Talmud after dark: Maggie Anton finds the ribald in Rashi

Like many seeds for a book, the thought of writing about rabbinic discussions of sex came from an offhand comment made by a stranger. Talmudic scholar and novelist Maggie Anton was speaking to a Hadassah chapter in New Jersey last fall. The audience was entirely women, and she decided to impart some of the funnier commandments and prohibitions related to sex that she had encountered in her studies. The women in the audience were laughing and having a good time, she said, and one stood up and suggested she write “50 Shades of Talmud.”

“In the car, on the way back to where I was staying, I thought, ‘You know, actually, I could do that,’ ” she said.

Anton is the author of the popular series “Rashi’s Daughters,” based on the great medieval talmudic scholar who had three daughters and no sons. Little is known about the girls save for their names (Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel) and that they married their father’s finest students, but it’s believed that they were scholars of Torah and Talmud at a time when women were forbidden to study the sacred texts. Anton’s trilogy imagines what their lives might have been like. 

Anton continued her research into the lives of women in Jewish history by focusing on fourth-century Babylonia, where the Talmud was being created, and the prevalence of sorcery and the occult among rabbinic families. That led to her books “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1: Apprentice” and “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter.”

Anton was raised in a secular, socialist household in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in North Hollywood. Her parents didn’t belong to a synagogue, but they spoke Yiddish and enrolled her in one of the kinderschule in the San Fernando Valley run by the Workmen’s Circle.

“I certainly had a Jewish education. I just did not have any kind of religious education,” she said with a laugh.

Her family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, but she never learned why. She learned about Jewish religion by reading the fictional “All-of-a-Kind Family” series of children’s books by Sydney Taylor, about an early 20th-century immigrant Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Those books inspired Anton’s series about Rashi’s daughters. Anton wanted “to do for Rashi’s family what Sydney Taylor had done for the immigrant family, where you’re embedded with the family, and you eat with them, and go to services with them, and you celebrate all the lifecycle events and you celebrate the holidays with them.”

Anton was a voracious reader as a child. One book that changed the direction of her life was Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Growing up in the 1950s, she rarely heard adults discuss the Holocaust. “Exodus,” which follows Ari Ben Canaan as he helps Jewish refugees escape a British detention camp in Cyprus and arrive in Palestine, celebrated the birth of the new Jewish state and helped Anton develop a newfound pride in being Jewish.

“Reading ‘Exodus’ is when I realized that if I had lived in Europe, my whole family would be dead. That people wanted to kill me just because I was Jewish,” she said. “Being Jewish was suddenly more important to me, even though I wasn’t doing anything about it. It seems silly now, but I vowed, ‘My first son is going to be named Ari,’ after the hero in ‘Exodus.’ I actually told that to guys I was dating. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Years later, she met her husband, David Parkhurst. They married at Temple Akiba in Culver City and had a son together. And true to the vow, they named him Ari. The family moved to Glendale, and for the first time in her life, Anton didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood.

“We realized that Jews aren’t all over the place. If we want to be part of a Jewish community, I guess we’re going to have to find a synagogue,” she said. The couple befriended Rabbi Ken Weiss and joined a chavurah he had formed. (Weiss died in 2014.) They attended a beginning Hebrew class. Her husband learned to chant Torah and served as a president of Temple Sinai of Glendale.

“I sort of got dragged along a little bit on this, and he was getting much more ahead of me in terms of Jewish education and learning. So in 1992, when I heard about a woman’s Talmud class being taught by Rachel Adler, I signed up for it, partly because I heard she was a great teacher,” she said. “Mostly I was interested because I knew women weren’t supposed to study Talmud. All you have to do is forbid something and it immediately becomes more attractive.”

Anton fell in love with Talmud. Her discovery of Rashi’s daughters and the lives of 11th-century French talmudic scholars led her to write her best-selling trilogy. She spent four years writing the first draft, and didn’t tell her husband or children that she was writing a book until it was finished. Penguin Books published the first book in 2005, which happened to mark Rashi’s 900th yahrzeit.

Talmud continues to be her passion to this day. She retired from her job as a clinical chemist at Kaiser Permanente in 2006 to write full time. “50 Shades of Talmud” is Anton’s first attempt at nonfiction. Mixed in with centuries of rabbinic teachings, Anton finds philosophical treatises, permissions and prohibitions related to marriage, intimacy and sex. Compared to her previous works of fiction, “Fifty Shades of Talmud” is far shorter — just shy of 120 pages — and filled with illustrations, pithy quotations and proverbs. It’s written in a breezy, irreverent tone, without academic jargon. In fact, the introductory section about the origins of the Talmud comes with a warning: “This section contains historical details that may cause boredom, listlessness, or lethargy.”

“My stealth goal in writing all these books is to get more women and more liberal Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, to study Talmud. I mean, Talmud has been the monopoly of Orthodox men for so long,” she said. “But now we have really good English translations. There’s no excuse why a whole lot more Jews shouldn’t be studying Talmud.”

“50 Shades of Talmud” will be released on March 24 (Purim).

Jackie Collins, best-selling novelist, dies at 77

Jackie Collins, whose steamy novels sold more than 500 million copies, has died following a six-year battle with breast cancer that she never divulged to the public.

Collins, the daughter of a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, died Saturday in Los Angeles. She was 77.

Her best-selling novels, mostly depicting the lives of women in Hollywood, have been sold in 40 countries throughout the world. Her 1983 novel “Hollywood Wives,” which sold more than 15 million copies, spawned several sequels and a television miniseries.

Collins’ work spawned controversy. Her first novel, “The World Is Full of Married Men” published in 1968, was banned in Australia and South Africa. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland called it “nasty, filthy and disgusting.”

Collins had her last interview with People magazine, which first reported her death, a week ago. She said her breast cancer diagnosis came more than six years ago, but she only told her three grown daughters, Tracy, 54; Tiffany, 48; and Rory, 46 about it.

“Looking back, I’m not sorry about anything I did,” she told People.

She was the younger sister of actress Joan Collins of “Dynasty” fame.

Collins “lived a wonderfully full life and was adored by her family, friends and the millions of readers who she has been entertaining for over four decades,” the family said in a statement posted on the novelist’s website. “She was a true inspiration, a trail blazer for women in fiction and a creative force. She will live on through her characters but we already miss her beyond words.”

Collins was born in London and moved to the United States in the 1980s.

Meet Stefan Zweig, the Jewish novelist who inspired ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Wes Anderson’s whimsical film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was nominated for nine Academy Awards Thursday morning, just days after winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical. Named one of the best films of the year by several top critics, it could earn Anderson, a director whose cult following has steadily grown over the past decade, his first Oscar.

It will also likely raise the profile of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish novelist who, Anderson has said, inspired the film’s quirky Eastern European setting and several of its characters.

Indeed, a new book about him,“The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” just won the Jewish Book Council‘s National Jewish Book Award for Best Jewish Biography.

During the 1920s and ’30s,  Zweig was one of the world’s most prominent novelists. Born to wealthy Jewish parents in 1881, he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1904 and fell in with the Austrian and German literary intellectual crowds of the time. Although he was not a practicing Jew, he became friends with Theodor Herzl, who published some of his earliest essays in the Neue Freie Presse, then Vienna’s leading newspaper. Later, during his peak decades of popularity, Zweig became close with Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories influenced his fiction. (Zweig even gave a eulogy at Freud’s funeral in 1939.)

In 1942, after years of unhappy emigration though England and South America forced upon him by Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig and his wife committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates.

