories.

JJ: How often did you get into trouble?

GS: I visited the principal quite a lot. In Russia I was interested in orthodoxy, communism, Lenin, Brezhnev or whoever was in charge. In America, I was interested in Reagan, and Bush One. I guess I always have been fascinated by authority and, at the same time, contemptuous of it. In Hebrew school, we were presented with the ultimate authority, God. I remember the Russian kids would sneak pork kielbasa into the school bathroom, and when the rabbi found us he would be incensed and say, “This is what made the Holocaust.

JJ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are going?

GS: As a Russian Jew, I am hard-wired to be pessimistic. Pessimism is what I do best. When I wrote my first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” [2002], it was during the Clinton years, and I was very hopeful. The Soviet Union had fallen, and I thought Russia would rejoin the league of normal nations, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not sure which government, the Russian or ours, has let me down more. I guess there is a confluence of idiocy taking place in the world.

JJ: Where do you think we are headed?

GS: I think we are entering a post-literate age where people are reading less. Reading a novel requires a lot of time and further time for contemplation. I may be na?ve, but I connect literacy with democracy and being informed. I’m worried about our current state of affairs.

The irony is that people may be reading less, but they are writing more. Everyone wants to express themself, but there is a kind of lack of empathy for other people and cultures.

JJ: It’s sort of like one big blog.

GS: Exactly. And in the blog, the person writing is their own hero, or in the video game they want to be the center of action.

JJ: You describe Manhattan as being the world on an island.

GS: I’m worried that Manhattan’s quirky landscape is fading away. I’m worried that Manhattan is becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live on the Lower East Side, you still have a mixed neighborhood. We have the three H’s: the Hassids, the hipsters and the Hispanics. I spend half my day walking around the city. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I started Stuyvesant High School and discovered Manhattan. I looked beyond my Russian and Jewish roots and saw the enormity of life.

JJ: Have you spent any time in Los Angeles, and what is your reaction to it?

GS: I’m absolutely intrigued by Los Angeles and at one point considered living there. I don’t know how to drive a car to save my life and thought better of it. I think in many ways, for better or worse, L.A. is the model for what a future city might look like.

JJ: Final comments on “Absurdistan”?

GS: When I start writing, I write from the perspective of one character. Misha just came to me one day as this big, hulking guy. What I wanted to do with Misha is bring together America and Russia, these two hulking countries. What I love about Misha is his consumerism. He eats his way through the world. He eats sturgeon; he eats women; he eats political ideas; anything that comes along. I wanted to create someone that was much larger than myself and larger than any of the people I know. That was how “Absurdistan” came together.

JJ: What’s next?

GS: Next is a quieter book. I want to calm down a bit, because I feel like I am singing in the same register for too many times in a row. I want to do something more contemplative and more paced. One thing I’m considering is actually writing about other immigrant groups. The Korean American community in L.A. is fascinating, and I’ll probably spend some time in Los Angeles researching my next novel.

Harry Wiland, with partner Dale Bell, was co-executive producer/director/writer of “And Thou Shalt Honor,” a PBS special on elder care and family caregiving. He is currently co-producing and directing “Edens Lost and Found,” a PBS series on urban restoration that will air in early 2007. Wiland and Bell also wrote the companion book (Chelsea Green Publishing), available at

Spectator – ‘Devil’ Is in the Details

The film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 New York Times best-selling novel, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which hits theaters on June 30, follows recent college grad Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) as she takes on the dubious job of assistant to the editor-in-chief of the most prominent fashion magazine in New York: Runway. Her job, as it turns out, is not at all about journalism, but rather catering to the boss from hell, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), who makes absurdly vague demands and expects immediate results. After nearly a year, Andy must decide whether succeeding at her career trumps keeping her sanity.

An enjoyable chick-lit book, “The Devil Wears Prada,” in movie form follows the novel’s storyline, with slight modifications to the plot that only enhance our understanding of Andy’s dilemma. And for the fashion buff, the insider’s view of the inner workings of a haute couture, albeit fictional, fashion magazine are amusing.

One dramatic difference, however, is that in the film, Andy is no longer identified as Jewish. Ditto for the Miranda Priestly character, rumored to be based on legendary Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who was born Miriam Princhek into an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite the importance of Judaism to the main characters in the book version, Fox 2000 opted to exclude any religious references.

Hollywood is actually quite adept at changing Jewish literary characters into generic, unaffiliated characters on screen. “In Her Shoes,” for example, a 2005 film based on the book of the same title by author Jennifer Weiner, successfully glossed over the fact that the protagonist and her sister were Jewish. The only glimpse of explicitly Jewish content was the kippot worn at a wedding.

Although unavailable for comment at press time, in a 2005 interview with the Jerusalem Post, Weisberger noted how Jewish characters are a necessary element to her work.

“I can’t imagine constructing a single’s life and her family’s life without them being Jewish,” Weisberger explained.

And despite the producers’ efforts, the on-screen character of Andy Sachs remains true to her roots and comes across as a Jewish girl all the same.

“The Devil Wears Prada” opens this week in theaters.


Class Notes

New Yeshiva Flying SCY High
Founding board members of the new Southern California Yeshiva High School (SCY High) for boys in La Jolla knew that with a history of failed yeshiva high schools in the area, they had to offer the community something new and innovative. So they, along with headmaster Kevin Cloud, developed a school that utilizes high-tech project-based learning to integrate all disciplines — from science to literature to Gemara.

The school, the only Orthodox boys high school in the San Diego area, attracted 17 boys in ninth and 10th grades last year, its first year of existence, and next year between 25 and 30 are expected to be enrolled in the ninth through 11th grades. One Los Angeles boy boarded with relatives, and next year several families are opening up their homes to students who want to board.

As a school starting from scratch, teachers were able to take novel approaches to study.

The ninth graders, for example, read Goethe’s “Faust,” then rewrote it as short film. They created sets — some using “South Park”-style puppets, some using stop-action dolls and action figures — set it to music, and filmed short movies. The 10th graders read Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” then rewrote a modernized version then studied and debated the moral implications of making Faustus Jewish.

“What you do in project-based learning is you take the ability the students have in one subject and you bring that enthusiasm into another subject,” Cloud said.

The students also get traditional instruction, but even there things tend to blend.

In Rabbi Moshe Adatto’s Gemara class, students had to present talmudic arguments in a PowerPoint flowchart. Each student is given a Dell laptop when they enter, and the school is wired for high-speed wireless Internet access.

To Adatto, who previously was a teacher at the Valley Kollel, it’s all part of making kids love school and love Judaism.

“We’re trying to create lifelong learners, and to me that has two components: They have to know how to learn, and they have to want to learn,” said Adatto, who organized Shabbatons and other events to build school spirit.

All but one student has reenrolled for next year, and an anonymous survey that all of the parents filled out brought back astonishing results for a Jewish school: No one — not one family — reported being anything less than satisfied.

For more information on SCY High School, contact (858) 658-0857 or visit

Follow the Fellows to Israel
Three Southern California teens were among 26 selected nationally to visit Israel on a five-week Bronfman Youth Fellowship this summer. Priscella Frank of Calabasas High School and Benjamin and Mitzi Steiner of Shalhevet were selected following a rigorous application process. They will participate in an intensive program of study and travel in Israel designed to develop leaders committed to Jewish unity.

The fellows participate in seminars and dialogues with diverse rabbinic faculty and spend a week with a group of Israeli peers who have been chosen through Amitei Bronfman, a parallel Israeli program. Bronfman Youth Fellows are asked to complete 40 hours of community service when they return home at the end of the summer.

