Not the people of the e-book


It took a call to customer service at Mendele, the Israeli online bookseller, for Ariela Baum to figure out how to download her first e-book by a pioneering romance author two years ago, but when she finally did, her life changed. 

The e-book — finally gaining prominence in a country where print is still king — was a revelation. Not only was a plethora of Hebrew romance fiction available in the palm of her hand in an instant, but Baum also realized that she, too, could use the platform to pursue her dream of becoming an author. The Kiryat Gat resident and mother of three eventually bypassed traditional publishing outlets and put out the first of her erotic trilogy, “Hidden Secrets,” as an e-book and in a limited print run (as print-on-demand does not yet exist in Israel).

Fast-forward to April 8, to the Jewish state’s first-ever conference on romance fiction, Romantican, held in Herzliya and organized by the Book Whisperers, a blog dedicated to the genre. Here, Baum received fans at her own booth next to fellow best-selling indie romance authors. 

“The concept of an independent author is on the rise lately, and I’m proud to say I’m one of the first,” Baum told the Journal. “People are having the courage to go after their dreams.”

Developments in Hebrew e-book production and distribution can take some credit for that. While Israel is known as the startup nation and Jews as “people of the book,” the popularity of e-books in Israel has yet to catch up with their popularity in the United States, where digital sales now surpass print sales. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are still ubiquitous on major Israeli streets and in malls. But more and more Israelis are trading in paperbacks for electronic ink — as are authors.

Three years ago, Ron Dahan founded Indiebook, today Israel’s leading online bookstore, to give a fight to what he calls Israel’s bookstore “duopoly” consisting of the chains Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim.

“My vision was to change the book market, and the e-book fits into this,” Dahan said. 

Like Amazon, Indiebook offers self-published authors royalties of about 70 percent. If the company’s sales reports are any indication, digital sales in Israel have more than tripled since last year. Where Indiebook’s digital sales in March of last year accounted for 20 percent of the store’s online sales, this past March it reached 70 percent. Romance fiction, Dahan noted, is the most downloaded digital genre. 

Shalhevet Zohar runs a company called ePublish that facilitates the production and distribution of e-books for both publishers and authors (including “The Settler” by this reporter). She also teaches e-book production at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan. Like Dahan, she attributes the slow growth of Israel’s e-book market in part to the lack of a powerful sales engine, like Amazon, that mass-markets and mass-produces e-books. But there are other factors, too. 

“People are suspicious, and people cling to the romantic idea of printed books,” Zohar said. “Actually, Israelis are usually early adapters of new technology, but it’s taken longer with e-books. There is no automatic tool that perfectly creates the e-book in Hebrew.”

Ori Idan, founder and CEO of Helicon Books, has been working to change that. He developed the Helicon Reader app for tablets and smartphones to provide a solution for the Hebrew font and also to provide added encryption layers for publishers who are wary of copyright infringement. Even today, the right-to-left direction of the Hebrew language does not neatly translate to the popular Kindle e-reader. 

When Idan started in 2012, only two online stores sold Hebrew e-books: eVrit and Mendele. Today, about 10 websites sell them, some exclusively. Of those, six utilize the Helicon e-reader. Idan counts at least 5,000 titles that have come out digitally via the Helicon app and over 100,000 downloads since 2014. 

“I see more people going to digital first,” Idan said. “We also see people who write shorter books — like 100 pages — and digital provides an affordable solution.”

Another event that has contributed to the rise of e-books and the self-publishing industry, perhaps unintentionally, was the passing of Israel’s controversial Book Law in 2013 that regulates book prices, making it illegal for booksellers to offer significant discounts on the retail price of new books put out by commercial publishers. 

Rotem Sella, founder and CEO of Sella Meir Publishing, has been a major voice lobbying against the Book Law, which he says has pushed new writers out of the mainstream market; commercial publishers are wary of taking risks on new talent they’d be forced to price above $15 to $20 per book. E-books, on the other hand, are much less expensive and less of a financial risk for readers.

Sella Meir’s most recent release is the Hebrew version of the German novel “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes.  Already a best-seller in Israel, digital sales for “Look Who’s Back” account for only some 7 percent of total sales. Given the minimal effort and cost required to sell a book digitally, Sella said that it makes economic sense for any serious publisher to publish electronically, but only as an added value.

“The fact that you’re seen on the table in book stores gives it a certain worth,” Sella said. “When you’re absent from this platform, you’re not in the established press and you can’t break the threshold of public awareness.”

As for Baum, she’d rather spend her time marketing her books on the many Facebook pages dedicated to romance fiction than vying for a shelf at Steimatzky or Tzomet Sfarim. 

“It’s not worth it financially,” Baum said. “You’re left with nothing, just a few shekels from each book. If you’re not center stage on the shelves and don’t go to the stores to make sure that you are, it’s hard to sell books there.” 

Making Book on LA


BookExpo, the annual convention of booksellers and book publishers that
took place in Los Angeles one recent weekend, is the book industry’s
annual get-together, alternating among the publishing hub of New York
and various other cities, such as Miami, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and
Los Angeles.

Perhaps it’s the state of the book industry, the economy or just the
cost of gas, but this year’s convention was not as well attended as in
past years. The last time BookExpo was in Los Angeles, the convention
floor was constantly, overwhelmingly crowded, with so many booths that
the author autographing section had to be relegated to a basement hall.

This time, many editors did not even make the trip, and some publishers
or imprints decided not to pay for a stand. For example, I was
surprised that Bloomsbury USA didn’t have one, given that they
represent several Los Angeles authors with just-published or
forthcoming books, including Seth Greenland (“Shining City”), Rachel
Resnick (“Love Junkie”) and Mark Sarvas (“Harry, Revised”). Still, the
smaller turnout really didn’t put a damper on the excitement, the
conviviality and the parties, which seemed to take over Los Angeles
from downtown to West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Santa
Monica.

At BookExpo, publishers were not only showcasing current titles, they
also were trying to create excitement for books that will come out this
summer and fall. Translation: Free books were given out.

Among the those I sought while trolling the aisles were the highly
anticipated Salman Rushdie novel, “The Enchantress of Florence” (which
is already receiving decidedly mixed reviews), Oscar Hijuelos’s “Dark
Dude” (Atheneum) and Andre Dubus III’s “The Garden of Last Days,” which
is shaping up to be a novel of major importance.