It is unclear why Zweig’s famous works, such as “Beware of Pity” and “Confusion of Feelings,” fell into such obscurity in the years after World War II. Some critics, such as Adam Kirsch writing in The New Republic, have noted that Zweig symbolized a liberal prewar state of mind and was intensely nostalgic. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Zweig’s autobiography was called “The World of Yesterday.”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the award-winning biography are not the only examples of Zweig’s recent re-emergence. The New York Times has reported that new translations and editions of Zweig’s work have gradually reappeared over the past few years before Anderson’s film (which was released in March 2014):

New editions of his fiction, including his collected stories, are being published, with some appearing in English for the first time. Movies are being adapted from his writing; a new selection of his letters is in the works; plans to reissue his many biographies and essays are in motion; and his complicated life has provided inspiration for new biographies and a best-selling French novel.

Some of these examples include the 2013 French film “A Promise,” which is based on Zweig’s novella “Journey Into the Past,” and the Swiss film “Mary Queen of Scots” from the same year, which is based on Zweig’s novel “Maria Stuart.” Publishers such as the Pushkin Press have published editions of over 20 of Zweig’s fictional works in recent years.

So regardless of how “The Grand Budapest Hotel” fares at the Oscars, we could be seeing (and reading) a lot more of Stefan Zweig in the years to come.


Novelist A.B. Yehoshua raises the question: Can Jewishness be shed?

A.B. Yehoshua, long recognized as one of Israel’s best novelists, has in recent years also emerged as one of its most prominent scolds. On Tisha B’Av this year, he published an op-ed in the Guardian deploring the “moral deterioration” of Israel’s public life. Contrasting scandal-plagued politicians like Moshe Katsav and Ehud Olmert with the austere founders of the Jewish state, Yehoshua argued that the lawlessness and immorality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was now bleeding back into the state itself.

But if he is tough on Israelis, Yehoshua is no gentler on American Jews. On the contrary, in 2006, during a heated panel discussion at the American Jewish Committee’s 100th anniversary celebration, Yehoshua proclaimed the futility of American Judaism. Only in Israel was an authentic Jewish life possible, he insisted. Diaspora Jews change their nationalities as if they were changing jackets, whereas for Israelis, Jewishness is a skin that cannot be removed.

Yehoshua must have been brooding on that image, which provoked understandable anger among American Jews, as he wrote “Friendly Fire,” his quietly impassioned new novel. For at the moral center of the book is an Israeli who desires to do exactly what Yehoshua said was impossible — to abrade away his Jewishness like a layer of flesh.

Yirmiyahu, a retired Israeli diplomat, has chosen to spend his old age in Tanzania, working as the bookkeeper for a team of African anthropologists. To Africans, he reports to his visiting Israeli sister-in-law, white people are muzungu, “not actually white but peeled. Our black skin has been peeled from us.”

In just the same way, he defiantly says, he means to spend the last years of his life becoming muzungu to the Jews. And he means it. When his sister-in-law, Daniela, arrives at Yirmiyahu’s remote house, she gives him a parcel of Hebrew newspapers and Chanukah candles; he immediately tosses them into the stove, neatly erasing all traces of both Israel and Judaism.

The reader does not have long to wonder about the reasons for this disaffection. Yirmiyahu’s wife, Daniela’s sister, has recently died in Africa, and Daniela’s visit is ostensibly a pilgrimage in her memory.

But beneath this natural grief, the family is really suffering from an unnatural and incurable one: the death of Yirmiyahu’s son, Eyal, seven years before, in an army operation on the West Bank. What makes this loss so intolerable is that, as the novel’s title reveals, Eyal was not killed by a Palestinian bomb but by his fellow Israel Defense Forces soldiers in a case of “friendly fire.”

This dull euphemism becomes on Yirmiyahu’s lips a kind of curse word, which he can’t stop repeating to himself. The State of Israel took his son from him, the way God nearly took Isaac from Abraham, but this time, there was no last-minute reprieve.

This is a fictional premise fraught with dangers: The temptations to sentimentalize, moralize and sermonize are great. But Yehoshua deftly sidesteps them, choosing instead to lower the temperature of the novel to a slow, meditative burn. He accomplishes this, in part, by alternating the scenes of Daniela and Yirmiyahu in Africa with an entirely different kind of story — the domestic and professional troubles of Amotz, the husband Daniela left behind in Tel Aviv.

If the Tanzania sections of the novel deal with the deepest moral problems — by the end, the two Israelis are debating the ethics of the prophets under an African sky — the Tel Aviv sections are a comedy of manners, taking the reader adroitly through all the phases of contemporary Israeli life: family, army, work, sex, even traffic jams.

Yehoshua’s decision to cut back and forth between the two stories — each section is just a few pages long — keeps “Friendly Fire” from gathering much narrative momentum. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Yehoshua’s mastery of fictional technique has not decayed. On the contrary, the slow pace helps the reader see how carefully Yehoshua has devised the symbolic scheme of the book.

In time, every event and every setting starts to seem like a metaphor. Quietly, without insisting, Yehoshua allows these metaphors to echo and interrogate one another.

Take the run-of-the-mill problem that faces Amotz, a building engineer, as “Friendly Fire” opens. He has designed the elevator for a new high-rise apartment building in Tel Aviv, but the residents are complaining about flaws in the shaft that cause “an insufferable roaring, whistling and rumbling” whenever the winds blow.

When Amotz rides the elevator to find out where the wind is leaking in, he observes: “Without question, within this shaft that was meant to be completely sealed off from the world swirl uninvited spirits.” Yehoshua says nothing more than this, but it is impossible for the reader not to make the parallel with Israel itself. Despite the Zionist dream of a self-sufficient Jewish homeland, Yehoshua suggests, the country can never be truly sealed off from the outside world, and it, too, is haunted by the “uninvited spirits” of its neighbors.

Yehoshua makes even as mundane a detail as time zones carry a hidden symbolic charge. Amotz is expecting a phone call from Daniela in Tanzania, but he gets the time wrong, since Dar es Salaam is actually an hour ahead of Tel Aviv, not an hour behind, as he assumed. “The African continent is west of Israel or east?” he asks, and, of course, the answer is both: Israel is geographically between east and west, just as it occupies an in-between space in the world’s political and cultural imagination.

As the novel goes on accumulating these layers of meaning and symbol, it becomes clear that Yehoshua is not just writing an Israeli novel: He is evoking an Israeli and Jewish way of being and thinking, in which nothing in the world is simply what it is but comes to us multiply encoded.

This endless meaningfulness, which forces Jews to be ever-vigilant interpreters, is exactly what Yirmiyahu has gone to Africa to escape: “A place where we do not exist in any memories. Not religious, not historical, not mythological…. Everything that has oppressed me begins to fall off, without argument or debate.”

Yet it cannot escape the reader that even in Africa, Yirmiyahu shares the name of one of the great Hebrew prophets (as, for that matter, do Amotz and his father, the Parkinson’s-afflicted Yoel). Yirmiyahu is fully conscious of this irony, and he lectures Daniela at length about the cruelty of the God whose threats fill the Book of Jeremiah: “A prophecy of destruction, with relish. Disaster and death and cannibalism…. You worshiped other gods, so you deserve that your sons and daughter be eaten.”

Yet what is Yirmiyahu himself if not a Jeremiah, whose rage at Israel is immense because his disappointment in it is immense?

The friendly fire that claimed his son did not break that connection. On the contrary, over the course of the novel, we learn that Yirmiyahu has done his own investigation into Eyal’s death, and what he learns — about Israelis, Palestinians and their violent embrace — only deepens its tragic ambiguity. So, too, Amotz decides that he is ultimately responsible for the flaws in the elevator shaft, even though he did not build it himself — that an obligation to the community is not less binding because it is unasked for and even unfair.