3 Books = 31 Flavors
Students at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy have another reason to pick up a good book — to satisfy their sweet tooth. As part of the Be a Star Reader program, elementary and middle school kids who read three books this spring were awarded a free ice cream cone at any Baskin-Robbins. Arna Schwartz, the school librarian, has run the Be a Star Reader program for several years, purchasing Baskin-Robbins gift certificates. This year, Robert Schwartz, who owns the Baskin-Robbins on Kinross Avenue in Westwood, offered to sponsor the program. Other Schools or youth organizations interested in participating in the Baskin-Robbins Reading Rewards Program can contact Robert Schwartz at (310) 208-8048.

To Bee or Not to Bee
More than 150 boys from Chabad schools across the world gathered in Los Angeles in April for a battle of wits on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot. Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles was the host school of the chidon, or bee, which attracted 1,000 spectators to the finals held at Emerson Middle School. The girls’ competition was held the week before in New York. Local winners were Sender Labkowsky, first place, older division; Mendel Mishulovin, third place, older division; and Shmully Lezak, third place, younger division.

ADL Reaches 700,000 Students
As part of LAUSD’s Live Violence-Free Day, 35,000 teachers in the district were urged to use materials and activities they received from the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, impacting more than 700,000 K-12 students in one day. The activities and lesson plans were designed to assist educators in addressing issues of bias, discrimination, bullying and violence, and focused on empowering students to become agents of change on their campuses. For more information on ADL education programs, contact Jenny Betz at (310) 446-8000, ext. 233.


Treasury Mainstreams Dramatic Plights

Published plays — especially those in anthologies — tend to be dismissed by the casual browser as specialty items, of interest only to students of theater history or to actors in search of audition material. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick clearly had something else in mind when they compiled their lively new collection, “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays.” Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life.

Schiff and Posnick have chosen well, covering territory as diverse as the Argentine white slave trade, the plight of the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and the longstanding friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish theater legend Solomon Mikhoels. While all the pieces are well-crafted and insightful, some are so heavily dependent on choreography and stage effects that they fall a bit flat on the page. Other entries read like short stories, as absorbing in book form as they likely are in performance. Without critiquing all nine of the pieces, suffice to say that the more verbal and less visually driven pieces tend to be the most readable.

Not surprisingly, two of the standouts are by Jeffrey Sweet and Donald Margulies, who are familiar to American audiences from their Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Sweet’s “The Action Against Sol Schumann” examines one of the perpetually nagging questions of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The time is 1985, and outspoken Aaron Schumann flies to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery full of German soldiers. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Aaron cannot countenance the president’s portrayal of Germans as victims. Aaron’s moral absolutes are tested, however, when another survivor identifies his father, Sol, as a former kapo. Desperate to put together a defense, Aaron and his brother, Michael, search far and wide. If they can find an eyewitness, they may be able to substantiate their claim that their papa had little choice and even used his position to help other Jews. Finally the two brothers locate an elderly survivor who remembers Sol, but not in the way they’d hoped. Sweet’s dialogue brilliantly mingles the universal and the painfully personal, and the plot moves along with the brisk pace of a good mystery. Unfortunately, the ending feels far too convenient: Aaron, an inner-city schoolteacher, is killed when he tries to break up a knife fight. Thus Sweet lets his protagonist, and the audience, off the hook too easily. A more fitting resolution would have shown Aaron struggling to maintain his sanity as he reconciles the cherished memory of a loving father with the terrifying image of a willing collaborator in his own people’s destruction.

A different kind of conundrum animates Margulies’s “God of Vengeance.” Although the play is adapted from a work by Sholem Asch, Margulies’s clash of dialects vibrates with the influences of Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. In the tenements of New York City’ s Lower East Side, the 1920s roar with a decidedly Yiddish inflection. Jack Chapman, aka Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, runs a prosperous bordello. One flight up, he tries to maintain a kosher home and to keep his beloved daughter, Rivkele, pure and innocent. When he buys a Torah scroll for Rivkele’s dowry, he finds himself confronting a God whose dictates he has ignored all these years. Alternately frightening and hilarious, his ferocious outbursts are balanced by lyrical scenes of same-sex intimacy. At 17, Rivkele can no longer be tied down. Defying her father’s admonitions, she sneaks downstairs to the brothel. Here, Manke, a prostitute suffering from a different kind of loneliness, offers Rivkele the full embrace she cannot find anywhere else.

Lesser known but equally talented, Marilyn Clayton Felt brings a Shavian intensity to her penetrating study of the Middle East peace struggle. Inspired by true events, “Asher’s Command” concerns a friendship between Arab car mechanic Samir and young Israeli draftee Asher. When Asher’s car breaks down in the territories, Samir is happy to help and shows no animosity toward the young soldier. The problem turns out to be a potato jammed into the tailpipe; hardly an act of ruthless terrorism, but certainly an omen of what’s to come. The friendship continues through the years, but is put to the test in the 1980s when Asher becomes commander of occupation forces. Although he truly believes he can make a difference from within, he receives little support from either side. Arabs suspect trickery behind the peaceful overtures, and Jewish hardliners see him as a traitor to his nation. Tensions erupt when a group of Israeli youths enjoy an outing in Nablus in defiance of regulations. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and Samir’s auto shop becomes an unintended battleground. As Asher is called on to enforce the law, he ends up on the opposite side of his longtime friend. Although a melodramatic subplot proves somewhat distracting, Felt’s well-crafted allegory provides a mature and unflinching portrayal of Israel’s continuing internal and external conflicts.

As for the more experimental pieces, the most affecting is Corey Fischer’s “See Under: Love,” a play within a play within a play adapted from a Hebrew novel by David Grossman. In America, young Neuman neglects his wife and son while speaking to the ghost of his grandfather, Herr Wasserman. Once a popular Polish author, Wasserman is now interned in a concentration camp. Here he’s commanded to be S.S. officer Kurt Neigel’s personal Sheherazade. Each night he invents a new chapter of a surreal adventure story, which Neigel transcribes into letters to his wife. The Nazi is having trouble at home, as Frau Neigel no longer wishes to be touched by hands that stink of death. As the story deepens, Neigel’s conscience slowly awakens. When he truly encounters the horror of his actions he can no longer function, and takes his own life. Fischer skates on thin ice here, dangerously close to a relativistic worldview in which we’re all victims. But by the end of “See Under: Love,” Neigel’s crisis becomes less a moral acquittal than an existential song of lament. Evil, Fischer seems to say, consumes everything in its path, including what little claim to humanity its perpetrators may hope to make.

Unfortunately, only one of the nine plays — Jennifer Maisel’s touching “The Last Seder” — can really be called “contemporary.” Re-examining the past is a worthy task for any dramatist, but the inclusion of a few works that take place in today’s world (“Brooklyn Boy,” “Modern Orthodox,” “Jewtopia”) would have made this collection feel less like a history book and more like the up-to-date dispatch its name suggests.

Article courtesy of The Forward.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.


Rushdie’s ‘Clown’ No Laughing Matter

“Shalimar the Clown : A Novel,” by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2005).

Salman Rushdie is at Disney Hall, addressing a near-capacity audience as part of the Music Center’s 2006 Speaker Series. He has come this March 1 evening to talk about politics and art, truth and tyranny, free and forbidden speech. He has come, also, to promote his newest book.