Among the stacks of desired new books were John LeCarre’s “A Most
Wanted Man” (Knopf), Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day” (Morrow), Michael
Connolly’s “The Brass Verdict” (Hachette) and Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I
First Believed” (HarperCollins). Harper is also pushing Alafair Burke’s
“Angel’s Tip” — if the name seems familiar, it’s because Burke’s
father, James Lee Burke, writes the Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as from small acorns grow large oak trees, small presses sometimes
deliver great novels. Steerforth Press, which published Karoly Pap’s
“Azarel,” an undiscovered gem of a novel of pre-war Hungary, was at the
convention with Benjamin Taylor’s “The Book of Getting Even,” which
Philip Roth has already hailed as: “Among the most original novels I
have read in recent years.”

This September, Algonquin books will publish Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s
Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.” Sabar is
a political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor covering this
year’s presidential campaign. His father, Yona Sabar, is a UCLA
professor. The book tells of their father-and-son journey to today’s
postwar Iraq to visit Yona’s birthplace and to reconcile past and
present.

Speaking of fathers and sons, Adam Nimoy, son of you-can-guess-who, has
written “My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life,” which Simon and
Schuster has dubbed a “hilarious anti-memoir” about facing life “as a
newly divorced father, a fortysomething in the L.A. dating scene, a
recovering user and a former lawyer turned director turned substitute
teacher … in search of his true self.”

Among the grand dames signing books were Jackie Collins (I passed) and
Barbara Walters (I waited in a long line to get a signed copy of
“Audition” [Knopf]).

No one likes the expression “chick lit,” but what should we call light
reads targeted at the “Sex and the City” audience? Female-driven
entertainment? Part of the problem is that this grab-bag term
encompasses quasi-literary fiction (“Bridget Jones”), commercial
fiction (“The Starter Wife”) and a sort of gossipy insider’s revenge
book (“The Devil Wears Prada”).

Call them what you like, but buy them you will. Some female-friendly
titles you may spot this summer or in early fall include former E!
hostess Jules Asner’s “Whacked” (Weinstein Books), Julie Buxbaum’s “The
Opposite of Love” (Dial Press), Claire Lazebnik’s “The Smart One and
The Pretty One” (5 Spot), subtitled: “A Novel about Sisters” — (I
happen to know one of the sisters, Nell Scovell, but I’m not saying
which one I think she is) — and Jodi Wing’s “The Art of Social War”
(HarperCollins), which has already been sold to the movies.

Speaking of politics — and who isn’t these days? — Public Affairs, a
division of Perseus Group, is the publisher of Scott McLellan’s book,
and it has had no problems getting publicity for the book. It also has
a book forthcoming about censorship that should generate some debate
called, “Obscene in the Extreme,” an account of the burning and banning
of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s by Rick Wartzman, a senior
Irvine Fellow of the New America Foundation and a former Los Angeles
Times Magazine editor.

Public Affairs was launched in 1997 by Peter Osnos, my former editor at
Times Books, and I was very happy to run into him, looking dapper as
ever, at the Hotel Bel Air, where he was hosting a BookExpo party.

That same night, the New York Review of Books also hosted a party at
the Bel Air, and it’s worth commending it not only for its party-giving
skills, but for its publishing program. Recently, the NYRB Classics
have brought back into print editions of Vassily Grossman’s
masterpiece, “Life and Fate,” and the Yiddish classic, “The Family
Mashber” by Der Nister.

Most recently, it published new editions of Stefan Zweig’s final novel,
“Chess Game,” and his earlier novella, “The Post Office Girl.” Zweig,
who committed suicide in 1940, was one of the most-published authors of
the first half of the 20th century. The NYRB editions are getting rave
reviews and returning Zweig to the popular consciousness.

One of the most interesting and companiable hours I spent at the
BookExpo was speaking to Nicolas Neumann, a Paris-based art house
publisher. Our meeting occurred because, as I was wandering past his
booth, I heard him speaking French.

When I looked up to see the name of his booth, Somogyi, I had to stop.

Eva Somogyi was my mother’s stage name in Budapest, so I turned to
Neumann and asked point blank: Hungarian or French? The answer, not
surprisingly, was both — the original founder, Somogyi, was of
Hungarian parentage, but the publishing house is French. Somogyi turns
out to be one of the largest publishers of museum exhibition catalogs
in France.

Upon learning that my column appears in The Jewish Journal of Greater
Los Angeles, Neumann immediately directed my attention to two of his
English-language books. One of them is “Human Expressionism: The Human
Figure and the Jewish Experience,” the companion book to an exhibition
this spring at the Musee Tavet-Delacour in Pontoise, a suburb of Paris.
The book illustrates a fantastic and very thought-provoking exhibition
featuring works by Soutine, Modigliani, Pissaro, Mane-Katz, Lasar
Segall, Kitaj and Serge Strosberg, with a wonderful essay by Eliane
Strosberg.

Neumann also showed me a book of the death camp drawings of Shelomo
Selinger — really remarkable, haunting work that deserves an American
exhibition (Skirball people, are you listening?).

Speaking of art, but on a definitely lighter note, I was happy to run
into the folks from BukAmerica — Gary Kornblau and Lisa Lyons, whose
Hollywood-based publishing house creates $1.49 pamphlets that run the
gamut from reprints to original works, from a translation of
Baudelaire, to the U.S. Constitution, from Ruth Reichl’s “The Queen of
Mold” to Richard Grossman’s “Glossary of Every Humorous Word in the
English Language.” (Example: “agnify: to dress up as a sheep.”)

Also from the local scene was Ammo, an L.A.-based publisher started by
Steve Crist, who does very hip books like “Gonzo,” about Hunter
Thompson, and a series of books by the designer Todd Oldham, including
one about John Waters with an essay by Cindy Sherman.

And if you like local, there’s Angel City Press, where Paddy Calisto
continues to publish fine volumes on Los Angeles’ history and culture.
I even met Gidget herself, Kathy Zuckerman, at the Santa Monica Press
booth, where she and Dominic Priore were signing posters for “Pop Surf
Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom,”
available in September.

Children’s books occupied a fair amount of real estate at BookExpo. One
title that particularly appealed to me was “My Name is Gabito (Me Llamo
Gabito”) an English- and Spanish-language children’s book about the
life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Monica Brown, who asked me, “And how
many Latina Jews do you know?” (More than you think, mi amiga).