By the time Daniela and Amotz are reunited in the novel’s last pages, none of the novel’s breakages have been permanently repaired. But Yehoshua’s subtlety and compassion allow “Friendly Fire” to offer the only kind of affirmation we need or can accept from art — not a false consolation, but a true image of solidarity.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.

On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’

I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.

If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn’t know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.

You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning “Sophie’s Choice,” and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.

There are some clear cases — I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out — but otherwise, I’m going to leave canonization to the anthologists.

Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.

First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.

Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg’s popular “Bee Season” used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew — Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of “The Chosen,” had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.

There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow’s wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March’s eagle’s feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman’s “Maus.” Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.

A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth’s writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.

A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one’s art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.

So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner’s horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World.” The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.

When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in “Intuition” we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes “Kaaterskill Falls” there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman’s passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?

Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a “new Yiddish.” There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer’s Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton’s Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love?

UJ’s Levy crafts confab to celebrate authors

Considering that he’s an educator, whose job description is heading up a university adult-ed program, you might not expect Gady Levy to be so … well-connected. Yet here he is in his office at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), looking more the impresario than the academic.

On one wall hang his diplomas — for master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Pepperdine University; on another are photographs of Levy with President Clinton, Shimon Peres, Madeline Albright and other luminaries from the wildly successful public lecture series he launched for the university five years ago.

A new bookshelf, overflowing with volumes, testifies to Levy’s latest and perhaps most ambitious endeavor: the Celebration of Jewish Books, which begins on Monday and extends through an all-day festival on Sunday. The celebration will offer lectures and signings with 40 authors — including big names, such as Larry King, Michael Chabon, Kirk Douglas and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) — plus music and dance performances, food and a thousand titles for sale, provided by Borders and the Hebrew-language bookseller Steimatzky.

Levy, the 38-year-old dean of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, says he enjoyed the annual book fairs he attended as a child in Tel Aviv, so he was intrigued by a 2002 Jewish Journal story about how Los Angeles could not sustain its own festival.

The void certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying, the story noted; the Jewish community centers had hosted a fair, but the budgets were low (generally $3,000 to $10,000), attendance was poor, and the program had died out soon after the turn of the millennium. If Los Angeles was home to 600,000 Jews, why were we fest-less?

Levy didn’t think the reason had to do with Los Angeles’ vast geography: “If you create a good event, people will drive,” he said. “This city provides a lot of opportunities for us to be entertained, to do things by ourselves or with our families, some of them Jewish, some not Jewish, so people really have to pick and choose,” he added. “In order to put a book festival on your radar, it has to be ‘big.’ You need ‘big’ authors to provide name recognition, and to offer people access to the authors of the books they actually read.”

This week, Levy’s theory will be put to the test with evening conversations with Pulizter Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America” and the screenplay for “Munich”), Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, Israeli novelist Ram Oren and cookbook authors Judy Zeidler, Judy Bart Kancigor and Joan Nathan. The festival’s budget is $225,000, much of it provided by a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.

Participants will be able to feast on a three-course meal hosted by the cookbook writers and walk through a life-sized replica of Anne Frank’s attic hiding place; popular writers such as Naomi Ragen (“The Saturday Wife”) and Judith Viorst (“Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days”) will fly in for the festival’s family day on Nov. 11.

“I felt that if I did an event just with local authors, it could be very interesting, but I didn’t think it would be enough to get the several thousand participants we’re hoping for,” Levy said. “When you have a number of best-selling authors in one place at one time, that makes an event.”

Levy knows well how celebrities can create (and sustain) an event. In 2002, he revived the campus’s public lecture series — despite some who protested that the old series had lost money — by hiring the biggest “name” he could think of to launch the program: President Clinton. He got Clinton by assiduously networking, creating relationships with agents — and allotting funding for the president’s five-figure fee. The investment paid off when the just-retired president sold out the Universal Amphitheater, which helped convince other leaders to sign on to the now world-class program (Tony Blair is on the 2008 roster).

The fact that the lecture series has drawn such speakers as Al Gore and Henry Kissinger helped impress the literary agents Levy approached for the celebration. He paid to hire four “celebrity” authors (Kushner, for one, will receive $15,000) and then was able to engage other writers who were eager to appear on the same “ticket” sans fee (but with travel expenses reimbursed). He found them by flying to New York with his festival chair, Emily Corleto, and two staff members to hear 200 authors pitch their work over three days at the annual conference of the Jewish Book Council.

Most authors who declined to attend the celebration did so because of scheduling issues — although “Maus’s” Art Spiegelman had a more unusual reason: “He insisted on smoking on the stage, which is forbidden by the Fire Department, so that was a deal-breaker,” Levy said.

In order to draw as large an audience as possible, Levy planned events to appeal to diverse populations: To reach Israelis, he invited Ram Oren, whom he describes as “the Danielle Steele of Israel” (see sidebar). Authors such as Handler and Viorst, as well as a student essay contest, will appeal to families with young children; Kushner should draw theater enthusiasts as well as those who are curious about the controversy over his “Munich” script (some deemed it anti-Israel).

Levy said he read a number of articles on Kushner before reaching out to him. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to come here with a political agenda,” he said. “As an educator, I think it’s important to bring speakers of many different backgrounds,” he added. “One of my goals is to give people access to figures who might be controversial, or even misunderstood, and allow them to ask their own questions. When you read something in the media, it’s all about the ‘spin,’ but when you can ask someone a question in person, and they’re sitting right there on the stage — you can’t get closer than that.”
For more information, visit http://www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com. The Jewish Journal is a co-sponsor of the event.

Books: Brits behaving badly

“When We Were Bad” by Charlotte Mendelson (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

As a wedding is about to begin in North London, all eyes are on the mother of the groom. Claudia Rubin is tall, beautiful, brainy and voluptuous, a celebrated rabbi who leads a large congregation. She’s not officiating at her son’s marriage, instead letting the bride’s family’s rabbi, Nicky Baum, lead the rites. But the service never begins, for the groom runs off with the woman he loves, Rabbi Baum’s wife.

From this first scene, Charlotte Mendelson’s “When We Were Bad” repeatedly surprises the reader, as she deeply observes the life of an English Jewish family and community from the inside. While this family seems, at least on the surface, “doomed to happiness,” their story is unraveling to more doom than happiness. Mendelson is a writer who gets quickly to the truth of things, with prose that is witty, knowing and energetic.

“When We Were Bad” is British novelist Mendelson’s American debut, and she will appear in Pasadena on Nov. 8 as part of the Jewish Book Festival, a program of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, which runs from Nov. 7-Dec. 8. She is the author of two previous novels, “Daughters of Jerusalem” and “Love in Idleness”; has won two awards acknowledging talented writers under the age of 35, the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; and has been short-listed for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

“I wanted to write about a family full of secrets and lies, as any family is,” Mendelson said in an interview. “And I decided, too, that it was time to describe the strange and little-understood world of English Jews. Then, because the most interesting characters are those under pressure, I decided to make the family in question, the Rubins, under particularly close scrutiny — and so it made sense for them to be the children of a famous, glamorous, difficult woman. And who could be more scrutinized, more judged and cheek-pinched, than the children of a rabbi?”

Rabbi Rubin is a rare literary being. While novelist Jonathan Rosen wrote of a young woman assistant rabbi in “Joy Comes in the Morning,” this may be the first work of fiction to focus on a woman rabbi at the height of her career. She’s a senior rabbi of a liberal shul “where famous authors come to Chanukah parties and the congregation seems to grow by the hour.” A woman of large ambition, she’s juggling her attention — devoted to her congregants, a public platform beyond the synagogue and her quirky family. She likes the way she’s doing her job, as much as she still likes her reflection in the mirror as she’s reached her mid-50s.

