Writing a New Chapter
The People of the Book is the
Los Angeles area’s first attempt at a Jewish book festival
By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer
For years, Rabbi Harold Schulweis was perplexed by the question,Why isn’t there a Jewish book festival in Los Angeles?
To promote his own books, the Valley Beth Shalom rabbi made therounds of Jewish fairs in smaller cities, from San Diego toRochester, N.Y. He saw Art Buchwald in St. Louis, Philip Roth andSaul Bellow in Detroit.
But now Schulweis can look forward to sharing his works in his ownback yard, as People of the Book: The Five Valley Jewish BookFestival comes to the San Fernando, and surrounding valleys. Thefestival, which runs from Dec. 4 to 14, is spearheaded by the WestValley Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation/Valley Allianceand Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Adult and Children’sServices, and sponsored by a wide variety of synagogues andorganizations.
There will be more than 40 speakers in some 25 events, from TempleBeth Haverim in Agoura Hills to Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. RabbiBob Alper, author of the comedy tape “Bob Alper: Rabbi/Stand Up Comic(Really),” will tout himself as the only rabbi who is also a comedianon purpose. Dr. Michael Bar-Zohar will discuss his latest book,”Bitter Scent,” the account of French Nazi infiltration into L’Oreal.
For Nick Del Calzo, of “The Triumphant Spirit,” the topic will beHolocaust survivors who forged new lives with new families afterWorld War II. Chef Ethel Hofman, a colleague of Julia Child’s, willshare “Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home,” which, in her case, isnot so everyday. Hofman, who can make anyone a balabusta, grew up inthe only Jewish household in the remote Shetland Islands of Scotland.
The hub of the festival is the Bernard Milken Jewish CommunityCampus in West Hills, where a boardroom will be transformed into abookstore filled with about 1,000 Jewish titles. On Dec. 14, theground floor will house CyberFest, featuring a wide range of computerhardware and software and Judaic Internet web sites. On display inthe upstairs Finegood Gallery will be “Women of the Book,” anexhibition of 86 artists who have created highly personal, oftentactile artist books, utilizing paper, glass, even handkerchiefs.Nearby, My Jewish Discovery Place will host a traveling exhibit wherechildren can explore different alphabets and learn about the work ofa scribe.
Festival coordinator Seville Porush of the WVJCC, a former teacherin secular and Jewish day schools, “knows how to cut throughbureaucratic red tape,” one observer says.
For years, no-nonsense, down-to-earth Porush had agreed withSchulweis that Los Angeles “had the population to pull off a bookfair.” Perhaps it was longer in coming because Los Angeles is a filmtown, a city without the cultural roots of the East, she says.
But today, with the founding of the Skirball Cultural Center andseveral Jewish theaters, Jewish Los Angeles seems to have come of ageculturally. As for taking a chance on a book fair, Porush cites theline from the quirky film “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, theywill come.”
Actually pulling off the fair, however, was hardly easy; Porushworked late hours for months, trying to whip up the event fromscratch. Along the way, she had the help of Festival Chair ElanaZimmerman; Program Chair David Epstein, himself a Jewish publisher;six librarians; and a some-25-person steering committee. Together,they polled existing Jewish book festival directors, attended the LosAngeles Times Festival of Books — and decided what they did not wantin a fair.
“Many seemed to emphasize selling books, while we wanted toemphasize transmitting Jewish culture,” Porush says.
“We wanted to highlight local authors because this is a communityevent,” Epstein says.
Thus, the decision was made “not to include anything any groupwould find unpalatable,” Porush says; the organizers therefore passedon one book that is harshly critical of the Orthodox community.
Money also played a role in shaping the content of the festival.Despite securing more than $60,000 from sources such as the JewishFederation/Valley Alliance, the Jewish Community Foundation and theJewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles Charles Mesnick Fund,the budget wasn’t fat enough to pay the five-figures commanded bycelebrity authors. And, alas, organizers discovered too late thatthey had scheduled the fair after November, which is Jewish bookmonth and the time Jewish publishers send their authors on publicitytours.