And as long as we are taking a walk on the Semitic side of the street,
I was pleased to stumble on Lerner Publishing Group. It recently
acquired Kar-Ben Publishing, “a growing Jewish library for children,”
which includes everything from Yale Strom’s first children’s book, “The
Wedding That Saved a Town,” to biographies, books about Israel, books
about Jewish holidays and books about families and friends that
encompass many religions.

Meanwhile, over at Matzoh Ball Books (that is their name!), Anne-Marie
Baila Asner has just published “Klutzy Boy” (prior titles include
“Kvetchy Boy,” “Schmutzy Girl,” “Noshy Boy” and “Schluffy Girl”). Let
the imagination run wild.

Now, if having your child learn a foreign language grabs you, Slangman
Publishing has a series for ages 3 and up, where familiar fairy tales,
such as “Cinderella,” are retold with foreign words to build up a
child’s vocabulary in a foreign language (there’s an audio CD included,
as well). Languages include Chinese, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian
and Japanese.

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about “Mo’s Nose.” My daughter’s
homework folder has recently been covered with stickers about a dog
named Mo. I now know why.

Turns out one of my daughter’s classmates is the son of Margaret Hyde,
the author of children’s books such as “Dreadilocks and the Three
Slugs” and the “Great Art for Kids” series (“Picasso for Kids,”
“Matisse for Kids”). Hyde has now launched “Mo’s Nose,” a series of
books for children about a dog named Mo and how although he doesn’t see
in color, he can smell colors. The books, illustrated by Amanda
Giacomini, have an innovative, safe, nontoxic scratch-and-sniff
feature.

“Mo Smells Red,” the first book in the series, has Mo smelling
strawberries, roses and love itself. Cute in the extreme. A portion of
the proceeds from the books go to help rescue animals find homes. Mo is
going to be a star. Be ready for the appearance of Mo T-shirts in your
children’s lives.

Graphic novels were another big trend at BookExpo. As I learned,
graphic novels are often neither graphic nor novel — they are adult
versions of what we used to call comic books. NBM books was at the
convention, along with local author David Seidman, who told me that Los
Angeles has become fertile ground for the graphic novel, thanks to the
abundance of animators and writers raised on comic books.

These days, comics range from humorous work to art of fantasy and the
imagination, from children’s comics to illustrated renderings of Proust
and Kafka, from political cartooning to subversive alternative lit,
from goth to Japanese manga.

Some of the most interesting books these days are being published by
university presses, such as the university presses of Indiana,
Nebraska, Michigan, Mississippi, Chicago, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and
Yale, which publish everything from the hyperlocal, to the serious
academic, to the just plain fun from all over the country. As just one
example, Yale University is doing a series called American icons with
titles such as Joseph Epstein writing about Fred Astaire.

BookExpo, however, was not just about free books. There were also
speeches and panels (about books). The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman
spoke about how “green is the new red, white and blue,” which not
coincidentally is the title of Friedman’s next book. There were author
breakfasts with Philippa Gregory, Alec Baldwin, Chris Buckley and Magic
Johnson.

There were also panels about film rights, bookselling and climate
change, about Google and digital rights and digital editions, social
networking, graphic novels, libraries, censorship, the Chinese market
and the Chinese audience, the Latino audience and the panel I attended
about — no surprise here — the Jewish audience.

A panel about the reading habits of Jewish Americans featured Stuart
Matlins of Jewish Lights publishing house, Daisy Maryles of Publisher’s
Weekly and Ruth Ellenson of the best-selling anthology, “The Modern
Jewish Girls’ Guide to Guilt.”

Panelists spoke of the importance of the Jewish Book Council run by
Carolyn Starman Hessel, book clubs and synagogue book clubs. Matlins
suggested that in his guesstimation, 70 percent of readers and more
than 70 percent of book club attendees are women.

Ellenson, who has written for The Jewish Journal and whose book
features an essay by Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein, told
many humorous anecdotes about the pressures she faced to make her book
less “Jewish.” However, what Ellenson discovered was that what perhaps
threatened to keep her from a mainstream audience helped her find a
very loyal niche audience, Jewish readers who have supported her book
in steady numbers since its publication.

No one who was in the room will ever forget when Ellenson told us the
more “edgy title” one editor suggested for her book: “Burning Bushes.”

At one point, Carla Cohen, owner of Politics and Prose bookstore in
Washington, D.C., bemoaned the fact that there is not a contemporary
version of “The Jewish Catalogue.” Several audience members then
volunteered that they were the authors of soon-to-be-published books
hoping to fill the gap, among them “Cool Jew” by Lisa Alcalay Klug
(Andrews McNeil).

There was some question of if, and why, Jews buy a disproportionate number of books. Is it just a matter of education?

In some sense, this begged a question that nagged at the whole BookExpo: Whither books?

Is the book industry going the way of the music industry? Or the
newspaper industry? Is digital the future? What percentage of the
population will read books on their Kindle or other electronic devices
or even on their Blackberry? If most nonfiction titles sell only 6,000
copies, how can such small sales support writers, editors, publishing
companies?

The answer is, of course, no one knows, but stay tuned — or more to the point, keep reading.

Matlins had the best precis of the current marketplace: “The people who buy books,” he opined, “are the people who buy books.”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.

Publishing Perils


Say what you will about journalism as a profession, you are never unemployed. Instead, you are “between assignments,” a condition I found myself in during the early 1980s at the same time that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was preparing to launch its new Jewish Journal. The two situations dovetailed nicely, and for the first 11 years of The Journal’s existence, I was its associate editor, until I retired in 1993.

I am not sure that the community leaders who conceived this venture quite understood what risks they were running. Publishing a newspaper is not like opening a doctor’s office or a bank or even a traditional business. For one thing, there is the eternal battle involving publishers, who are concerned with the bottom line, and editors, whose concern is with what appears above the bottom line.

A case in point was someone’s decision to list the 50 most prominent Jews in Southern California. This routine end-of-the-year story appears in virtually every section of every newspaper, sometimes positively (“Ten best high school athletes of the year”) and occasionally negatively (“Ten worst movies of the year”).

You would expect that such publicity would gladden the hearts of 50 of our community leaders, and it probably did. But how about No. 51 or, rather, the several hundred prominent Jews who considered themselves equally eligible for membership in such an exclusive club?

Normally, readers protest such heinous mistreatment by canceling their subscriptions, but that is only effective when they pay for their newspaper. At the time, The Journal was distributed free to any Federation contributor.