Her Shabbat table mixes family, loyal regulars and bold names she plucks from her Rolodex. Presiding, she makes her guests feel good and basks “in the flattering candlelight, the overlapping conversations, the speed at which the plates are being emptied.” It’s not the most traditional of settings, with her youngest son in dreadlocks charming the crowd, and a cheese course following the chicken.

While Claudia, who hides a large secret from the others, is at the center, the other characters also have conflicted inner lives, as revealed by the shifting voice of the narrator. Her overshadowed husband Norman, whose disappointments are relished by his family, has trouble revealing that he is about to publish a successful book that may eclipse his wife’s. The daughter, who seems most rooted, is unhappy in the married life arranged by her mother and is set off-kilter by her younger sister’s gay lover; the son who comes back home after leaving his bride on their wedding day struggles to leave home again.

By day, Mendelson is an editor at a British publishing house. She interviewed several women rabbis, “who are much harder to find in the U.K. than the U.S.,” she says, and stole newsletters from synagogues, trying to get the details right.

“So few Jews, so many opinions,” she writes, tweaking the aphorism to represent British Jewry.

When asked if the novel could have been set in Manhattan or Scarsdale, she replies, “Yes, and no. Which is a very Jewish answer. Yes, in that it’s about secret love and secret hatred, a son fleeing from his very public wedding and the ways in which his apparently happy family is about to fall apart; it’s about the shadow of the Holocaust; about food and death and sex. They are Jews, so it could be set anywhere there are Jews.”

“However,” she continues, “a strong undercurrent in the book is how it feels to be a Jew in Britain, the least Jewish country on earth. I don’t think that sense of tension, the constant awareness of possible hostility and editing of one’s speech and gestures, would make any sense at all on the Upper East Side.”

Mendelson points out that Jewish writing is very different in England and America. As she explains, “Jewish British writing is definitely ‘ethnic.’ There are very, very few British novelists who write about being Jewish, whereas in the U.S. ‘Jewish’ humor, whatever that is, is so thoroughly in the mainstream that writing about Jews is simply a version of all American fiction, which is about immigration, and difference and making one’s way in a potentially hostile environment.”

“The diversification of British fiction is thrilling, because suddenly we’re embracing difference too; I’m proud to be writing ‘ethnic’ fiction and, let’s face it, we’re all fascinated by what food other people have in their fridges, what embarrassing clothes their grandparents made them wear, how their community matchmakes them against their will.”

Mendelson’s grandparents came to England from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine just before World War II, and one was a cockney from London’s East End. She says that she was brought up to be proud of her Jewishness, although they weren’t remotely observant.

A ‘Victory Garden’ grows (in Brooklyn) from writer’s fertile mind

“The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn” by Merrill Joan Gerber (Syracuse Univ. Press, 406 pages, $24.95)

In the living room of novelist Merrill Joan Gerber’s home in Sierra Madre is a harpsichord that is most often played by her husband, a retired Pasadena City College history professor.

The presence of this musical instrument is fitting, because music plays a major role in Gerber’s latest book, “The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn.” At one point in “Victory Gardens,” Gerber’s 27th book, the central character, Musetta, a pianist and stand-in for Gerber’s own mother, ponders the magic of music. It “made her feel she was flying outside over the treetops, over the river, away past Brooklyn, past the cemeteries and the houses and the endless stores of dead chickens and glassy-eyed fish.”

When it is pointed out to Gerber that she uses a lot of flight imagery, she says she wasn’t aware of doing so. Yet, just as flight suggests a kind of freedom for Toni Morrison’s milkman in “Song of Solomon,” it leads to liberation, imagination and open-ended possibility for several of Gerber’s characters, including Musetta, as well as Richard, a World War II flier, based on Gerber’s cousin, and Issa, a little girl modeled after Gerber herself.

In one of “Victory Gardens'” most daring scenes, Gerber writes a beautiful passage from the point of view of Issa, a toddler, as she watches her father soar up and down the fabled parachute jump at Coney Island: “He was gone, just a dot of nothing, not even her father anymore, just a speck of black, then a colorless invisible vein of white on blue.”

Issa is no ordinary child. She is a prodigy. At one point, she is even described as “a savior,” one of multiple Christian images in the book. Many of the young men in the book are depicted as Christlike figures, and, not surprisingly, two of them die, though because their bodies are never found, there is the hope that they could return.

Gerber’s work has typically been infused with the American Jewish narrative of the past century — “Victory Gardens” focuses on the years from 1906 to 1945 — so Gerber is surprised when it is suggested that she has used Christian tropes like the cross and the notion of a messiah.

A previous book, “The Kingdom of Brooklyn,” winner of the Ribalow Prize awarded by Hadassah Magazine for the best work of a Jewish theme, portrayed many of the same characters who appear in “Victory Gardens,” including Issa, and takes place in the years immediately after World War II. Gerber’s characters are primarily members of a Jewish family, not unlike her own, which began life in America on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before migrating to Brooklyn, Miami and ultimately Southern California, where Gerber has lived for some 40 years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gerber began selling short stories to magazines, including The New Yorker, which accepted her first story after she completed her Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and Redbook, to which she sold 42 stories — a record, she says.

“I didn’t even think of myself as a Jewish writer in those years,” she says. “If I ever used a Jewish phrase or Jewish name, Redbook would have me change it.”

However, she remembered the lesson taught by Philip Roth in “Goodbye Columbus” — that it was OK for a writer to populate her novels and stories with Jewish characters and to mine her own family history, rather than to try to write, for instance, like William Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf, who had lived lives very different from her own.

Gerber is certainly a writer who adheres to the dictum of writing what you know. In her living room, she unearths a bunch of circa-1900 letters from one of her late aunts. She points to her journals stacked on shelves on the wall. She then brings over a few photo albums, revealing pictures of herself as a little girl.

One of those pictures appears on the cover of “Victory Gardens,” which takes its name from the gardens in which many Americans planted vegetables like peas and tomatoes during World War II.

The book provides a poignant and sweeping look at an era when Americans bonded as they haven’t since, when those who remained at home saved tin foil and bacon grease for the war effort, bought war bonds, volunteered for the Red Cross or worked at defense factories.

That is not to say that people back then did not struggle. The characters in “Victory Garden” suffer almost daily hospitalizations, injuries and traumas of some variety. Yet they persist in the face of this adversity.

Although her alter ego Issa seems to live a charmed life as a toddler, Gerber says that she herself has endured many blows.

“Being a writer is being rejected; that’s the essence of it,” says the author, who for nearly 20 years has also taught fiction writing at Cal Tech.

She recently received a painful review from an unsigned Publishers Weekly critic, who referred to her book as a “boilerplate novel.”

“At this point, why put my head on the chopping block?” she says. “Why let young people decide my fate?”

Still, she has never forgotten what Andrew Lytle, her teacher at the University of Florida, once said. “You have the gift.”

Unintentionally invoking the possibility of flight again, she says, “You can fly with that for the rest of your life.”

Merrill Joan Gerber will appear Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2:30 p.m. at the Huntington Library in the Overseers Room and Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Writer spins thrillers from his own undercover adventures

Jet lag launched Haggai Carmon into his career as an author. The international lawyer found himself in a small, unheated hotel room in a remote country he won’t identify. He was on U.S. government assignment, collecting intelligence on a violent criminal organization, but his security cover had been blown, and he was advised by Interpol not to leave his hotel room.

