Letters to the editor: JDAIM, Hillel 818, Proust and more

Awareness Appreciation

I deeply appreciate the fine work of Michelle Wolf (“Why Give a Damn About JDAIM,” Feb. 12). 

Chabad of Sherman Oaks is inclusive. They help me put on my tallis and tefillin. They have helped me learn more about Torah. They talk to me. They are interested in me. Chabad of Tarzana is inclusive, too.

I am glad that I learned about Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM).

Mark Girard via email

The Way You Love Me

This wonderful, heartwarming love story by David Suissa starring Danielle and Shlomo makes all our lives richer for daily proof of vows taken, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health (“A Love Story,” Feb. 12). Happy Valentine’s Day, Danielle and Shlomo, and God bless you both. 

Jerry Daniels, Marina Del Rey

Proust Prowess

I was fairly nonplussed by Jonathan Zasloff’s non-article about Marcel Proust (“Proust was (Almost) a Chasid,” Feb. 12). To me, Mr. Zasloff is guilty of a classic bait-and-switch maneuver and needs to have his literary license revoked. His article was all about the principles (as I understand them) of Chasidism, and not at all about the tormented Judaism that Proust, a half-Jew through his mother and a homosexual, expressed in many subtle and profound ways in his great masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time.”

The French have a wonderful expression that doesn’t exist in English, déformation professionelle, which roughly translates as having a tendency to look at things from the point of view of one’s own profession rather than from a broader perspective. Mr. Zasloff’s Chasidic point of view is a textbook case of this.

Readers genuinely interested in Proust’s Judaism can track down a copy of Seth L. Wolitz’s definitive study, “The Proustian Community.”

Bob Bookman, Los Angeles

Hiding in Plain Sight?

In regard to the so-called low number of homeless people counted (Feb. 5), there’s a reason for such a low count: The homeless are not always on the streets. Many are tucked away during the day at a Starbucks or a library. Those living in cars try to do so in very nice areas. Many are sleeping by the airport at night or at a 24-hour dining place, or even sleeping on the steps of a local church or synagogue. And yes, some do attend religious services quite frequently without anyone knowing the dire situation that these people are in.

And most keep up their appearance by washing up in a public bathroom early in the morning and putting on decent clean clothes and putting makeup on their faces. They don’t appear to be the stereotypical homeless person who society expects to see. So the next time you make your daily trip to Starbucks (or any other place) and see the same person sitting in there every single day, they may just be homeless despite appearances, desperately trying to keep whatever dignity they have left.

Shiphrah Aubert via email

Former Director Speaks Up About Stepping Down

Regarding the Hillel 818 article of Feb. 12 (“After Top-down Transformation, Hillel 818 Shows Signs of Growth”), it should be noted that I was never contacted prior to publication, although I am named therein. This is irresponsible journalism. 

To be clear, I resigned in June 2014. It should also be noted that I have never met or spoken with Jay Sanderson. While he talks about me in the story, he would have no first-hand knowledge of me directly. It is wrong that assertions were made in the article but that there was no effort by the Journal to follow up with me to get a fuller picture.

Also, if I had been contacted, I would have explained how the core mission of Hillel, to serve the students, was never forgotten even after our merger in 2013. To suggest otherwise is an unfair assessment and negates the commitment of many individuals. There were new challenges, but in the short time we had, we were creating a new 818 presence with fundraising and programming under the 818 umbrella. 

As our primary funder, Federation had the power to make the changes it did, but its method lacked transparency. When all is said and done, I do wish only the best for Hillel 818.

Judith Alban, former Hillel, 818 executive director via email

Editor’s note: The Journal reported fully on the Hillel 818 controversy Jan. 30, 2015 (“Hillel 818 Starts Anew Following Federation-led Transformation”), interviewing people on all sides of the issue.


The article “American Jews Helped Create Prayer Space Equality at the Kotel” (Feb. 12) quotes Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel as saying the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and abroad played a role in creating a mixed prayer space at the Kotel. Siegel actually said all three major denominations — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — were involved in the process, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Books: Farce, fascism and dash of Proust create a ‘Wonder’

“The Eighth Wonder of the World” by Leslie Epstein (Handsel Books, $24.95).

“I don’t think it’s possible to write a really interesting or good book without the Holocaust being in it. Even if you’re not Jewish, you’re a Jewish writer. If it doesn’t enter your consciousness, you’re not a serious artist.”

So said novelist Leslie Epstein, author most recently of “The Eighth Wonder of the World” in a phone interview from his office at Boston University, where he chairs the creative writing department.