“Shalimar the Clown” tells the story of an 80-year-old French-born Jewish American diplomat who is murdered by his Kashmiri driver. Max Ophuls (he shares the name with the early 20th century Jewish German film director) lost both parents in the Holocaust, and fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Later, he met and was seduced by Boonyi Kaul, a beautiful Kashmiri woman who happens to be the wife of a high-wire circus performer, Shalimar the Clown, who has sworn to kill any man, and the children of any man, who dares touch his wife. Together, Ophuls and Boonyi conceive a daughter, India, who is whisked away at birth and ends up living an empty, privileged life in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a combination of suppressed sexual rage and religious pride has transformed Shalimar into a terrorist, intent on hunting down and avenging himself against Max Ophuls.

If this sounds a lot like the plot of an over-the-top Bollywood film, it’s because it is.

Like most of Rushdie’s other works, “Shalimar the Clown” is concerned with the political and cultural plight of migrants, the legacy of colonialism, the meeting points between East and West, of modernity and tradition, the role of frontiers in our lives. Los Angeles and Bombay. New York and Kashmir — it deals with the nature of memory, the role of family, the legacy of secrets. The book displays both the author’s discerning eye and gift for lyricism (“According to one report she sounded guttural … as if she were speaking Arabic. Night-Arabian, she thought, the dream-tongue of Scheherazade.”) and his inclination toward the pedestrian and the banal (“Another version described her words as science-fictional … Like Sigourney Weaver channeling a demon in ‘Ghostbusters.'”).

Like most of his other works, “Shalimar the Clown” gives the impression of a novel yet to be edited and rewritten, pared down and freed from often overreaching and careless prose (“Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else.”) that conveys little meaning. The book reads more like a political allegory than great literature, it preaches rather than allows the reader to arrive at her own truth.

To his credit, Rushdie has never shied away from the difficult, the controversial, and the taboo. “Satanic Verses” (1988) is his most famous example, but his other novels, too, consistently push at the limits and question long-standing beliefs: “Shame” (1983), is about the concept of honor — men’s — in Islam, and the shame that results from any real or perceived breach of that honor; “The Moor’s Last Sigh” (1996) warns of the dire consequences of militant religion for the moderates who do not challenge it; “Midnight’s Children” (1981), perhaps the most admired of his works, is about the loss of ideals, betrayal, and corruption in post-colonial India.

Worthy subjects, indeed, and Rushdie has the gift and the insight to make them real and comprehensible. So it’s a wonder that he resorts, in creating his plots, to such cumbersome narrative devices as a dream within a dream, a novel within the novel, a character that is born to four mothers at once, a poor boy who is switched at birth with a rich man’s son….

And yet, there is something unique about Salman Rushdie’s writing, something so daring and defiant and enduring that it nearly transcends the usual concerns of craftsmanship and literature. It is true that he is not big on subtlety and restraint, that his over-the-top, mad-about-fame-and-movies-and-rock-‘n’-roll style can easily put off the reader; that he force-feeds his politics and puts his prose at the service of his message; that his writing is so inconsistent, one critic has called him a “not-quite novelist.”

But it is also true that he has kept on writing, held on to his beliefs, preached his politics even after it nearly cost him his life; that he continues to define himself primarily as a storyteller, even after he has achieved film-celebrity status; that he acts, and writes, as if truth still matters in politics and in the arts.

At the Disney Hall, Rushdie wastes no time heaping scorn on George Bush for his “Weapons of Mass Deception,” or criticizing Western leaders and media for being intimidated into withholding publication of speech that may be deemed offensive. He has no time for authors who write fictitious memoirs just to make their lives sound more interesting, or publishers and public figures (“Take away the first three letters of Winfrey,” he remarks, “and what you’re left with is Frey.”) who can’t tell the difference. Mostly, however, he concerns himself with fundamentalist Muslims who wish to control what the rest of the world says, writes, or reads. A decade and a half after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie for writing “Satanic Verses,” he says, millions of Muslims are still ready to take offense at books they have not read and cartoons they have not seen. Millions more non-radical Muslims fail to criticize the actions of radicals. The press is afraid to speak up.

“The battle against totalitarian religion,” Rushdie says, “is the battle of our time.”

As a result of Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989, Rushdie’s book was banned in India, South Africa, and all through the Muslim world. Rushdie himself spent nine years in hiding, his Japanese translator was killed on the campus of the university where he taught (Japanese Muslims openly applauded the killing), and his Italian and Norwegian translators were seriously wounded in knife assaults. In Pakistan, a court sentenced to death a Christian man who had been accused by his Muslim neighbor of inviting him to read “Satanic Verses.” In Turkey, a mob attacked the site of a conference where a Turkish poet had spoken out against the fatwa and killed 37 conference participants. The government of Turkey promptly accused the poet of acting “provocatively,” and blamed him for the deaths.

But the more lasting, and tragic, result of the Rushdie affair was that it set a precedent for other fatwas to be issued by Muslim leaders against other free-thinking individuals who criticize thousand-year-old conventions and oppressive beliefs. In the years that have followed the edict, writers, journalists and university professors have been condemned — or put to death — in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh. (One notorious example was Bengali physician Taslima Nasrin, who had more than one fatwa issued against her for criticizing Islam’s treatment of women.)

For better or for worse, the fatwa made Rushdie more than an author under siege by powerful censors; it made him a metaphor for the clash between proponents of free speech and those who seek to silence it. It is to Rushdie’s credit that he continues to fight and to use stories as the weapon with which to do so.

“It is only through fiction that we learn to tell the truth,” he says.

In the first book he wrote after he was driven into hiding, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” Rushdie tells of “a sad city … a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish.”

Here, a tyrant named Khattam-Shud has forbidden everyone to speak. He is the “arch-enemy of all stories, even of language itself.” His followers have sworn a vow of silence, and are determined to poison the Sea of Stories, rendering the land into “a place of shadows, of books that wear padlocks and tongues torn out.”

Haroun, who thinks “stories are fun,” asks the tyrant why he hates stories.

“The world,” the tyrant replies, “is not for fun. The world is for controlling. And inside every single story, inside every stream in the ocean, there lies a world, a story world, that I cannot rule at all.”

If this is true, then Salman Rushdie — imperfect novels and all — has triumphed over the tyrant.

His most enduring legacy will not be great literature; it will be that he has proven, with his stories, the importance of words — the power they hold and which so terrifies tyrants they tear out the storytellers’ tongues and put padlocks on their books.

“What the arts do at their best is try to increase the sum total of what we know and are,” Rushdie says at Disney Hall. “To do that, you have to push against the limits of what is safe. In spite of the dangers involved, that is the work.”

Gina Nahai is the author of several novels. Her new book, “Dreams of a Caspian Rain,” will be published later this year.

“Max” excerpt from “Shalimar the Clown,” by Salman Rushdie (Pages 142-143)

The university was moving to Clermont-Ferrand in the Zone Sud, outside the area of German occupation, and vice-chancellor Danjon urged his budding young economics genius to accompany them. But Max the younger would not leave unless he could get his parents to a place of safety as well. He tried hard to persuade them to join the evacuation. Wiry, graceful, their white hair cropped short, their hands the hands of pianists, not printers, their bodies leaning intently forward to listen to their son’s absurd proposition, Max, senior and his wife, Anya, looked more like identical twins than a married couple. Life had made them into each other’s mirrors. … Max took a deep breath and launched into his prepared speech. The situation was desperate, he said. It was only a matter of time before the German army attacked France and if the border country should go the way of Poland the family’s German name would not protect them. Theirs was a well-known Jewish household in a strongly Jewish neighborhood; the risk of informers was real and had to be faced up to. Max senior and Anya should go away to their good friends the Sauerweins’ place near Cro-Magnon. He himself would go to Clermont-Ferrand and teach. They would have to lock and seal the Strasbourg house and the printings works and simply hope for the best. Was that agreed?