Tired, but too scared to sleep, Carmon sat at a child-sized desk with his laptop computer and spun 100 pages of a thriller based on, but disguising, his experiences. Those first 100 pages became the basis for “Triple Identity,” the first in a series of three thrillers featuring Dan Gordon, a lawyer and former Mossad agent working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I always finish what I start,” Carmon, 61, said in an interview in his Manhattan law office.

Published last year, “Triple Identity” was reissued in paperback and is now in stores. Meanwhile, his latest novel, “The Red Syndrome,” was recently published (Steerforth Press) and the third book in the ongoing series, “Chameleon,” will be published next year.

The foreword to the first book is written anonymously by a retired member of the Mossad’s top echelon, who quotes a line from Proverbs as the organization’s motto, “For by deception thou shalt make thy war,” emphasizing the war of minds, not weapons. Knesset member Efraim Sneh pens the foreword to “The Red Syndrome.”

“The Red Syndrome” involves Dan Gordon in an international money-laundering case that radiates from some Russian mobsters in Brooklyn. His investigations unravel a much larger case than his boss at the Justice Department imagined, one involving international bioterrorism, with the United States threatened by an Iranian-based group called the Slaves of Allah. The case is assigned to the CIA, and Gordon — always the independent-minded thinker and analyst — joins a multiagency team on the terrorists’ trail.

The novel is full of layers of espionage, betrayal, a touch of romance, blackmail, kidnapping, high-tech tools and quick thinking. The reader follows the case from Gordon’s point of view, sensing his suspicions, but Gordon stays out ahead of the reader.

Carmon has mastered his genre well, creating an intriguing, suspenseful, smart plot that makes for timely and compelling reading. At a time of much upheaval in the world, Carmon is clear about good and evil.

“The forces of evil are relentless,” Carmon said, admitting that he writes fiction with a pro-democracy, pro-Israel message. “The world, in particular the Jewish people, should not be indifferent. I always suggest believing the enemy. In 1923, Hitler outlined what he was going to do and nobody believed him. The Iranian prime minister says that he wants to wipe Israel off of the map. We should believe him and be ready. Our worst enemy is complacency.”

Carmon’s own investigations have involved many countries, sometimes up to 20, and many millions, sometimes a billion, dollars. He said that his supervisors have told him that whenever he touches a case, it suddenly becomes interesting; that some serious matters touching on national security, or sometimes megafraud, are discovered.

The lawyer evades most questions about similarities between himself and his character, although at times they sound like doubles. Both state unequivocally that they never give up.

“The books are inspired by my work, but it’s not real. Some of it happened, and I changed names and places,” he said. Carmon is quick to point out that he “never served in the Mossad. Dan Gordon did.”

“Dan Gordon was trained in the Mossad to think in a certain way,” Carmon said. “In law school, I, too, was trained to think in a certain way. I remember talking with government agents who were surprised that I knew to look under a certain stone. I don’t know whether it’s intuition, training or experience. In life, things are never as they seem.”

He pointed out that his books have many Jewish elements and values. Benny Friedman, the character who heads the international office of the Mossad, is an Orthodox Jew who, “at the end of the day, comes out as the smartest of them all.

“I don’t write crime stories. I write about historical events that I was personally involved with. This is not routine police work. Not Ellery Queen, not Agatha Christie. I write from the perspective of an insider,” Carmon said.

His father was a writer, or rather he was a farmhand turned banker, who was born in Belarus and eventually served as president of a small bank in Israel. Writing was something he did on the side. At the age of 57, he published his first book and subsequently wrote several others.

The first book his father published was on the eve of Carmon’s bar mitzvah and was dedicated to him. Carmon re-published the book on his father’s 100th birthday, when Carmon’s oldest son became a bar mitzvah. The elder Carmon’s books were about Eastern wisdom, Chinese poetry, short stories and fables.

Carmon grew up amid privilege in Tel Aviv. After high school, he served in the Israeli air force and was in active combat. He graduated from Tel Aviv University, where he studied political science in the developing world. After completing law school, he became active politically in Israel, serving as unpaid adviser to Shimon Peres, simultaneously pursuing a career in international law. He became known as a problem solver.

In 1985, Carmon began working for the U.S. Department of Justice, first on matters related to the litigation of civil cases in Israel and later on other issues related to international asset recovery.

At a book party earlier this month in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Carmon’s former supervisor, David Epstein, former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Foreign Litigation, spoke.

Epstein and Carmon worked together for 18 years, and Epstein acknowledged that he was the basis for the fictional David Stone, director of the office of international asset recovery and money laundering. Epstein said that what went on in the field was often “stranger than fiction.”

Carmon has faced frequent threats and tells a story of the time he was assaulted on the job. He was severely beaten up after obtaining bank documents in an unnamed Central European country. Soaked in blood, he knew he had to leave the country, so he went directly to the airport and caught a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, quickly explaining to airline agents that he had been in a car accident and that the other guy was seriously hurt.

Israeli author Grossman exhorts Olmert to follow Rabin’s example

He has long been known abroad as an Israeli novelist. But this weekend, David Grossman put fiction aside to become the voice of an Israel that is bruised, confused and yearning to see the horizon beyond the perennial war clouds.

Grossman delivered the central address at Saturday night’s rally in memory of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking for a half-hour to a rapt crowd estimated at 100,000 people.

He brought with him not just an intellectual’s gravitas but the sorrow of a bereaved parent: Grossman lost a son, Uri, in the final offensive of the summer war against Hezbollah, a war Grossman had urged the Olmert government to cut short.

But Grossman eschewed self-pity and called on Israelis to be mindful of a national dream of a Zionism bringing peace and progress and that seems, to many, to be slipping away.

“One of the most disturbing feelings exacerbated by the recent war was the feeling that in these days, there is no king in Israel, that our leadership — our political and military leadership — is vapid,” he said.

“When was the last time that the prime minister advocated or implemented measures with the capacity for opening up a new horizon for Israelis, or a better future? When did he initiate a social, cultural project, inspired by a value, instead of just reacting frenetically to moves imposed on him by others?”

Speaking at the site of Rabin’s assassination in 1995 by a far-right zealot opposed to his intended rapprochement with the Palestinians, Grossman painted a portrait of the late prime minister as a man who reluctantly engaged a historical enemy of Israel because he felt there was no alternative. Others, however, believe Rabin made a catastrophic mistake by empowering and even arming a Palestinian national movement that never took its peace commitments seriously and remained committed to Israel’s destruction.

Like Rabin, Grossman said, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should make a peace offer to the Palestinians, bypassing their hard-line Hamas government. Israel also should not be deaf to diplomatic overtures from Syria, Grossman argued.

The remarks came as Israel waged a major military operation in the northern Gaza Strip aimed at stopping cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian terrorists. At least 40 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have died.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar warned that the offensive could put the life of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza, at risk. But Olmert was unfazed.

“We have informed the world that we do not intend to countenance continued Qassam rocket barrages against Sderot and other surrounding Israeli communities,” Olmert said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “We will take the necessary measures to significantly diminish them and prevent terrorist operations. Thus we have said, thus we are doing and thus we will continue to do.”

Critics have accused Olmert of trying to look tough in Gaza to make up for the failings of the 34-day war in Lebanon, which was launched after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross- border raid. The war ended without achieving the soldiers’ return.

“Israel flexed an enormous military muscle, but what was revealed behind it was its fragility and the limitations of its capability,” Grossman said. “Simple human compassion has the power of a natural element, particularly in a situation of deadlock and hostility.”

Grossman’s rebuke hit its mark with at least one member of the Olmert government — Labor Minister without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel, who was attending the rally alongside Vice Premier Shimon Peres and other political notables.