Without recourse to such a tactic, those who felt slighted had the option of resorting to other means, such as lowering their contributions to The Federation. Which brings up an issue that does not concern most newspapers in Los Angeles whose profits come largely from advertisers who wish to sell tangible goods or services to their readers. The Journal of that era was not selling anything tangible; it wanted its readers to contribute money to a charitable institution, and if they became angry at that institution, it would fail in its purpose. The storm that arose when people discovered they had not been included in the Fabulous 50 finally blew over, but it did teach the staff a lesson: In the Jewish world, all people are equal — at least in print.

Another problem that the staff had to deal with was a knowledgeable readership. This is normally a blessing to writers who feel they can include three-syllable words and rather esoteric background information in their reports. Those on The Journal staff did well in the multisyllable department; the problem lay in the extent of their Jewish knowledge. Journalists often suffer from an inability to place their material in a proper cultural framework, as when, for example, one of the staff showed me the cover he had designed for the paper’s first Passover issue. It was dramatic, eye-catching and original. It featured the giant menorah that fronts the Knesset building in Jerusalem.

There was also a generation gap between the veteran journalists and the younger copy editors. I wrote a column in each issue of The Journal called, “A Majority of One,” in which I pontificated at length on the ills of the Jewish world. You can do this for just so long before your readers tire and turn to more interesting fare. You are akin to a pitcher who hurls only fast balls; by the seventh inning, the opposing batters have adjusted their timing and are hitting your pitches out of the park.

One of the ways to avoid this is to resort to personal history. Once I wrote how at the age of 10 I ran away from my home in New York City. In making the point that my Jewish generation had more personal freedom than my grandchildren do, I described how my mother packed me a lunch and wished me well on my journey to the Western states and a career as a cowboy. Off I went on the Sixth Avenue elevated bound for the Staten Island Ferry and independence.

(In case you are worrying about the result, I never got there. Instead, I began talking to a nice man sitting next to me who called a nice policeman, and I was back home within the hour. It was years before I realized that my mother had asked a friend to watch over me.)

Ten minutes after I handed the column to a copy editor, she called me over and said, “You’ll have to change this. It’s inaccurate.”

“Were you there?” I asked.

“No, but I lived near Sixth Avenue, and it has a subway, not an El.”

“Yes it does. But in 1937, dear child, it had an El.”

The story ran as written.

In the event that you should ever decide to publish a Jewish newspaper, frame this article and hang it on your wall. Then go out and find a career that doesn’t leave you “between assignments.”

Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at yehudal@cox.net.

 

A Peek Behind the Curtain of Oz


“A Tale of Love and Darkness,” by Amos Oz (Harcourt, $26).

Since 1968, when his novel “My Michael” — exquisitely narrated by a despairing young wife in Jerusalem — mesmerized thousands of readers, Amos Oz has been recognized as one of Israel’s most gifted and prolific authors. He has produced 22 books — 11 novels, three collections of stories and novellas, one children’s book, and seven books of articles and essays — that have been translated into 35 languages. His work is his autobiography, and until now Oz had been reticent about his own life.

That life has been as dramatic as the history of the state. Born in 1939, Amos Klausner grew up in British-ruled Jerusalem and, at the age of 9, survived the city’s siege during the War of Independence. In 1954, when he was 14 and a half, he changed his family name to Oz and left home for left-wing Kibbutz Hulda. He became a member at 18 and, at 21, married the daughter of the kibbutz librarian.

It was while working as a high school teacher of literature that he published his first volume of short stories and first became politically engaged in a group called Min Hayesod. His activism was honed by active duty during the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In 1967, he joined the Committee for Peace and Security, and has since been a spokesman for Peace Now and a “two-state solution.” For the past 20 years, he has lived in the desert town of Arad with his wife of 40 years. He is a professor at Ben-Gurion University, a grandfather and, because of his politics, one of the most reviled and respected figures in Israel.

Oz is the only Israeli in the small group of writers — like Vaclav Havel, Nadine Gordimer and Salman Rushdie — who have become inextricably identified with human rights as well as with the history of their own country, and who speak to an international audience. Part of Oz’s stature has derived from the extraordinary appeal of his books, part from his longtime political activity and part from an engaging personal style. But like the rest of his taciturn sabra generation, he had, until now, kept his private life private. Why was he writing his memoirs? I wondered. And what would they contain?

Oz does not view this book, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” as a memoir and has noted that writing it was like “giving birth to an elephant.” The 517-page tome is, in fact, elephantine, repetitive, sometimes heavy-handed — actually several books and stories in one. Some of these entities are self-contained, some pervade the book; some are remembered, some documented, some clearly invented. They include a multigenerational Eastern European family history; a lyrical portrait of the writer as a child; a wonderfully wry sexual coming-of-age story; a set of cameos of famous Jewish writers (Agnon, Bialik, Tchernikovsky); an ethnography of Ashkenazic Jerusalem under the British Mandate of the 1940s; a portrait of his famous great-uncle, professor Joseph Klausner, who invented the Hebrew words “pencil,” “iceberg” and “shirt” among other linguistic staples; a portrait of his charming “ladies man” of a grandfather and a 21st-century manifesto for the existence of a Jewish state, to name just a few.

Running through this crazy quilt are Oz’s two recurring questions: What made him the man he became? And what killed his mother? For if there is one thread that binds this sprawling work together, it’s the writer’s 50-year struggle to understand what he has not explicitly written about before: the suicide of his mother, Fania Mussman, in 1952, when she was 38 and he was 12 1/2 years old.

The book begins in a dark, claustrophobic basement apartment packed with books in the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of northwest Jerusalem. This was not German Jewish Rehavia “with its gardens and its strains of piano music,” nor coastal Tel Aviv with its cafe society and “bronzed Jews who could swim,” nor the Galil with its pioneering, “silent, thoughtful young men and strapping, straightforward, self-disciplined young women,” but a place of provincial, hapless refugees from Poland and Russia. Oz portrays his parents as disappointed, displaced people who landed in Palestine because every other country they tried to enter — including Germany — refused them entry. The Klausners — Europhiles except for the eminent professor — arrived in 1933. Ariyeh Klausner, according to his son, “utterly familiar with the Tosefta, the midrashic literature, the religious poetry of the Jews of Spain, as well as Homer, Ovid, Babylonian poetry, Shakespeare, Goethe and Adam Mickievicz” was unable to obtain a university appointment and found work in the newspaper department of the National Library.

