How the West Was Frum
Can you imagine an Orthodox bar mitzvah celebrated in the Arizona desert soon after the Civil War — with a guest list that includes Apache warriors, gun-slinging outlaws and a minyan imported from Tombstone?
Robert Avrech did.
Avrech, 57, a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote his latest novel, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” in memory of his son, Ariel, a 22-year-old rabbinical student who died of cancer a few years ago.
The book is the first of a planned series to be published by Seraphic Press, a new venture Avrech started with his wife, Karen.
The Avrechs’ goal is to publish high-quality literature that will appeal both to Orthodox families and to the general reading public, Robert Avrech said.
Ariel Avrech loved to read, his father said. “Pride and Prejudice” was among his favorite works of literature, and he devoured American classics as well.
When Ariel became too sick to continue his rabbinical studies and was confined to the hospital, his father pulled out some old notes and began to write “The Hebrew Kid.”
Robert Avrech solicited his son’s help, especially with the halachic questions that the plot posed. After all, it’s not easy to figure out what a rabbi should do when ordered at gunpoint to perform a wedding for a non-Jewish couple, or recite prayers for a troop of soldiers policing Indian territory.
“I wrote it to keep him amused and keep him happy,” said Avrech, who wrote the script for the film, “A Stranger Among Us,” and the television film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” based on the widely read Holocaust novel for young adults written by Jane Yolen.
Avrech said he wants to shake up the world of Jewish literature by combining high-quality writing with themes and content that appeal to observant Jewish readers of all ages. He said he plans to write a sequel to “The Hebrew Kid,” start a series of Jewish graphic novels, publish Orthodox chick lit, and begin “Thrilling Jewish Tales,” a literary magazine.
“We want to revive the old genres, like horror stories, and put in Jewish content,” he said.
Avrech is not interested in writing in the style of the older generation of American Jewish writers, and doesn’t like literary giants such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
“I find them unbearable,” Avrech said. “There’s nothing interesting for me. It’s all the same, how to kvetch and lose our Judaism.”
He is equally unimpressed with the lackluster material written for religious audiences.
“I think that a lot of books written now are not as good as they can be,” he said.
“A new Jewish press is welcome,” said Linda Silver, president of the Ratner Media and Technology Center at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. “There aren’t that many, and there’s room for more.”
Silver, who reviews children’s books for Jewish Book World and is a longtime leader in the Association of Jewish Libraries, said that “The Hebrew Kid” is on her to-be-read shelf.
The story chronicles the adventures of a pious Jewish family who survived a Cossack pogrom and escaped to America. The father, a rabbi, is an idealist who searches for the 36 righteous people for whose sake the world exists. The mother drives mule cart and cooks a mean chicken soup. The 17-year-old daughter craves an American life, and the 12-year-old son meets the Apache princess Lozen.
“It’s hard for Orthodox boys to put themselves in certain imaginative places,” Avrech said. “It’s hard to be an Orthodox secret agent, putting yourself in another time and place. This book allows their imaginations to fly.”
It’s not only the plot and characters that are unorthodox in their orthodoxy. Seraphic Press is not just a publishing company but a blog, as well, where Avrech has been writing about his son, his son’s death and his own life. He also has made the book available on the Web site, where it can be downloaded in a 234-page PDF file. The file contains the entire book, complete with copyright page and a line drawing at the beginning of each chapter.
Avrech writes that he’s confident that many readers who download the book will want to buy it.
He might be right.
Seraphic Press’ NewYork-based distributor, Marvin Sekler of Jonathan David Books, said that in less than a month, some bookstores already have reordered “The Hebrew Kid” more than once. It’s also available at major book retailers such as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Positive feedback is arriving from unexpected directions, Avrech said.
“The most e-mail I get is from religious Christians, fascinated by the material,” he said.