“I haven’t heard a speech like that in years, and it is important to listen to it because it expresses the feelings of large sectors of our nation. Even though he spoke harshly, we mustn’t dismiss him and we mustn’t ignore him,” Cabel told Ma’ariv.

With his popularity waning, Olmert has surprised friend and foe alike by bringing Avigdor Lieberman into his government. Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party advocates annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank while ceding Israeli Arab communities to the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state in what Lieberman describes as partition along ethnic lines.

His appointment prompted the resignation of a Labor Party minister, Ofir Pines-Paz. At the Rabin rally, Grossman described it as “the appointment of that recidivist pyromaniac to manage the fire-fighting service of the state.”

Lieberman was quick to rebuff the remarks. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday, he wrote off the rally.

“Instead of seeing an event of national reconciliation, we received obvious left-wing political fulmination,” he said.

Olmert had no immediate comment on Grossman’s critique. But a Rabin memorial speech given separately by the prime minister suggests he should not be discounted as a potential peacemaker. Speaking at the Knesset, Olmert urged Palestinians to abandon their hostility toward Israel before it’s too late.

“We want to find a solution to the ongoing conflict between us,” Olmert said. “For 44 years you have been trying to ignore reality. Look how bad your situation is. Think for a moment where you find yourselves. If you continue with terror and hate, and if you continue to press the trigger, it will be a pity, a pity. Bad and bitter will be your fate. Consider your moves very carefully.”

Hungarian Novelist Takes Manhattan


When Imre Kertesz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002, few Americans had read the work of the Hungarian novelist, the first survivor of the concentration camps to be awarded the literary prize. Even in his own country, his works were not well known; his subject, largely the Holocaust, was not popular.

Since the prize, his works are more widely available in Hungary and this season new translations are available in English. To mark the publication of the new American editions, the Nobel laureate made his first visit to New York City since winning the prize, and he spent several days last month doing public presentations, interviews and being celebrated.

An eloquent man of charm, grace and modesty, Kertesz, who speaks English through a translator, seemed nonetheless to enjoy the attention. For members of the Hungarian Jewish community in New York — many of whom had indeed read all of his work — it was homecoming week. Many followed his crosstown schedule, from an evening at the 92nd Street Y to an afternoon at Columbia University to an evening reception at the Hungarian consulate, trying to get a photograph, autograph or just a few minutes of his time. When he spoke, they’d laugh or nod knowingly before the translator got the English lines out.

Interviewing Kertesz through his interpreter, Zoltan Saringer, is triangular, but quickly feels quite natural. Kertesz speaks, and Saringer smoothly jumps in where he infers commas, picking up the emotions of the novelist’s words. This visit is the first time Saringer and Kertesz have met, but it’s as though the interpreter is channeling Kertesz’s words.

In person, Kertesz is cheerful, outgoing and funny, in contrast to the darker persona of his novels — which he insists are works of fiction, not memoir, in spite of parallels with his life.

“A writer can only write out of pure joy,” he said. “The whole joy of creating. It gives one real hope. You really have to overcome suffering in order to establish real contact. It’s quite evident that being able to write is a huge liberty from life.”

Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1929. In his Nobel lecture, he described his family background: “My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents’ lives were destroyed by Matyas Rakosi’s Communist rule, when Budapest’s Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country. I think this brief family history encapsulates and symbolizes this country’s modern-day travails.”

In 1944, the 15-year-old Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, and was liberated by American troops in 1945. (He and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who won the peace prize, do not know each other, but were on the same transports and in the camps at the same time.) He then returned to Budapest, and his first jobs were in journalism, but he was dismissed from his position in 1951, when the newspaper adopted the Communist party line. After that, he began writing and translating German authors into Hungarian.

Kertesz has survived not only Hitler, but also Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath. For 40 years, he had no passport and couldn’t leave Hungary, nor did he have access to the work of many major Western writers.

“It is a kind of a literary miracle that he’s here,” said novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who interviewed Kertesz on stage at the 92nd Street Y (with Saringer translating). “That he appears in America, having won the Novel prize — given the multitude of murderous enterprises that were determined to eradicate him and silence his voice.”

The program at the Y also featured pianist Andras Schiff, who was born in Budapest and began his music studies there. Schiff is the son of Holocaust survivors and a friend of Kertesz; the two embraced on the stage after the pianist’s performance.

Kertesz has an extraordinary facility with words; he explains that he doesn’t so much create characters, but he creates a language for them. At the Hungarian consulate, Andras Koerner, a Hungarian-born architect, author and fan of the Nobel Laureate, commented, “He’s a master of the quotation without the quotation marks. He uses words as in a collage, taking from one reality and placing it in another.”

Although he uses his own memories as raw material in his work, Kertesz explained that “fiction and reality become tangled. By the time a book is ready to go, I have completely different memories. You rid yourself of your memories when you write.”

He said that his Jewish identity is primarily one of solidarity. As a boy before the war, he attended weekly religious classes in school, but after the war he was not interested in religion.

“I considered and expressed myself as a Jew,” he said. “How strange it may sound, but my Jewish identity is based on my experiences of Auschwitz, on my experience of the Holocaust. I am not the only one in Europe like this. The Holocaust has managed to tie an abundance of people to Jewish identity. I think that in essence everyone is a Jew. Everyone who writes. Everyone who makes art is forced to become a Jew. There’s no other choice.”

He thinks of himself as “a writer who completely by chance has the Holocaust as his topic, his source. It doesn’t narrow my perspective — it definitely makes my perspective universal.”

In an article that appeared in Die Zeit after a trip to Israel a few years ago, he was critical of those intellectuals who criticize Israel in its dealings with the Palestinian uprising, noting that they’ve never bought bus tickets from Haifa to Jerusalem. When he read the lines of his prepared text at a conference — lines he has repeated before, suggesting that someone like him, who knows no Hebrew, barely knows the sources of Jewish culture and derives his primary Jewish identity from Auschwitz, should not be called a Jew — he felt somewhat ashamed.

Both his first novel, “Fatelessness” (the previous English translation was “Fateless) and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (previously “Kaddish for a Child Not Born”) — are newly available in Vintage paperback editions, in new translations. In addition, Knopf is publishing a hardcover edition of another Kertesz novel, “Liquidation.” Never before available in English, it is the story of a novelist who survives Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Hungary’s Communist regime, to kill himself a decade after the fall of communism. The death causes the man’s circle of friends to examine their own history and memories.

All three books are translated by Tim Wilkinson. Kertesz finds Wilkinson’s translations to be excellent. Looking back on his own experience as a literary translator, Kertesz said, “It’s not enough to translate verbatim. You have to be very knowledgeable of the mother tongue into which you are translating. You have to understand the tune and the tone. Those are the most important. Any other mistakes can be corrected. When you have a master pianist playing, he might make one mistake, but it doesn’t invalidate the final effect.”

The Hungarian writer who has also worked as a librettist to support his writing of novels, frequently makes musical references. (As an aside, he notes that he doesn’t see his librettos as having literary value — he would have worked as a lumberjack if he was “strong enough and had the audacity to do it.”) He looks at his novels as pieces of music, and it’s not only the musicality of the sentences that interests him, but the structure.

For Wilkinson, who has been translating from Hungarian to English for more than 30 years, what’s particularly distinctive about Kertesz’s writing is that “although it is an attribute shared with all truly good writers … Kertesz is able to conjure up what he wants to write about with just a few deftly chosen worlds.”

The London-based Wilkinson said that in translating Kertesz, there’s an advantage to having a familiarity with the totality of his writing, as there are many allusions to works by such other writers as Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Camus, “that are not flagged at all but for which clues are to be found. Sorting these out is hard work but ultimately hugely rewarding because it gives a real sense of the tradition of great writing into which Kertesz fits.”