His mother, one of three cosseted daughters of a mill owner in southeastern Poland, attended university in Prague and made aliyah in 1934, after what Oz is told might have been a failed love affair. A poetic, melancholy woman who married a prosaic, cheerful man, she battled depression while tutoring history and literature and telling strange tales to her only child, such as: In the land of Enularia lived three bear-like blacksmith brothers. Misha, Alyosha and Antosha. One day, Misha brought home a girlish woman named Tanya or Tanichka. “There was only a single big room in the brothers’ hut and in this room dwelt Misha and Tanichka and the furnace and the bellows and the anvil and the wild brother, Alyosha, and the silent brother, Antosha, surrounded by heavy iron hammers and axes and chisels and poles … so it befell that one day….”

As a child, Oz writes, he had few friends and rarely played outside, reading alone in the dark apartment, mulling over his mother’s stories and his father’s etymological and literary disquisitions. His mother addressed him as a confidante; his father, with sarcastic deference, as “Your Honor” or “Your Highness.” Both parents suffered from what his Aunt Sonia — in a section I would call fictionalized oral history — describes as a generational Diaspora-induced inferiority complex.

“The fear in every Jewish home … was the chilling fear that perhaps we really were not clean enough, that we really were too noisy and pushy, too clever and money grubbing … whatever else we did we must not provoke the Gentiles or argue with them or haggle with them…. You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip-drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust.”

In two vignettes that could stand alone as stories, Oz contrasts his parents with the adult Arabs he encounters. One is a shop assistant, more fatherly than his own father, who finds Amos after his babysitter loses track of him while trying on dresses; another is a wealthy Sheikh Jarrah businessman to whose villa Amos is invited and where he inadvertently wounds the little boy of the house by dropping an iron ball and chain on his foot. Adults intervene; an appalled Amos is taken home. He wonders: What happened to the boy and his family? Are they now in exile, in refugee camps or dead?

These unanswerable and haunting questions echo others that Oz poses in his profound and moving struggle to understand his mother and her suicide. It is impossible to do justice to its power without quoting entire pages of his text. Oz never finds one convincing answer to his question: Why? But his search for it in this long, meandering book is fascinating, beautifully written and closer to a great 19th-century novel than to the ironic minimalism of our time. No serious reader should miss this testimony from an extraordinary writer.

Amoz Oz will be reading and signing his book at 7 p.m. on Dec. 3, at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 449-5320. At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 4 he will be in conversation with William Cutter of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion via Writers Bloc at Temple Emanuel, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. $20. For tickets, call (310) 335-0917 or visit www.writersblocpresents.com.

Article courtesy of The Forward.

Helen Epstein, author of “Children of the Holocaust,” “Where She Came From” and “Joe Papp: An American Life,” is at work on “First Love.”

Little Miss Shmutzy


Anne-Marie Baila Asner was concerned that Yiddish words were disappearing from the vernacular. After all, she only knew about 30 words, and most of her peers knew even fewer.

So she decided that she was going to reinvigorate Yiddish by writing and illustrating cute, brightly colored children’s books that would help people develop an affinity for the language.

“Yiddish words provide something that English words don’t, and they say something in a single word that no other word in English says,” said the Los Angeles resident, whose day job is a credit risk analyst. “I want people to understand what Yiddish contributes.”

Thus the first title to come out of “Matzah Ball Books,” Asner’s publishing company, is “Shmutzy Girl.”

Shmutz is typically translated as dirt, but what the Yiddish word really means is an amalgamation of dirty, messy and smudged all rolled into one.

In “Shmutzy Girl,” the eponymous protagonist is sad because she can never seem to keep herself clean, but she learns to love herself despite her shmutz.

“Everything the characters do is consistent with their namesake in order to teach the word,” Asner said. “And each book has a moral.”

Asner said her books were inspired by Roger Hargreaves “Mr. Men” and “Little Miss” series which were popular children’s books when she was growing up in Canada. She now has 30 titles planned for her series, including “Kvetchy Boy,” about a boy who learns when he should and should not kvetch (complain, whine); “Shluffy Girl,” about a girl who is always shluffing (sleeping); “Bubba and Zaidy Kvelly,” about two grandparents who kvell (heap praise) over their grandchildren; and “Meshuggene Hunt,” which is about a crazy dog who always follows people home.

“There is a feeling that comes with using and hearing Yiddish words,” Asner said. “[The word] clumsy is much less kind and endearing than klutzy, sleep sounds less warm than shluffy. It is this warmth and detail for which I am trying to spark an affinity in our youth.”

Asner will be reading from “Shmutzy Girl” on July 18, 1
p.m. at Storyopolis, 116 N. Robertson Blvd. To attend the reading, R.S.V.P. at
(310) 358-2512. For more information on the series or to purchase books, visit
www.matzahballbooks.comor call (310) 306-7741.

A Writer’s Road


“I don’t ever read reviews,” playwright Jessica Goldbergsaid. “I’m too sensitive … I’d rather not know.”

The revelation is surprising, considering that thesoft-spoken Jewish dramatist hasn’t had so many bad reviews. Her edgy yetentertaining work has often earned kudos since one of her Juilliard studentpieces caught the attention of a Taper producer in 1998. At 31, Goldberg isalready a veteran of that elite cadre of young female playwrights, whichincludes Annie Weisman and Amy Freed. But perhaps her early success exacerbatedthe usual writer’s insecurities, she said at a rehearsal of her provocative newplay, “Sex Parasite,” for Taper, Too.

“When one is younger and has less of a sense of oneself,”she said, “there’s a lot of self-doubt…. You go through rejection and youhave to figure out how to love your work beyond the reviews.”

Goldberg became curious about how other female artists hadgrappled with the problem throughout history. Eventually she discovered theVictorian-era revolutionary feminist Olive Schreiner, who became the heroine of”Sex Parasite.”

Like Goldberg, Schrenier had catapulted to an early literarysuccess. An ex-governess from rural South Africa, she became the toast ofLondon after publishing her radical debut novel. In later works, Schreineroutlined her theories that women are as sexually passionate as men and thatwomen who don’t work are merely “sex parasites,” living off their husbands. Yetthe feminist hid aspects of her sexual past in order to be accepted by highsociety.

To enhance the character’s outsider status, Goldberg playedup the fact that Schreiner had Jewish blood. She partly based her protagonist’srelationship with an upper-crust scientist on the doomed interfaith romancebetween 1920s Jewish novelist Anzia Yezierska and famed educator John Dewey.

“‘Sex Parasite’ [explores] how one survives in a world thatis totally in opposition to who you are,” said the play’s director, Chay Yew.