His parents smiled at their son the lawyer and his skillfully marshaled arguments and these were identical smiles, cocked up to the left a little, smiles affording no glimpses of aging teeth. They put down their utensils in unison and clasped their pianist hands in their laps. Max senior gave a little glance at Anya and Anya gave a little glance back, offering each other the right of first reply. “Son,” Max senior finally began, pursing his lips, “one never knows the answer to the questions of life until one is asked.” Max was familiar with his father’s circumlocutory philosophizing and waited for the point to arrive. “You know what he means, Maxi,” his mother took over. “Until you have back pain you don’t know your tolerance for back pain. How you’re going to tolerate not being so young anymore, you won’t know until you grow old. And until danger comes a person doesn’t know for sure how a person’s going to think about danger.” Max senior picked up a breadstick and bit it in half; it broke with a loud crack. “So now this question of peril has been posed,” he said, pointing the remaining half of the stick at his son and narrowing his eyes, “and so now I know my answer.”

Anya Ophuls drew herself up in a rare show of disunity. “It’s my answer also, Maximilian,” she corrected her husband mildly. “I think this slipped your mind a moment.” Max senior frowned. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Her answer as well, I know her answer as well as I know my own, and my mind, excuse me, nothing slips it. My mind, excuse me, is a fist of steel.” Max junior thought it was time to press a little. “And what is that answer?” He asked as delicately as possible, and his father with a loud short laugh forgot his irritation and smacked his palms together as hard as he could. “I discover that I am a stubborn bastard!” He cried, coughing hard. “I discover bloody-mindedness in myself, and mulishness to boot. I will not be chased from my home and my business! I will not go to Sauerwein’s and be made to look at his trembling old man’s paintings and eat quenelles of pike. I will stay in my house and run my factory and face the enemy down. Who do they think they are dealing with here? Some common inky-fingered ragamuffin from the streets? Maybe I’m on my last legs, young fellow, but I stand for something in this town.

Excerpted from “Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. Copyright (c) 2006 by Salman Rushdie. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

N for No-Nonsense Natalie

Natalie Portman has probably populated more fanboy fantasies than anyone this side of Jessica Alba.

Besides presiding over the recent “Star Wars” films as Queen Amidala, she plays a bald, beautiful and badass revolutionary in “V For Vendetta,” opening March 17, the latest film from “Matrix” masterminds Andy and Larry Wachowski. As the missing link between the universes of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers, Portman holds a unique place in geek-movie history

“Yes, they’re all somehow linked now,” she says. “It’s sort of hard to put a genre label on ‘V For Vendetta,’ but it fits in the action category with ‘Star Wars,’ even though it’s a little bit more provocative. But I will leave it to all the people who love to write essays about this kind of stuff to make ‘Matrix’ and ‘V’ connections and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘V’ connections. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.”

Portman professes much love for Lucas and the “Star Wars” experience, but she also insinuates that the trilogy provided her with a handy way of staying in movies while she was off attending Harvard University.

“I was in school during the year, and then on summer break I would do a

‘Star Wars,'” says the Jerusalem-born actress. “But I’m done with school, done with ‘Star Wars.’ I’ve graduated.”

“V For Vendetta” is a whopper of a graduation present. Adapted by the Wachowskis from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the movie is set in a future world squirming under the thumb of a totalitarian chancellor (John Hurt). Homosexuality is illegal; freedom of speech is a memory; and hope is in short supply.

One day, a mysterious figure appears, wearing a mask designed to look like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605. Calling himself V (Hugo Weaving), the cape-wearing anti-hero is planning a series of terrorist attacks against the repressive British government. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a waif who becomes V’s protégé.

Making a $50 million movie with a terrorist as a hero is a bold movie in post-Sept. 11 America. Portman knew the film would spark controversy but found herself instantly drawn to its provocative, envelope-pushing subject matter.

“Being from Israel was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this movie, because terrorism and violence have been such a daily part of my thought process and conversation ever since I was young,” she says. “One of the books that I read to help me with this role was Menachim Begin’s book about his experiences in a Siberian prison. Eventually he came to lead Israel in the British occupation of Palestine. He was called a terrorist by many people. Israelis have been called terrorists all through history.”

“The movie asks important questions, like, ‘When, if ever, is violence justified?’ And ‘What is the threshold for how pressing a situation can be before we have to revolt?’ One of the great things about the movie is that it leaves those questions open for discussion,” she says.

Portman has always tried to pursue thought-provoking material. She played the title role in a Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1997, embodied an American stripper living in London for “Closer” (earning a best supporting actress nomination in the process) and starred in the Israeli film “Free Zone,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Fest.

The actress accepted the vanity-destroying role of Evey knowing that one of the requirements was an on-camera trip to the barber.

“It wasn’t traumatic because I was trying to focus on what my character was going through,” says Portman about getting a buzzcut. “We only had one shot to do it. I don’t really have any personal memories of the experience.”

Since shooting the film, Portman’s hair has grown out a few inches. For today’s interview, she’s wearing it spiky and punked-up. Dressed in jeans, an open sweater and the world’s tiniest ballet slippers, Portman looks a good deal younger than her 24 years.

As a former child star who made her film debut in the bullet ballet “The Professional,” Portman is used to suffering for her art, but she drew the line when it came to doing her own stunts. Claiming to be “not in great shape,” she allowed her “Vendetta” double to do all of the tough stuff.

“I would do the end of the stunt,” she says. “Someone else would fall out of the window, and then I would end up there on the ground. That’s movie magic.”

Not everything about “V” has been so easy. In fact, the film has been surrounded by controversy since production got underway last year. Real-life terrorism, the firing of a leading man and the airing of a famous filmmaker’s dirty laundry all figured into the long, arduous process of bringing the graphic novel to the screen.

Originally published in 1981, “V For Vendetta” was written as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative politics. A few years later, the rights were scooped up by producer Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) who approached the Wachowskis about penning an adaptation. When “The Matrix” trilogy started winding down, the brothers finally decided to revisit the risky material.

Instead of directing the film themselves, the brothers and Silver hired “The Matrix” second unit director James McTiegue to call “action” and “cut.”

The Wachowskis were apparently on the set nearly every single day, which inspired rumors that McTiegue was a mere figurehead and that the brothers were calling the shots themselves.

McTiegue insists that gossip was unfounded.

“The Wachowskis were the producers and they wrote the script,” he notes. “They were a great sounding board but they were the first to tell me that I could take or leave their suggestions.”

The production encountered another problem when the graphic novel’s writer Alan Moore requested that his name be taken off the final film. Stung by the poor adaptation of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Moore apparently made his decision without ever seeing a frame of “V For Vendetta.”

“I did call Alan and ask him not to have his name removed,” notes David Lloyd, who illustrated the graphic novel. “I wish he hadn’t done it. But he isn’t happy until the movie is a perfect reproduction. Alan has a clear viewpoint of what he represents as a person and an artist. My viewpoint is completely different. I think they’ve done a great job with the film.”

Yet another potentially disastrous turn of events unfolded when the original actor cast as V — “Rome’s” James Purefoy — was fired midway through the film and replaced by “The Matrix’s” Hugo Weaving. Purefoy apparently wasn’t a dynamic enough presence for the filmmakers. Even though Silver confirms that some of Purefoy’s scenes remain in the film, Weaving receives the sole screen credit and also provides V’s voice.