A reader encountering Kertesz for the first time would do well to begin with “Fatelessness,” first published in 1975. He worked on that novel for about 13 years, and then it took several years to find a publisher. The book is a narrative of a young man being sent to and surviving a concentration camp; the voice of the child is unforgettable, reporting with innocence and without judgment on what he sees.

The novel is now being made into a feature film by award-winning Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (“Sunshine” and other films). Kertesz laughs when he says that 30 years after working for so many years on the book, he spent eight weeks writing the screenplay.

“Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” published in Hungarian in 1990, is the meditation of a man who chooses not to bring a child into a world that could produce Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

When told that a friend of The Jewish Week in Budapest expressed her hope that Kertesz’s books would now be required reading in all Hungarian schools, the Nobel laureate smiles and said that he’d never want to be mandatory: “If anything, I’d want to be discovered as the book students are reading in secret during class, hidden under the table.”

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.


Leon Uris, Author of ‘Exodus,’ Dies at 78

Leon Uris, the novelist and screenwriter whose best-known works are "Exodus," a popular novel about Jews trying to establish modern Israel, and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," perhaps the archetypal Hollywood Western, died June 21 at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y. He was 78.

The cause of death was renal failure, said his former wife, photographer Jill Uris.

In preparing to write "Exodus," Uris read nearly 300 books, underwent a physical training program in preparation for about 12,000 miles of travel within Israel’s borders and interviewed thousands of people. The resulting work became a record-setting best seller.

Leon Marcus Uris was born on Aug. 3, 1924, in Baltimore, the second child and only son of Wolf William Uris, a shopkeeper, and Anna Blumberg Uris, Jews of Russian-Polish origin. His mother was a first-generation American and his father an immigrant from Poland, who on his way to the United States had spent a year in Palestine after World War I and had derived his surname from Yerushalmi, meaning man of Jerusalem.

After attending public schools in Norfolk, Va., Baltimore and Philadelphia and making up his mind to become a writer despite his having been failed three times by one of his English teachers, Uris quit high school shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (he was halfway through his senior year). He joined the Marine Corps and served as a radio operator in the campaigns at Guadalcanal and Tarawa.

While researching "Exodus," Uris worked as a war correspondent, reporting on the Sinai campaign in the fall of 1956. The novel, published by Doubleday & Company two years later, was translated into several dozen languages and sold millions of copies.

His last novel, "O’Hara’s Choice," a love story involving the history of the Marines, was scheduled before his illness to be published in October by HarperCollins.

‘Image’ Is Everything

Dara Horn wrote an exuberant scene in her stunning debutnovel, “In the Image,” upon returning to her dreary garret flat during a yearabroad in 1999. “I’d been to this dismal British market in which an entireaisle was devoted to butter and fats,” the ebullient Horn, 25, said animatedly.”I recall a product called ‘beef drippings.’ The produce was wilting. All themilk was expired yesterday.  I was very homesick.”

So the New Jersey native did what any red-blooded Americanauthor would do: she sat down and wrote a scene about Costco. In the sequence,which parodies Emma Lazarus’ immigrant poem, “The New Colossus,” the youngheroine embarks “on a journey to the promised land of groceries … wherehuddled masses yearning to breathe free of halitosis went to stock theirshelves with mouthwash.”

It’s a frivolous but spirited moment in Horn’s richlydetailed novel, which places her within the same circle of Jewish rookie authorsensations as Jonathan Safran Foer. The story opens as Leora, reeling from thedeath of her best friend, stops speaking and instead simply examines “hersurroundings as if she were a visitor, someone passing through on a longjourney.” Then a very different kind of tourist, her late friend’s grandfather,Wilhelm “Bill” Landsmann, invites her to view his slide collection of Jewishcommunities abroad. Subsequent chapters travel back and forth in time toexplore the archetypal journey of 20th-century Jews, describing Leora’s doomedromance with Jake, a college jock turned ba’al teshuva, and Bill’s wretchedchildhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

While the literary novel is chock full of illusions to theBible and to Yiddish literature, it isn’t above a trek (or two) to Costco.”Some might look at this as silly materialism, but there’s something sort ofexuberant about it,” said Horn, a Harvard doctoral student in Yiddish andHebrew literature. “It’s not just because you can get anything you want, butbecause you have the imagination to want more than you have. It’s theinspiration to decide what you want and who you want to be, which is reallywhat it means to be an American. So in my novel, Wilhelm becomes Bill, but Jakealso becomes Yehuda.”

Horn began thinking about American Jewish choices when shefirst read Philip Roth’s short story, “Good-bye Columbus,” set in her hometownof Short Hills, N.J., some years ago. The year is 1959, when Jewish quotasstill abounded.

By the time young Dara was growing up in Short Hills in the1980s, the quotas were gone and so was the need for plastic surgery. Hornproudly led junior congregation Torah readings at her Conservative synagogue,traveled to distant Jewish communities with her parents. At 14, she publishedher first magazine article, about Jewish historical sites in Spain, in Hadassahmagazine. She says she set her novel in Short Hills as a nod to “how much thesuburb has changed and how much the American Jewish community has changed in 40years.”

The setting and time frame also allowed Horn to explore thephenomenon of “people becoming more religious than their parents, whichintrigues me,” she said. “In order to make the decision to become morereligious, someone back in your family had to make the opposite decision.Neither choice is made frivolously, and I was fascinated by what makes peopledecide either way.”

Horn never intended to explore those issues in a novel; infact, she did not intend to write fiction until another fateful day abroad in1999. Bored during a train ride back to her Cambridge University flat, she saysshe began flipping through the spiral notebook in which she jotted ideas fornon-fiction articles and “suddenly began seeing how all these topics could belinked.”

While her classmates frequented pubs, Horn holed up in hergarret and started writing what she thought might be a series of short stories.Eventually, she linked them into a seamless, sprawling narrative that, in thetradition of Yiddish authors, frequently alludes to Jewish texts. A passage inwhich Bill and Leora visit a gravesite uses the structure of the Genesischapter on the binding of Isaac. The book of Job is retold starring Bill. Andthen there’s Costco as “The New Colossus” — the veritable opposite of thatpathetic British market Horn visited in Britain.

During a recent interview at a private home in Westwood, thefresh-faced New York author gleefully opens her novel and reads from the Costcopassage, clearly one of her favorites. “[There are] Waspy families whisperingto each other over piles of vegetables…. Trailer trash families brandishingtheir rattailed hair behind carts filled with fish sticks, Chasidic familiessweating in their long sleeves,” she read with relish. “[All] loading up theirshopping carts like Oregon Trail pioneers supplying their covered wagons asthey prepare to conquer the frontier, the parents gazing up at the toweringceilings of low-low prices, bewildered and captivated forever by this placethey call America.”

His Name Was Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok was a novelist who paved the way for a younger generation of religious American Jewish writers — and a Jewish scholar who worked tirelessly to bring Jews and Judaism closer together.

Potok, who was raised in an Orthodox home, but later became a Conservative rabbi, died Tuesday at his suburban Philadelphia home of brain cancer at the age of 73.

The best-known of Potok’s more than 15 works, including "The Chosen" and "My Name Is Asher Lev," describe Orthodox Jews struggling with maintaining their faith in a secular world.

"He is a major figure in the American Jewish literary canon," said Daniel Walden, a professor emeritus of American studies, English and comparative literature at Penn State University. "His essential mission was to explore the core-to-core cultural conflicts of our civilization, and in doing so he exposed what the Jewish experience was like, what the Jewish religion was like."