In the end, however, the character’s journey reflectsGoldberg’s own.

“The play explores issues of self-acceptance,” she said.

“Sex Parasite” plays April 4-18 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.

News That’s Fit to Paw Print


In 1999, Lori Golden left a 25-year career in freelance television production when she found industry changes and “ageism” working against her. Struggling to make ends meet, Golden taught herself desktop publishing and, soon after, The Pet Press was born.

The paper’s primary goals are the promotion of animal adoption and rescue from overcrowded shelters, spaying/neutering and responsible pet care. Each issue spotlights a personality involved in some form of animal welfare work.

“Just because a person loves her dog or cat doesn’t mean she rates a cover story,” Golden said. Celebrity activists that have been featured include Betty White, Bea Arthur, Richard Pryor, Buddy Hackett, Ed Asner, James Cromwell, Shannon Elizabeth and Mary Tyler Moore with her dog, Shana Meydela.

Golden attributes her inspiration for The Pet Press to her own dog, Maxx, whom she rescued from an L.A. shelter. “She was dedicated, loving and loyal, and always by my side in good times and bad. I thought about all of the other wonderful dogs just like Maxx who were lying in animal shelters in Southern California,” she said.

I quickly discovered the phenomenal benefits of the barter system,” Golden said.

“It was a struggle, but because of a lot of chutzpah, and my father’s fantastic support and belief in me, the paper is now doing just fine.”

The free monthly paper, headquartered in Northridge, reaches more than 95,000 readers throughout greater Los Angeles and has grown from 20 pages to 40.

“The Pet Press is distributed to pet-related venues and many other places, including libraries, car washes and my favorite locations — Jewish delicatessens from Calabasas to Long Beach … and all points in between,” Golden said.

Although Golden admits she only attends services once a year for the High Holidays, in keeping true to her profession she makes The Pet Press available for the animal lovers who attend.

“Although I miss the excitement of entertainment,” she said, “I take great pride and satisfaction in knowing that my efforts are appreciated, and that I’m helping to save the lives of countless numbers of cats and dogs.”

For more information, visit

Zionism, by George


In a key scene in “Masterpiece Theatre’s” “Daniel Deronda,”adapted from George Eliot’s 1876 novel, the hero attends a Zionist meeting.”Isn’t the way forward through assimilation?” asks Deronda (Hugh Dancy), anorphaned aristocrat unsure of his roots.

“When we pretend to be what we are not, we lose a bit of oursouls,” Mordecai, a Jewish mystic, replies. 

If the early Zionist movement seems an unlikely topic for aVictorian novel, Eliot (“Middlemarch,” “Silas Marner”) was an unlikelyVictorian novelist. “She raised eyebrows,” said “Deronda’s” Jewish producer,Louis Marks, who spearheaded the teledrama with screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Born Mary Ann Evans, Eliot began shocking people when sherejected Christianity at age 22, according to Marks.  She was further shunnedwhen she moved in with her married lover in 1854.  Although the unofficialeditor of the influential Westminster Review, she was never publiclyacknowledged because she was a woman.  In 1859, she began publishing a stringof acclaimed, socially conscious novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. 

Her final novel was “Deronda.”  “As an outsider, sheidentified with the Jewish experience of oppression,” Marks said.

“She was outraged and disgusted by the degree ofanti-Semitism that existed in English society,” Davies, Marks’ longtimecollaborator, said.

Eliot began writing “Deronda” after befriending theGerman-born scholar Emmanuel Deutsch, the prototype for the fictionalMordecai.  An official in the Jewish manuscripts department of the BritishMuseum, he taught Eliot Hebrew and about the then-nascent idea of Zionism. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the 1870s, he went off to die inJerusalem. “That inspired Eliot,” said Marks, whose daughter lives inBeersheva. “His return to his roots perhaps moved her to create Deronda, a manalso struggling to find his roots.”

The producer said the novel inspired early Zionist leaderssuch as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and aristocrats who backed Britain’s BalfourDeclaration, the first political recognition of Zionism.  With war erupting inthe Middle East, he believes its message is equally relevant today:  “Manypeople are worried about Israel’s survival, and ‘Deronda’ makes people aware ofwhat is at stake,” he said.

The two-part drama airs March 30 and 31 on KCET.

‘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.”

One American Muslim


Tashbih Sayyed told me he has cried three times in his adult life: once when his father died, once when his mother died and once when he had to sell his house.

Sayyed was born in India in 1941 into a Shiite Muslim family. After the 1948 partition, his family, feeling persecuted by the Hindu majority, fled to newly created Pakistan. There, Sayyed received his master’s degree in political science, and started his career as a journalist. He eventually became the founding director of Pakistan television’s current affairs programming, the Don Hewitt of Karachi. But his liberal views put him in conflict with the Zia al-Haq regime, and Sayyed immigrated to the United States in 1981.

He worked as a translator and ghost writer for several years, and eventually saved enough money to realize one of his American dreams: he and his wife, Fatima, bought a large five-bedroom house in Laguna Hills.

Sayyed founded his own paper, Pakistan Today, in 1991. The paper survived on donations from fellow Muslims, newsstand sales and advertising. The Sayyeds produced it from a room in their house, using stringers in South Asia, wire services, local columnists and writers. At the paper’s peak, about five years ago, Sayyed said he printed 30,000 copies and broke even on a weekly budget of about $10,000.

Then Sayyed began to, as he put it, "veer from the right path." He wrote an editorial condemning "anti-Zionist governments" for having a hand in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 87 people. He published quotes from Jewish communal leaders like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "My dream was to provide a platform to the Islamic community for other opinions," he said. He printed Op-Ed pieces by pro-Israel columnists.

And he didn’t stop there. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) published two handbooks, one by a Jewish scholar explaining Judaism for Muslims, one by a Muslim scholar, Dr. Khalid Duran, explicating Islam for Jews. "Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam" outraged Muslim groups for taking a critical look at current Islamic practices. Sayyed ran two quarter-page AJC ads for the book in Pakistan Today. "It was part of my mission to establish that the other version can be presented to the Muslim community," he said.

Sayyed also went on CBS’s "48 Hours" and told correspondent Bob Simon that Arab threats against terrorism expert Steven Emerson were real and credible. The mainstream Arab community reviles Emerson, author of "American Jihad" (Free Press, 2002). The backlash was immediate. "Brother," Sayyed said one Arab leader told him, "now you are HIV positive."