Portman was surprised when the change was made. She enjoyed working with both actors but saves most of her praise for Weaving.

“With an actor like Hugo, your job is so much easier because he has this incredible, very specific character that he creates just through his vocal and physical expressiveness,” she says. “Even though he was wearing a mask, I felt he was there with me all of the time.”

Originally scheduled to be released in November 2005 — to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day — the film was delayed after a July 2005 bombing in a British subway claimed the lives of 52 civilians. Portman believes the intermingling of reel and real events is indicative of just how much “V For Vendetta” has its finger on the pulse of the times.

“Obviously, when you see any act of violence anywhere with casualties, you’re always horrified,” she says of the London tragedy. “I’m optimistic to hope that this movie doesn’t present an exact vision of our future, but obviously there are many elements that resonate with historical events and current events.”

With its depiction of a repressive government without checks and balances, “V For Vendetta” can be read as a commentary on Bush’s America. Does Portman see any parallels?

“I think that there are many people who will take it that way,” she says. “But there are other people I know who are pro-Bush and they’ve seen this as an anti-fascism movie.”

A few weeks before the release of “V For Vendetta,” Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering story about Larry Wachowski’s increasingly unusual behavior. Apparently, Wachowski left his wife, took up with a dominatrix named Mistress Strix and began cross-dressing. Wachowski, who never consents to interviews, has yet to respond to the claims.

McTiegue also refuses to comment on the chit-chat surrounding the brothers.

“I pay about as much attention to those stories as they deserve, which isn’t much,” McTiegue says. “I don’t comment on people’s personal lives.”

To hear Portman tell it, “V For Vendetta” dovetails nicely with her burgeoning interest in world affairs. Recently, the actress helped promote the efforts of FINCA, an organization devoted to helping establish banks for women in developing nations.

Visiting Uganda, Ecuador and Guatemala with the group has opened Portman’s eyes to the amount of work that needs to be down to help end global poverty.

“I definitely think that maybe someday I’ll be doing other things besides acting,” she says. “But until I do them, I’ve learned not to talk about it. I’ve been interviewed since I was 12 years old and I feel as if I’ve left a trail of unfulfilled dreams behind me.”

After finishing “V For Vendetta,” Portman “took a breather” by contributing supporting performances to Milos Forman’s costume drama “Goya’s Ghost” with Javier Bardem and the kiddie flick “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with Dustin Hoffman.

“I’m just trying to do different things because I feel like if I can keep myself interested then there’s the hope of keeping an audience interested, too.” l

Amy Longsdorf is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Scholar Discovers Hidden Russian Gem

“The Five: A Novel of Jewish Life in Turn-of-the-Century Odessa” by Vladimir Jabotinsky; translated by Michael Katz (Cornell University Press, $17.95).

A passing reference in Ruth Wisse’s “The Modern Jewish Canon; A Journey Through Language and Culture” (Free Press, 2000) led to the rediscovery and translation of a remarkable novel by Vladimir Jabotinsky. “The Five,” written in 1935 and published a year later in Paris as “Pyatero,” has been reissued in its first-ever English edition, translated from the Russian by Middlebury College professor Michael Katz.

“The Five” is a novel set in Odessa at the dawn of the 20th century, unfolding the story of a colorful upper-middle-class Jewish family and its path of assimilation. An autobiographical tale, it’s also a romantic portrait of the cosmopolitan city Jabotinsky loved and a life that is no more.

While he is best known as the bold and outspoken founder of the militant Zionist Revisionist movement, the Odessa-born Jabotinsky (1880-1940) began his career as a journalist and was a brilliant orator, linguist and politician. He produced 18 volumes of writings — letters, poetry, speeches, essays, plays — that were published in Hebrew. His first novel, “Samson the Nazarite,” was published in 1926 in Russian and later translated into Hebrew, English and German.

Katz, a scholar of Russian literature, read Wisse’s mention of Jabotinsky’s fiction in a piece she wrote about the better-known writer of Odessa, Isaac Babel. This was the first time Katz had heard of “The Five.”

A footnote led him to Alice Nakhimovsky’s “Russian-Jewish Literary Identity” (Johns Hopkins, 1991) and a sentence inspired him to try to track down the book: “Unlike ‘Samson,’ ‘The Five’ is not simply a novel written in Russian, but a Russian novel.”

“I had come upon an undiscovered gem,” Katz said in an e-mail interview from Odessa, where he is spending the semester.

He explained that there are hardly any references to Jabotinsky in standard reference works on Russian literature, most likely because the author was Jewish and his theme was Jewish life. Because his works were written in Russian, rather than Yiddish or Hebrew, he is largely omitted from reference works on Jewish literature.

In an introduction to “The Five,” Michael Stanislawski, professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, described the translation as “a milestone in Jewish literary and political history, for it makes available to readers with no access to the original (or access only to the heavily censored and misleading Hebrew translation), a fascinating and crucial source in the development of modern Jewish literature, modern Jewish politics, and perhaps most broadly, what we might call modern Jewish self-fashioning.” Stanislawski writes of “The Five” in his book, “Zionism and the Fin De Siecle.”

The five referred to in the title are the five siblings of the Milgrom family introduced in their own chapters. They and their parents, other relatives and friends who congregate in their Odessa home are the main focus of the novel. The reader, too, feels as if on an extended salon visit with these freethinking, modern Jews, who are most comfortable around other Jews.

They’re intriguing, memorable characters, particularly Marusya, who is surrounded by a regular band of sightseers who enjoy her beauty, humor and sense that no rules apply to her. But, “much steel was hidden beneath the velvet.” Another daughter is dark and bitter, with the type of genuine beauty that demands discovery.

The father describes one son as a charlatan, adding that he loves charlatans, and finds another son to be a fool, not the type born with leaden soles but with winged sandals, like Mercury. The youngest son owns the single book of Jewish content in the house, Heinreich Gratz’s “History of the Jews.”

Their adventures, conversations and ultimate tragedies are set against the political, social and artistic sensibilities of the time, from the early days of the 20th century to the Russian Revolution. Jabotinsky’s writing is full of poetry, tenderness and humor toward his characters and Odessa.

Deribasov Street is the “queen of streets in the whole wide world.” The narrator would walk its length daily, as though it were sacred ground. Its intersecting streets were the queen’s maids of honor.

On Pushkin Street, “grand, classic antiquity was living out its last days,” where “grain traders were still called merchants and mixed both Greek and Italian phrases into their conversation.” On another street, both sides glittered with “gilded signs of banking offices, unattainable stores, and Olympian barbershops, where they could shave a man’s face to an azure tint.” Always nearby is the Black Sea, which, for 15 minutes at dawn, is white-on-white striped.

Later on, Odessa is “swept by malice that, they say, had previously never affected our mild southern metropolis, created over the course of centuries through the harmonious and loving efforts of four peaceful races. They’d always quarreled and cursed each other as rogues or idiots, and had sometimes even fought, but in all my memory, there had never been any authentic ferocious hostility. Now all this had changed.”

The narrator is an appealing character, too, although he’s somewhat mysterious. He occasionally interrupts the narrative to address the reader about the storytelling itself. In a note at the beginning, “instead of a preface,” he describes this family as a textbook example of how “the entire preceding period of Russification — both good and bad — got even with us.”

That “The Five” is a pleasure to read is a testament to Katz’s skills as a translator. Although it’s unusual to feature footnotes in a novel, here they enhance the text — clarifying language usage, names of writers and leaders of the time and points of interest to the reader, such as linking a mention of Odessa’s famous 198-step granite staircase leading from the harbor with Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic film, “The Battleship Potemkin.”