Epstein, father of Boston Red Sox wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein, is also the son and nephew of Philip and Julius Epstein, the famed Golden Age screenwriting tandem behind “Casablanca,” “Four Daughters” and other Warner Bros. classics. Leslie Epstein grew up in Pacific Palisades observing Christmas, yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, his secular upbringing, he has returned to Judaism. At the age of 68, he just became a bar mitzvah with the Lubavitcher Jews at his alma mater, Yale University, after giving a talk at the Chai Society — not to be confused with the Bing Crosby film, “High Society,” Epstein says.

His current novel, “Eighth Wonder,” actually has some of the mirth of that Bing Crosby film, even though it takes place primarily in fascist Italy at the time of the Holocaust. This is not the first occasion in which Epstein has grappled with the Shoah in his prose. “King of the Jews,” his most famous book, examined the ethical quandaries of the leader of a Jewish ghetto in Poland, a man who rationalizes his actions by telling himself that, for every 10 Jews he sends to the concentration camps, he saves 100.

“King of the Jews,” which came out in 1979, attracted much controversy because, Epstein says, it bore traces of Hannah Arendt and “exposed the dirty linen” of Jews; it also had an “irreverent tone,” most clearly evidenced when the unnamed narrator addresses the readers as “ladies and gentlemen,” as if he is an impresario at a circus or, Epstein suggests, a host at a nightclub.

While the humor of “King of the Jews” was at times camouflaged and muted by the deeply depressing nature of the book, there is no concealing the hilarity of “Eighth Wonder.”

In this latest book, Epstein’s 10th work of fiction, he presents Il Duce as a buffoon, inflating his chest in a “pneumatic trick”; requiring a woman every eight hours; intoning in front of large crowds in the third person and in all capital letters; and ending every other word with a suffixed “a” when speaking more intimately, so that he sounds like a cross between Chico Marx’s stock immigrant and a character out of Jimmy Breslin’s “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

Epstein has created another splendid comic villain in Amos Prince, an anti-Semitic architect, based on Ezra Pound, whose penchant for malapropisms and bad puns leads him to refer to Mussolini as “Douche,” “Dolce,” and “Mauso-lini,” to give a few examples.

But Prince can turn off his antic disposition when he seeks the commission to build a mile-high monument, the titular eighth wonder of the world, to commemorate Italy’s victory over Ethiopia: “Our monument is literally just such a clock, a gigantic sundial, with the tower as the gnomon and all of Rome as the face.”

Although in this book Epstein commingles fictional characters with historical ones, as E.L. Doctorow does, Epstein’s key influence appears to be Proust.
Like Prince, the architect’s protégé, protagonist Max Shabilian, has a split voice, stammering in his old age, yet communicating eloquently in his interior monologue, a Proustian stream of consciousness that Epstein uses not only in Max’s narration but also in Prince’s spiral notebook entries. In one characteristic passage, Max attempts to recapture the past, “Memories! You think you’ve strangled them, lopped off the hundred heads; but they lurk, they linger, until you understand they’re the ones strangling you. Philomene. Katya. Shemi. Judit. Yes, those words, too.”

Those names haunt us as they haunt Max, whose stuttering, we assume, has to do with his conduct during the war.

What better way to write about a searing subject like the Holocaust than by invoking Proust!

In the late 1990s, Epstein began reading two pages of the French author every night.

“It’s deeply refreshing to encounter a noble mind at the end of the day,” he says. Epstein maintained that regimen for a number of years until, in December of 2000, he received a phone call that his mother had suffered a heart attack. He returned to Los Angeles from Boston. His mother seemed fine when he visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but several days later she endured a second heart attack and died. Three days after that, his uncle Julie, a father figure to him, also died.

Three years ago, at a book signing for “San Remo Drive,” a “novel from memory” about Epstein’s childhood in Pacific Palisades, he remarked on how this doubling of the deaths reinforced his recollection and brought him to many earlier memories, such as his first memory of being with his mother in MacArthur Park in a rowboat. Several years later, he said, he was in another rowboat, this time with a man who was his mother’s suitor and whom he feared would kill him. The “erotic charge” in both memories and their doubling rendered them indelible and led Epstein to explore them imaginatively in his art.

“Eighth Wonder” also features much doubling. The book begins with an extended set piece of the victory parade to celebrate Mussolini’s triumph over Ethiopia’s Lion of Judah, which recalls the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, which occurred on the anniversary to the day of the Babylonian destruction of the first temple. This chapter is followed by Prince’s first notebook entry, written on the 25th anniversary to the day of his return to Italy.

All of this doubling highlights a theme in Epstein’s work of history as a wheel constantly repeating itself. In both “King of the Jews” and “Eighth Wonder,” he broaches the debate of free will vs. destiny.