Within a month, Pakistan Today’s advertising revenue fell from $4,000 per week to $350 (the sole remaining advertisers are two Hindu store owners). Muslim-owned stores stopped carrying his paper. Sayyed said he received "veiled physical threats." His contributors threatened to stop payments unless he ran a full-page apology — on the front page. When he refused, the money dried up.

Faced with $3,200 in weekly bills he could no longer pay, Sayyed had to decide whether to close the paper, or sell his house. "My wife understood," he said. He dabbed at tears in his eyes. "I apologize. It broke me."

The Sayyeds now produce Pakistan Today out of a small, rented house in Fontana. He still struggles to pay the printer and wire service bills, and his circulation has dropped to 4,000. (U.S. Census Bureau figures put California’s Pakistani population at 20,093, though Pakistanis I spoke to believe there are tens of thousands more). Pakistan Link, the largest national Pakistan weekly, publishes 25,000 copies per week.

Sayyed acknowledges that in pushing unpopular opinions he has created — surprise — an unpopular paper. Others in the Muslim community say he is simply too far outside the pale to make a difference. "Our goal is to build bridges of understanding," Akhtar Faruqui, editor of the Irvine-based Pakistan Link told me. Faruqui’s editorials have spoken approvingly of Seeds of Peace, a program that promotes Palestinian and Israeli coexistence. Faruqui, whose paper does reflect many moderate and liberal ideas, said he received no negative response for supporting Seeds of Peace, but he said he wouldn’t publish some of the opinions found in Pakistan Today, such as Op-Ed pieces critical of the Saudi royal family. "We try to promote understanding," Faruqui said. "We don’t go to extremes. That would be too extreme."

Publishing such pieces has pushed Sayyed to the fringes of the local Muslim community, said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Every religion has its extremist fringe," Marayati said. "We believe mainstream moderates represent the mainstream of the faith. The extremist fringe has been given way too much public attention by people whose political purpose it serves."

Marayati said that several years ago, Aslam al-Abdullah, editor of the local Muslim magazine, The Minaret, shaved his beard to protest the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. For that he received threats and negative letters. "Everybody goes through this," Marayati said, "for some it’s more of a story." Sayyed accused Marayati of being a Muslim extremist in Western clothes.

Sayyed’s story has prompted some Los Angeles Jewish donors to send some money his way. Their involvement comes at a time when Western observers, from the State Department to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, have come to realize that Islamic extremists — the popular term is Islamists — can only be defeated by Islamic moderates. Look to Iran, wrote Friedman in his Wednesday column, where the success of moderate Muslims in defeating Islamism could prevent a war between Islam and Western civilization.

Sayyed sees himself as a solider on the side of moderation, and his Jewish supporters agree. "We have to support the voices like his," one donor, who requested anonymity, told me.

Consequently, Muslims accuse Sayyed of selling out to the Jews. Sayyed laughed off the charges. "I said if I were open for sale, why wouldn’t I be for sale to the Saudis?" he said. "A friend came to me and said, ‘Who’s supporting you?’ I said, ‘Americans.’"

Dear Rabbi Wolpe


Dear Rabbi Wolpe,

I admit it.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I’m genuinely embarrassed at the moment.

Judging by the recent goings-on in the Jewish book publishing world, where certain Orthodox authors have been taken to task for their controversial writings and books have either been banned, forcibly censored or book tours were canceled, it would seem that we don’t have our act completely together.

And while there may be some in the Orthodox community who resent you for expressing your views, I thank you for pointing these things out, because it allows for more dialogue, and the lack of dialogue that has existed to date is something both of us lament.

You raised some valid and important issues in your recent article in The Jewish Journal ("Spiritual Agoraphobia," Nov. 15) about the insularity of the Orthodox community. And, you presented your arguments eloquently and respectfully. Again, I am grateful, because you could have been much more brutal.

You presented some philosophical difficulties with Orthodox Judaism’s shunning of the outside world. But I think you’ve missed the boat here. The Vilna Gaon, who embraced secular knowledge yet objected to Maimonides, did not object to secular pursuits as a supplement to and augmentation of one’s understanding of Torah; he objected to using secular wisdom as a means of supplanting and undermining Jewish theology. So a rejection of Reform theology is not de facto a rejection of all secular wisdom.

But there is a bigger picture: the reality about at least one of the current situations you addressed — Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Reinman’s recent cancellation of his book tour with Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch — is only tangentially related to Orthodoxy’s views on the secular world. Without even realizing it, you hit a nerve within the Orthodox community, which really has nothing to do with philosophy at all.

It’s got to do with leadership.

The cancellation of the book tour was due to a letter issued by the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah (Chief Rabbinical Council) of Agudath Israel criticizing the legitimacy that would be lent to Reform Judaism through the tour. Maybe you assumed that this was the first time that these rabbis had heard of the book and its objective of bringing together Orthodox and Reform rabbis to discuss their personal beliefs. But think about it: Does anyone really think that a rabbi studying in the haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. would dare agree to co-author such a controversial work without the consent and even encouragement of his rabbis?

So what really happened here? It would appear that somebody in the leadership goofed. Originally, a leading rabbi or rabbis within the haredi world thought that dialogue with Reform Jews was a good thing, that it would lead to closer ties to our fellow Jew, regardless of his or her theologies.

And, perhaps the thinking went, maybe we could even expose some Reform Jews to the beauty of Orthodox Judaism, so that either they could embrace some aspect of it or at least learn to be more tolerant of it. But then, either the same or different rabbis got cold feet and pulled the plug. We’ve got your classic flip-flop here, and the Orthodox community was left with egg on its face.

No, the Orthodox community is not monolithic. And even within the same community, there is not always consensus. So the recent vacillation is representative merely of a lack of decisive leadership for now. But it’s normal within any community for there to be times of stronger, coalition-based leadership and times of weaker, fractured leadership. This is part of the evolution of any society.

OK, so that’s the bad news. But here’s the good news. We’ve come a long way, baby. Before Hirsch and Reinman’s book, if someone would have suggested that a rabbi studying in Lakewood would even agree to dialogue with a Reform rabbi, much less write a book with him, he would have been laughed out of the room. The Orthodox world is starting to wake up to the fact that there is a larger Jewish world out there.

You need us, but we also need you. If we’re going to weather our future in Israel and in the Diaspora, we’ve got to do this together.