When asked about how Jabotinsky managed to write literary fiction while fighting to assert his more militant version of Zionism, Katz responds that it’s difficult to answer.

“I would guess that he was a very complicated figure, on the one hand a freedom fighter/terrorist [depending on your point of view], and on the other hand a deeply emotional and sensitive observer of life in late-19th to early-20th century Odessa.”

A master of multitasking, Jabotinsky studied law; served as a foreign correspondent for Odessa newspapers; campaigned for Zionism across Europe; helped found the Jewish Legion during World War I, as well as the Haganah, Irgun and the militant youth movement Betar; and also wrote a fragmentary autobiography in Russian, Yiddish and then Hebrew, “The Story of My Life.”

However, according to Katz, “The Five” provides “a glimpse of his own life that is more honest (less ideological) than his autobiographical writings, where he was trying to explain his own path to Zionism.”

“It presents a very different side of the man Jabotinsky from the one generally held: It is an honest, sympathetic, nostalgic portrait of his childhood and youth in the most colorful (and most Jewish) city in the Russian empire,” Katz continued.

The author of “The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature” (Oxford, 1976) and “Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Fiction” (University Microfilms International, 1991) Katz, 60, has translated many Russian novels into English. He finds Jabotinsky’s Russian to be splendid — the novelist was very well read and makes references throughout to classical, Russian, Western and Jewish texts.

For assistance with the Odessa dialect sprinkled throughout the novel, Katz would send lists of words and phrases he couldn’t understand to linguists in Odessa, who translated the words into Russian, which he then translated into English.

Jabotinsky was prolific. He translated Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” into Hebrew, as well as 10 cantos of Dante’s “Inferno.” He also translated Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “Songs and Poems” into Russian.

He wrote several plays, some staged in Odessa, and through the 1920s and 1930s, he published articles in the Yiddish press in Warsaw and also in the New York Jewish Morning Journal. His novel, “Samson the Nazarite,” is laced with his philosophy of Jewish history.

Historian and sociologist Jerome Chanes points out that Jabotinsky even gets a writing credit in the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille film, “Samson and Delilah.”


Why a Novel?

“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).

I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.

Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.

But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.

But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.

In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.

The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.

On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.

On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.

Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen

Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.

For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.

“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”

While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.

Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.

Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.

Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.

In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.

Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.

According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”

As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.

Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.

Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.

By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.

Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.

After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.

In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.

Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”

In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.

But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.

That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.

Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.

That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.

Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.

At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.

Like Some ‘Guilt’ With Your Chick Lit?

“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (Dutton, $24.95).

When Ruth Andrew Ellenson achieved the writer’s milestone of selling her first book, her father responded in classic Jewish parental fashion.

“He was thrilled and said, ‘Honey, that’s wonderful.’ Then there was a long pause,” Ellenson recalled. “And he said, ‘I guess this means I have to wait longer for grandchildren.'”

As the editor of the newly released “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” Ellenson now has both the professional and personal credentials to speak on behalf of any Jewish woman who struggles with the notion of “letting my people down. I’ve always been interested in what’s complicated about being Jewish and how you balance the different parts of life,” said the 31-year-old freelance journalist. “Jewish women have been given opportunities they never had before. We live in a time of choice and so there are myriad new ways to feel guilty.”

Ellenson’s anthology, which consists of 28 essays by some of America’s most prominent Jewish female writers, presents itself as a kid-in-the-candy-store experience for the angst-ridden Jew. Got guilt about marrying a German? Overeating on the holidays? Not thinking about the Holocaust enough? Joining the Israeli army to please your father? Pore through this collection and there’s bound to be an essay that will resonate. Consider the reviews of the book, which range from Publisher’s Weekly to the Los Angeles Times and have been consistently positive — yet far from homogenous. Each critic, it seems, has his or her own favorite group of essays.

“I didn’t want people to only write about the guilt they have because of their non-Jewish boyfriends,” said Ellenson, who’s kicking off a book tour of readings at the Skirball Cultural Center Sept. 15. “I wanted to veer away from stereotypes and I really looked for a diversity of experiences.”

Daphne Merkin in “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” and Tova Mirvis in “What Will They Think,” for example, both explore the legacy of growing up Orthodox and how they continue to embrace and/or struggle with that identity. Kera Bolonik recalls the time she came out to her mother, who divulged her daughter’s lesbianism to her Yiddish club. Rabbi Sharon Brous ruminates on why “she’s a living breathing trigger for other people’s guilt” because of her status as a spiritual leader.

Mothers, grandmothers and boyfriends, however, certainly do not escape scrutiny and they take center stage in some of the funnier and more poignant essays. Cynthia Kaplan’s “American Express” chronicles the writer’s relationship with her ailing grandmother and deftly straddles that fine line between hilarious and heartbreaking. Lori Gottlieb writes about the failure to screen her mother’s calls, while Binnie Kirshenbaum figures out how to honor her mother’s memory without having children. Then there’s Amy Klein, The Journal’s religion editor, who provides a play-by-play account of her online romances in “True Confessions of a JDate Addict.”

In addition to Klein, Gottlieb and Brous, other L.A. contributors include fiction writers Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and novelist/TV reporter Francesca Segre. What links the anthology together “is the issue of how everyone seeks to incorporate Judaism into their lives even if they don’t fit a traditional Jewish mold,” Ellenson said. “Some use humor, some use introspection, but everyone’s trying to be honest about how they connect or don’t connect to being Jewish.”

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Los Angeles and New York, Ellenson has spent years reconciling various contradictions and complications of identity. The daughter of Rabbi David Ellenson and of a convert mother, Ellenson, in her book’s introduction, writes about attending a church in Virginia to watch her grandmother sing in the choir.

“So there I sat, a rabbi’s daughter in the church of her forefathers, bathed in the ruby light of stained-glass windows depicting Jesus,” she said. “And paralyzed by guilt.”

Ellenson describes growing up in “a practicing Conservative Jewish home with an emphasis on the intellectual. I was always very connected Jewishly, even when I was rebelling,” she said. “Like during the time I was yelling at my father about why can’t we be Buddhists, I was involved in Young Judea and going on trips to Israel. Or how about this? I love Shabbos lunches, but I hate going to services.”

For Ellenson, who received her master’s in fine arts from Columbia University, “rejecting my Judaism has never felt right, nor has trying to be more observant than I actually am. The question of where people find their happy mediums has always fascinated me,” she said. “And that’s what I loved about creating this book. It made me appreciate that through my own guilt, I have been searching for the truth and trying to embrace what I love and what I struggle with.”

Currently at work on her first novel, Ellenson says “an anthology is the best way to explore a question you’re deeply curious about because you’re dealing with a variety of opinions. It allows you think about things in a way that you haven’t before.”

So will there be a sequel to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt?” Ellenson laughs before answering. “The thought of saying no to that question fills me with guilt.”

Ruth Andrew Ellenson appears with Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and Lori Gottleib, Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. $20. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 335-0917 or visit

On Sept. 25, at 2 p.m., Ellenson, Amy Klein, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Lori Gottleib and Francesca Segre will be at Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. For more information, call (310) 476-6263.


Ragen Novel Blends Intifada, Intrigue

“The Covenant,” by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

Nineteen-year-old Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was off duty when Hamas operatives kidnapped him in October 1994. In the aftermath, 50,000 Israelis gathered at the Western Wall along with Waxman’s parents, Esther and Yehuda, for a prayer vigil, countless others prayed at home. Sadly, Waxman was killed, three days after his abduction, when an IDF rescue attempt went awry.