Some of his interest in these "core conflicts" stemmed from his own experience in the Korean War, where he encountered Korean Buddhism as a U.S. Army chaplain — an experience he later fictionalized in "The Book of Lights."

Indeed, he opened the religious Jewish world up as much to non-Jews as to Jews.

Earlier Jewish writers, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, were religious skeptics. But Potok wrote from within the Jewish religious tradition and served as a model for the next generation of American Jewish writers. Potok chafed at being labeled a Jewish writer, but when he tried to write about other subjects — in, for example, "I Am the Clay," a book about Korean refugees — he was less successful.

Potok spent his ultra-Orthodox childhood in New York, where he was born to parents who had emigrated from Poland. "My father, especially, wanted me to be a professor of Talmud in a yeshiva. This business of writing, at first, seemed frivolous to him. When it persisted, he didn’t know what to make of it," Potok said in an interview two years ago.

Even though he never fulfilled his father’s expectations, Potok did become a Judaic scholar, earning a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. The last year of his doctorate was spent in Jerusalem, where he also wrote "The Chosen."

Potok taught at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles from 1957 to 1959. From 1966 to 1974, he was the editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) in Philadelphia. During his tenure, he launched JPS’ series of Bible commentaries and emphasized the publication of children’s literature. Potok was the literary editor of JPS’s five-volume Torah commentary. During the 1990s, he adapted and edited that commentary into one volume that is used in Conservative synagogues throughout North America — even though the project took him away from his writing.

He was a founder of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, the Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia where he regularly attended Shabbat morning services. Though he found his home in Conservative Judaism, he spoke passionately about the Orthodox community, which he believed had grown too narrow-minded.

"The yeshiva is the foil I strike out with. Or the foil I strike out against," he once said. "Fundamentalism is an absolutely wrong reading of Jewish traditions."

In addition to "My Name Is Asher Lev" and "The Chosen," which was made into a Hollywood movie starring Robby Benson — Potok addressed this world in several other works. He won a variety of awards for his fiction, including the Athenaeum Prize for "The Promise" and the National Jewish Book Award for "The Gift of Asher Lev."

He also won praise for his nonfiction, particularly "Wanderings," an illustrated history of the Jewish people that sold more than 100,000 copies, and he wrote and reviewed widely for newspapers, magazines and journals.

He served as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania in both the 1980s and 1990s, and taught briefly at Bryn Mawr College and Johns Hopkins University.

He was also a passionate lover of Israel — where he lived for several years — but "he was not Israel right or wrong. He felt he had the right to express an opinion," said Ellen Frankel, JPS editor in chief.

Potok also was engaged in the Soviet Jewry movement. In 1997, he published a book on the subject of Soviet Jews, "The Gates of November," which focused on the Slepak family, well-known refuseniks who moved to Israel after gaining their freedom.

Potok, it seemed, always had something to write.

He told an interviewer in 2000 that he was tired because had gotten up that day at 4:30 a.m. When the interviewer asked him why he had started his day so early, Potok replied, "Because there were sentences in my head that had to get out.”

He is survived by his wife, Adena; two daughters, Rena, a Philadelphia-area college professor, and Naama, an actor in New York; a son, Akiva, who is a filmmaker in California; and two grandchildren.

Reflections on Joseph Heller

When you write a book-length study of a living author lots of things can happen; most of them are bad.

“You’ve missed a nuance here, a shading there,” some will point out, in the iciest language possible, while others go straight to the jugular and angrily insist that you don’t know beans about their work.

Joseph Heller, who passed away Dec. 13 at the age of 76, was a wonderful exception.

Even though my book, “Understanding Joseph Heller,” made it clear how and why his work had trailed off rather badly after “Catch-22,” published in l961, he found the time to write me a letter saying how much he appreciated the seriousness of my criticism, and returned my calls whenever I needed help securing a review copy or a permission slip.

My wife usually ended up taking messages from the gravely voice and heavy Brooklyn accent on the other end of the line. She tells me that he was testy, impatient and, most of all, funny.

None of this struck me as particularly surprising, for Joseph Heller will surely be written down as one of the most inventive and verbally dazzling of our postwar novelists. Among other things, “Catch-22” changed the World War II novel forever, not only because it introduced large doses of bureaucratic absurdity (“Catch-22” itself being the most famous, and deadly, of them all), but also because it brought a verbal energy that the American novel had not enjoyed before.

Heller was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn and grew up in a tight-knit ethnic world (lovingly described in “Then and Now”); his background is largely responsible for the street smart, skeptical turn that his writings often take. Whatever the mixture of autobiography and imagination, some facts about Heller’s early years are indisputable — his father, a bakery truck driver, died after a botched operation when Heller was 5-years-old, and his mother and older brother were forced to deal with the harsh economic realities that played themselves out against the larger backdrop of Coney Island’s carefree, carnival atmosphere.

The irony could hardly have gone unnoticed by the young Heller.

He attended kindergarten through 12th grade in Coney Island’s public schools, and after graduating in l941, he worked briefly in an insurance company (as did Robert Slocum, the protagonist of 1974’s “Something Happened”) and as a blacksmith’s helper in the Norfolk Navy Yard before he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in October l942.

During the war, Heller, a bombardier, experienced a chilling, clearly traumatic episode that ultimately took the form of Snowden’s agonizing death in “Catch-22,” and that solidified the writer’s lifelong opposition to war.

Discharged in l945, he married Shirley Held, also a Brooklyn native, and took advantage of the G.I. Bill by enrolling at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Heller’s California sojourn was a short-lived one. He transferred to New York University, where he majored in English. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1948, which is also when he received his B.A., Heller continued his education at Columbia University in Manhattan, earning his M.A. in l949. Named as a Fulbright scholar, he spent l949-1950 at Oxford University in England, where he continued his studies in English literature while also trying his hand at writing short stories. Ultimately, his talents as a writer outstripped his considerable abilities as a student, and with stories published in such prestigious magazines as Esquire and The Atlantic, it was just a matter of time until Heller would become a full-time, professional writer. In Heller’s case, the decade between l950 and l960 represented the just-a-matter-of-time years spent as an instructor at Pennsylvania State University (l950-52), an advertising copywriter for Time (l952-56) and Look (l956-58), and a promotion manager at McCall’s (l958-61). That he continued to write short fiction and movie scripts (under the pseudonym Max Orange) is true enough, just as it is even more true that the experiences he amassed in corporate America would later resurface in “Something Happened,” a darkly comic novel about the competition, anxiety, and domestic malaise that characterizes mid-level executives. All the while Heller worked on draft after draft of “Catch 22,” the novel that would change his life, as well as contemporary American fiction.

In “Catch-22,” Heller’s satiric target was the military bureaucracy; in “Something Happened,” it was the corporate establishment; in “Good as Gold” (1979), it was a combination of a thinning Jewish-American culture and Beltway politics in the Henry Kissinger era. Even when Heller’s subsequent novels misfired, as they did with “God Knows” (1984) and “Picture This” (1988), he remained an important presence as the man who had written “Catch-22,” one of the darkest, funniest and most distinctive novels of the modern period.

Heller’s “Jewishness” has been much in debate, largely because ostensibly Jewish characters are noticeably missing from “Catch-22,” but I would agree that his credentials as a “literary Jew” were always in good order; moreover, that his darkly comic rages against social injustice had a very Jewish flavor. Indeed, my wife could feel it when he called, just as I continue to feel it when I turn his pages. He mattered to me as a college reader and later as a literary critic. I am hardly alone in feeling this way. Joseph Heller will be very much missed.

Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA. He writes widely about Jewish American literature and culture.