We’ve also started to realize that just because we say hello to a non-Orthodox Jew, it doesn’t mean we’re going to tear down our mechitzahs. Over the years, we’ve become more confident in who we are and our lasting power amidst a world of clashing and alluring cultures and beliefs that are pulling so many of us away from Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism has endured the test of time. If we can "make it" in Hollywood and still keep the faith, then we can also make it amidst our Reform brethren and not be frightened that we’ll be automatically won over to the "dark side."

So, while you were looking at the glass as half-empty, I think there’s a half-full perspective here. We’ve started to realize that dialogue is good, dialogue is healthy. Yes, this recent debacle over Reinman’s book indicates that we’re still ambivalent about the whole thing. But it’s far better than the emphatic refusals of the past.

I sincerely hope that recent events will not mean a setback for those of us on both sides who have already begun the healthy dialogue. Perhaps these recent events can even be a springboard within our local community to rekindle the flame of dialogue and cooperation between the different denominations and congregations.

Wouldn’t that be a great victory for all Jews?

Sincerely,

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Rosh Kehila
Kehillat Yavneh
Hancock Park

Boys Wonder


Joe [incredulous]: Jewish superheroes?

Sammy: What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick up a name like that for himself.

A day after Yom Kippur, Michael Chabon, with his telegenic looks – long dark locks, piercing clear eyes – does not stand out amidst the young and the beautiful circulating through Chateau Marmont. However, as a writer, the 37-year-old – best known for the 1995 novel “The Wonder Boys” – has stood out in the publishing world since graduating from college in the mid- 1980s.

Chabon’s latest, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (Random House), chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Clay and his Czechoslovakian refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier – cartoonists who create, then lose control of their biggest creation: the Escapist. Set in the World War II-era Golden Age of comic books – when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism – the story echoes the real-life tragedy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers who concocted Superman, only to naively forfeit the rights.

Five years in the making, Chabon’s novel not only encapsulates the author’s childhood-forged passion for superhero comics, but also his recent rediscovery of his own Jewish culture. The book’s strength lies in its rich universe of Jewish characters and metaphors, as the Golem of Prague, Harry Houdini and Europe at the dawn of World War II all figure prominently. And while some publishers might consider a saga containing the double whammy of overtly Jewish themes and comic books as an elixir for disaster, Chabon was surprised by how receptive his associates were to his concept.

“I was sort of talking initially to my agent about various book ideas,” Chabon told The Journal, “and it was the one she jumped on right away. My editor had the same reaction. She’s not Jewish, she never read a comic book in her life.”

Researching “Kavalier & Clay,” Chabon conducted firsthand interviews with legends of the field: Marvel Comics’ guru Stan Lee, “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner, Martin “Green Lantern” Nodell, and on and on. As Chabon learned, “Almost all of the major characters – with the possible exception of Wonder Woman – were created by Jews. I wondered, ‘What was that about?’ As soon as I started thinking about it and doing some reading into the history of comics, especially superhero comics, it’s immediately apparent.”

Indeed, the Golem of Prague looms large in Chabon’s book, as symbolic of the Jewish storytelling tradition; as precursor to the modern superhero idiom; as a reminder of Kavalier and Clay’s Ashkenazi roots. While Chabon originally included the Golem in a passing reference, his chat with Eisner, who referenced the legendary champion of the Jewish people, led Chabon to reevaluate the clay giant. Several drafts later, the Golem had insinuated itself into a greatly expanded role. Like the original Golem rising in a besieged medieval shtetl, Chabon said the character “popped into my life kind of right when I needed it.”

The link between the Golem and the American superhero is clear to Chabon, who cites the “messianic” component of early Superman editions, when the Man of Steel – with powers less godlike and more earthbound (Superman originally did not fly) – served as a champion of the oppressed.”It was not about fighting supervillains,” said Chabon, “but rescuing people from bosses that were exploiting them.”

One eye-catching item in “Kavalier & Clay” comes at the end of the lengthy acknowledgments, where Chabon dedicates not only this comics-themed work but every story he has ever written to Jack Kirby – co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and hundreds more. Chabon never did meet the prolific cartoonist, a tough Depression-era New Yorker born Jacob Kurtzberg who died in 1994.

“The greatest thing about Kirby that I ultimately find so inspiring,” said Chabon, “is the sheer fecundity of his imagination. The way he could just toss off, in a throw-away story, seven or eight different ideas that other writers would be happy to have an entire series built around. He was such an unstoppable force.”

For years, Chabon was somewhat disconnected from his own Jewish heritage.”As I had children, I found myself coming back to it and looking at it in a whole different light,” said Chabon, who lives in Berkeley.

With his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3, Chabon actively attends a Jewish Renewal congregation called Kehilla Community Synagogue and sits on the synagogue’s board.

“It is through Kehilla that I see myself, at least in the foreseeable future, defining my Jewish identity,” said Chabon.

Like many young men of his generation, Chabon’s entry into literature began with comic books, particularly the steady diet of Marvel titles he avidly consumed in the 1970s. By his own account, his childhood was “a standard suburban Jewish upbringing in Columbia, Maryland,” where his family occasionally attended synagogue. Chabon’s parents have Polish, Lithuanian and Russian roots. His father, a former pediatrician and lawyer, now works as an executive for Mutual of Omaha, his mother as an attorney. The family name is either Moldavian or Belarussian and means “shepherd.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon attended the University of California at Irvine, where his professor, MacDonald Harris, forwarded Chabon’s thesis to a literary agent. That project became Chabon’s well-received 1988 debut, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and that literary agent, Mary Evans, represents the writer to this day.

In the early 1990s, Chabon agonized over, then abandoned his original follow-up to “Mysteries” after amassing thousands of pages. His critically acclaimed sophomore novel, “Wonder Boys,” hit movie theaters earlier this year starring Michael Douglas and directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”). While the film version failed to find its audience, Paramount believes in it enough to rerelease the movie this month, in time for Oscar consideration. And producer Scott Rudin has tapped Chabon to adapt “Kavalier & Clay” as a motion picture.

“It’s going to be incumbent on me not to be too protective as a screenwriter,” said Chabon, who was pleased with Steven Kloves’s “Wonder Boys” screenplay.

By translating his book to celluloid, Chabon hopes to direct new interest to the long-maligned medium he cherishes.

“Comics had already existed for 40 or 50 years as this art form that nobody had paid attention to,” said Chabon. “There was never a critic who stood up and had the guts to say, ‘I read comics. I like comics.'”

Fortunately for comic book fans, one writer has.