In the many terrorist attacks on Israel in the years since, Waxman’s murder has become an almost forgotten annotation to an ever-increasing list of atrocities. However, for Naomi Ragen, an American novelist who lives in Israel, the kidnapping was, as she puts it in the introduction to her newest book, “The Covenant,” the “trigger” for a novel that is as much a multigenerational, international thriller as it is a pro-Israel polemic.

In “The Covenant,” Palestinian terrorists kidnap Dr. Jonathan Margulies, an American-born physician who works at Hadassah Hospital, and his young daughter, Ilana. The Margulieses are settlers, living in a fictional Maaleh Sara. They are not, contrary to media stereotypes of Israeli settlers, militant or racist. Dr. Margulies treats all his patients, Jewish or Arab, with equal respect, and the family itself just wants to live peacefully in the place they call home.

Once he is kidnapped, Ragen’s novel moves into high gear. Margulies’ pregnant wife, Elise, contacts her bubbe, Leah, the grandmother who raised her, who in turn contacts the members of “The Covenant.” This titular bunch met in Auschwitz where they formed a lifelong pact to look out for each other. Though their lives have taken different paths — Esther is a cosmetics millionaire in Beverly Hills, Ariana is a nightclub queen in Paris and Maria was one of the leaders of the solidarity movement in Poland — they are “closer than sisters of flesh and blood.” Between the four of them, the women are connected to anyone who matters in the world (one has a daughter married to Saudi prince; the nightclub owner has world leaders frolicking at her hot spot) and they pull every string they have to find out where Margulies and his daughter are being held and to rescue them.

Like Ragen’s other books, such as “Sotah” or “Jephte’s Daughter,” “The Covenant” is a book with a strident viewpoint and hard-to-miss message. But while Ragen used her previous fiction to expose what she saw as hypocrisies in the ultra-Orthodox community, “The Covenant” is designed to debunk anti-Israel casuistries. Currently, Ragen is a vocal opponent of disengagement — she writes columns for Israeli newspapers and has a regular column she sends out to e-mail subscribers. Yet “The Covenant” is less concerned with the “Israeli vs. Israeli” debate, and — like Alan Dershowitz’s book, “The Case for Israel” — more about legitimizing the Jewish state’s place in the world.

For example, one of the supporting characters in the book is Julia Greenberg, an opportunistic journalist anxious to make a name for herself. She arrives in Israel determined to be “objective,” which for her means “liberated from any bias in favor of the Jewish State.”

She works for a network that routinely cavorts with terrorist organizations in order to receive information. In their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they lie and manipulate situations to suit their pro-Palestinian bias, such as telling Palestinian children that they can find money in a pile of rubble so that the stereotype of poor Palestinians who search for food in garbage dumps will be perpetuated.

Greenberg also sabotages an interview with Elise Margulies by running it alongside a sympathetic interview with the mother of a suicide bomber.

Further, Ragen uses her characters to deliver pro-settlement messages. They say and think things like, “When all was said and done … this was their home,” or, ….”Losing land doesn’t explain what [the Palestinians] are doing, or excuse it.”

Toward the end of the book, Elise muses that she wants the Margulieses to be “the kind of family we planned to be … when we came to live in this land, the land that God promised to the Jewish people in His Covenant with Abraham.” With this sentence, Ragen is reminding her readers that the book’s title has a dual meaning. It refers to the group that the four women formed, but it also refers to a deeper, spiritual connection that the Jewish people have with the land, which cannot be broken.

Some of these arguments and speeches sound forced, as if Ragen felt that her novel would be missing right-wing credentials without them. Nevertheless, “The Covenant’s” greatest strength lies in its depiction of the terror of terrorism, and the heartache, loss and pain that has been devastating Israel since the start of the intifada. It is hard to read “The Covenant” and not feel moved by the Margulies family’s story, which, in various forms, is unfortunately the story of so many Israeli families today.


7 Days in The Arts

Saturday 25

Israel Prize laureate Ehud Manor passed away in April but his beloved songs live on in the hearts of Israelis. Tonight, the UJ pays tribute to his memory with a concert by Einat Sarouf, accompanied by Tali Tadmor and other guest artists.

9:30 p.m. $40 (includes wine and hors d’ouevres). Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246.

It’s official. Poker is now everywhere. Tonight, American Friends of Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel raise funds “in support of our historic mission of preserving the democratic future of Israel.” And what better way than with some Texas Hold ‘Em? A tournament and black-and-white party complete with jazz ensemble and party lounge fill out the night of “Poker at the Shore.”

3:30 p.m. 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.

Sunday 26

It’s official. Poker is now everywhere. Tonight, American Friends of Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel raise funds “in support of our historic mission of preserving the democratic future of Israel.” And what better way than with some Texas Hold ‘Em? A tournament and black-and-white party complete with jazz ensemble and party lounge fill out the night of “Poker at the Shore.”

3:30 p.m. 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.

Monday 27

Big-time comedy in the comfort of your own home now comes courtesy of Big Vision Entertainment. “The Comedy Shop” host Norm Crosby has released a five-disc collector’s series of best-of moments from his show titled “The World’s Greatest Stand-Up Comedy Collection.” Watch three- to four-minute sets by more than 300 comedians including Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Phyllis Diller until your stomach hurts.


Tuesday 28

Yiddishkayt L.A. partners with ALOUD at Central Library today for a unique conversation between film critic Kenneth Turan and Aaron Lansky, aka “the man who rescued a million Yiddish books.” Lansky also authored a book about his quest to save Yiddish literature, a read that Cynthia Ozick said is “as stirring as it is geshmak.” Live klezmer by the L.A. Community Klezmer Band rounds out the evening.

7 p.m. Los Angeles Public Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (213) 228-7025.

Wednesday 29

In “The Talent Given Us” the retired parents of three adult children decide to embark on a road trip with their two unmarried daughters in a quest to see their uncommunicative son who lives in Los Angeles. In a novel concept, Andrew Wagner directs his real-life parents and siblings in this comedy about familial angst that has been hailed by critics. Catch a sneak preview tonight at the Egyptian Theatre or a regular screening tomorrow and next week at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

7:30 p.m. 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

Thursday 30

In “The Talent Given Us” the retired parents of three adult children decide to embark on a road trip with their two unmarried daughters in a quest to see their uncommunicative son who lives in Los Angeles. In a novel concept, Andrew Wagner directs his real-life parents and siblings in this comedy about familial angst that has been hailed by critics. Catch a sneak preview tonight at the Egyptian Theatre or a regular screening tomorrow and next week at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

7:30 p.m. 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

Friday 1

“Layali Al Saif.” Translated from Arabic, it means “Summer Nights,” an apt title for the sensual offerings of this dance show, which runs for three days only. The multicultural celebration of Middle Eastern dance includes Egyptian raqs sharqi (women’s solo dance), Persian banderi, Rom (Gypsy) circus and Turkish styling, as well as fusion pieces.

8:30 p.m. (June 30 and July 1 and 2), 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (July 3). $20. Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 315-1459.


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.


Foer’s Voice Comes in ‘Loud’ and Clear

Sugar, Spice and a Binary Device


“The Seventh Beggar” by Pearl Abraham, (Riverhead, $25.95).

A key dropped down a drain by a brother later proves to be an exit sign for his sister lost wandering in the sewers. A boy faints and it is unclear if he has suffered an epileptic seizure, or experienced a vision admonishing him against studying kabbalah. Jewish men attempt to create women and robots out of Hebrew letters and computer codes. Stories and symbols intersect in unexpected places in Pearl Abraham’s intricate and complex third novel, “The Seventh Beggar,” a vivid meditation on the nature of creation.

Abraham, 44, grew up in Jerusalem and New York as one of nine children in a devoutly Satmar Chasidic household where Yiddish was her first language. In her childhood home, dolls had their noses cut off and photographs had to be sliced off in corners to prevent the depiction of graven images. Her previous novels, including the bestselling “The Romance Reader” (Riverhead, 1995), chronicled the struggles between modernity and tradition faced by Orthodox Jewish women. Although Abraham no longer lives in the Orthodox world, she remains engaged in it through her writing.

“I have been asked why I left so often and I don’t truly have an answer. It remains something of a mystery even to me,” said Abraham from her home in New York. “My relationship to Chasidism is an intellectual one at this point. I’m interested in its foundations, texts, ideas and also in its continued development. I think of Chasidism as very much a part of who I am; it formed me, and remains with me and gives me a particular angle of vision.”

“The Seventh Beggar” is being released hot on the heels of a controversy sparked by an essay in the New York Times Book Review about the state of Orthodox Jewish fiction. Abraham, as someone who has left the chasidic world, but is still attached to it, offers a window into an otherwise closed existence with absolute authority. While an insider’s portrayal of chasidism is nothing new for Abarham, in “The Seventh Beggar,” she expands her storytelling scope by delving into the mysteries of into Kabbalah and the creation of stories themselves, all set against a background of the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810).

Nachman was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and the creator of the stories collected in “Book of Tales,” which consists of 13 stories that Nachman told his followers that were then written down and are still studied to this day.

Drawing heavily from Ukrainian folk tales and kabbalah, the stories are enigmatic creations that deliberately do not contain endings. Abraham’s book takes its title from one of Nachman’s most complex stories, “The Seven Beggars,” which tells of the wedding of two lost children who are visited by seven beggars, but the story ends before the seventh beggar appears. The waiting for the seventh beggar is often interpreted as the waiting for the messiah. Nachman’s tales have been studied by Jewish writers like Kafka, Sholom Aleichem and Der Nister, and are still studied devoutly by Nachman’s followers, the Bratslav Chasidism, for a deeper mystical understanding of the world.

The novel begins with Joel Jakob, a 17-year-old Satmar Chasid, who is an exceptional student and expected to become a great rabbi like his grandfather. Joel’s sister, Ada, helms a booming business adapting designer clothing for more modest Chasidic standards. Joel begins reading the “Book of Tales” covertly, and as he does so he pulls away from the yeshiva and the community and becomes fixated on a kabalistic idea of creating a woman out of Hebrew letters.

Twenty years later his nephew, JakobJoel, Ada’s son, is studying artificial intelligence at M.I.T. and attempts to create a woman robot out of binary code. The spiritual wonders these men encounter are as illuminating as they are dangerous, and ultimately one survives and one does not. The book reads as a parable about the joy and danger of creation, and the analogy between the power of letters and numbers is intentional.

“The Spanish kabbalists believed that God created the world with the Hebrew alphabet,” Abraham explained. “This idea that the world was made with letters gives the letters themselves much power. Chasidism’s exegetic use of the Gematria, in which every letter stands in for a numeric value, continues giving the letters great value. That artificial intelligence uses the digital 0s and 1s to create beings, or robots, furthers the notion of the power of the alphabet or numbers.”

“You could also say with some certainty that all novels are made with the alphabet,” she continued. “And that will lead you to ask whether the world as we know it is any more real than the fictive worlds we know, say Tolstoy’s world of St. Petersburg.”

With “The Seventh Beggar,” Abraham takes on these ideas of reality and creation of worlds both literary and mystical, and offers an insider’s perspective of the closed world of the very religious.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (August 2005, Dutton).


How the West Was Frum

Can you imagine an Orthodox bar mitzvah celebrated in the Arizona desert soon after the Civil War — with a guest list that includes Apache warriors, gun-slinging outlaws and a minyan imported from Tombstone?

Robert Avrech did.

Avrech, 57, a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote his latest novel, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” in memory of his son, Ariel, a 22-year-old rabbinical student who died of cancer a few years ago.

The book is the first of a planned series to be published by Seraphic Press, a new venture Avrech started with his wife, Karen.

The Avrechs’ goal is to publish high-quality literature that will appeal both to Orthodox families and to the general reading public, Robert Avrech said.

Ariel Avrech loved to read, his father said. “Pride and Prejudice” was among his favorite works of literature, and he devoured American classics as well.

When Ariel became too sick to continue his rabbinical studies and was confined to the hospital, his father pulled out some old notes and began to write “The Hebrew Kid.”

Robert Avrech solicited his son’s help, especially with the halachic questions that the plot posed. After all, it’s not easy to figure out what a rabbi should do when ordered at gunpoint to perform a wedding for a non-Jewish couple, or recite prayers for a troop of soldiers policing Indian territory.

“I wrote it to keep him amused and keep him happy,” said Avrech, who wrote the script for the film, “A Stranger Among Us,” and the television film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” based on the widely read Holocaust novel for young adults written by Jane Yolen.

Avrech said he wants to shake up the world of Jewish literature by combining high-quality writing with themes and content that appeal to observant Jewish readers of all ages. He said he plans to write a sequel to “The Hebrew Kid,” start a series of Jewish graphic novels, publish Orthodox chick lit, and begin “Thrilling Jewish Tales,” a literary magazine.

“We want to revive the old genres, like horror stories, and put in Jewish content,” he said.

Avrech is not interested in writing in the style of the older generation of American Jewish writers, and doesn’t like literary giants such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

“I find them unbearable,” Avrech said. “There’s nothing interesting for me. It’s all the same, how to kvetch and lose our Judaism.”

He is equally unimpressed with the lackluster material written for religious audiences.

“I think that a lot of books written now are not as good as they can be,” he said.

“A new Jewish press is welcome,” said Linda Silver, president of the Ratner Media and Technology Center at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. “There aren’t that many, and there’s room for more.”

Silver, who reviews children’s books for Jewish Book World and is a longtime leader in the Association of Jewish Libraries, said that “The Hebrew Kid” is on her to-be-read shelf.

The story chronicles the adventures of a pious Jewish family who survived a Cossack pogrom and escaped to America. The father, a rabbi, is an idealist who searches for the 36 righteous people for whose sake the world exists. The mother drives mule cart and cooks a mean chicken soup. The 17-year-old daughter craves an American life, and the 12-year-old son meets the Apache princess Lozen.

“It’s hard for Orthodox boys to put themselves in certain imaginative places,” Avrech said. “It’s hard to be an Orthodox secret agent, putting yourself in another time and place. This book allows their imaginations to fly.”

It’s not only the plot and characters that are unorthodox in their orthodoxy. Seraphic Press is not just a publishing company but a blog, as well, where Avrech has been writing about his son, his son’s death and his own life. He also has made the book available on the Web site, where it can be downloaded in a 234-page PDF file. The file contains the entire book, complete with copyright page and a line drawing at the beginning of each chapter.

Avrech writes that he’s confident that many readers who download the book will want to buy it.

He might be right.

Seraphic Press’ NewYork-based distributor, Marvin Sekler of Jonathan David Books, said that in less than a month, some bookstores already have reordered “The Hebrew Kid” more than once. It’s also available at major book retailers such as, Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Positive feedback is arriving from unexpected directions, Avrech said.

“The most e-mail I get is from religious Christians, fascinated by the material,” he said.

To read the material on the blog, visit