Nevertheless, with several dozen enthusiastic volunteers, Porushlearned how to “get the biggest bang for the buck.” She studied listsof all the Jewish publishing houses, subscribed to Publisher’s Weeklyand put out feelers at a major bookseller’s convention in Chicago.
From other festival directors, she learned what works, whatdoesn’t, and she finally succeeded with a lot of help from herfriends and neighbors.
CompUSA, which has new offices in Woodland Hills, organized theCyberFest, while Barnes & Noble Booksellers secured books for thefair. Synagogues that already had scheduled book-related events cameforward to become part of the festival. (Temple Aliyah in WoodlandHills, for example, had previously slated Rabbi Lawrence Kushner fora scholar-in-residence weekend.) Temples throughout the area offeredthe use of their auditoriums and classrooms.
Ask why there aren’t any events in the city, and Porush says, “Iwork in the Valley, I live in the Valley, and we at the WVJCC workside by side with the Valley Alliance.” Ask whether city folk willdrive over the hill to attend the festival, and, again, Porush isdirect: The committee worked hard to schedule speakers who willappeal to a broad spectrum of Angelenos, from teens to singles toseniors.
Schulweis will appear with Rabbis Daniel Gordis, David Wolpe andIsaiah Zeldin to discuss Jewish identity in the 21st century. Therewill be a Jewish spirituality program, a poetry reading, a children’sbreakfast and a seminar on Jews of the West. In “Jews Don’t DoSports?” Joseph Siegman, author of “Jewish Sports Legends,” willdebunk the myth.
Porush, meanwhile, admits that she is anxious about the festivalturnout. So far, several hundred people have signed up for tickets,but she’s hoping to attract 20,000 to the bookstore and combinedevents.
“The first time around, you’re always nervous,” she says. “But Ihave a good feeling because I keep hearing good feedback from peoplewho don’t owe me anything. My hope is that we’ll draw a reasonablerepresentation of the community to every event. If this year is asuccess, we will have a good track record for the next time.”
For tickets, information, or to volunteer at the festival (theyreally need volunteers), call (818) 587-3619.
When They Were Kings
By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor
“When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport” (Praeger Publishers,$24.95) by Allen Bodner; foreward by Budd Schulberg
During the first half of this century, Jews were the dominantethnic group in professional boxing, earning 26 world championshiptitles between 1910 and 1940. Fight cards were filled with such namesas Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Lew Tendler, Bernie Friedkin, HerbieKronowitz and Artie Levine — who flattened the great Sugar RayRobinson in a 1946 Cleveland bout with what Robinson later recalledas “the hardest punch I was ever hit [with].”
Allen Bodner, the author of the brightly written, fascinating”When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport,” knows that today’s readers mightfind it hard to imagine a time when Jews wore Everlast to work. (Infact, Bodner reveals, Everlast, as well as Ring magazine andStillman’s Gym, was founded by Jews).
But, as Bodner explains and Budd Schulberg underscores in hiselegant foreward, the sport has always been a first rung in animmigrant or minority group’s ladder out of poverty. Jews replacedthe Irish and Italians in the ring, and later gave way to blacks andLatinos.
Bodner, whose father was a fighter and then a fight manager,delves into the lives of the Jewish boxers. He follows their careersfrom their childhoods in traditional homes in crowded slums –hotbeds of Jewish crime and gangs — to endless rounds of $5 amateurfights. The good ones moved up — none but Charlie Gellman everstopped for college — until they hit the big time, the $50,000matches at the Garden.
While these athletes became a source of real pride for generationsof less muscly Jewish boys, the parents often reacted with uttershame. “A charpeh un a shandeh!” the great Benny Leonard’s motherexclaimed when informed her son was a prizefighter.
Then Leonard, who changed his name from Leiner to avoidembarrassing his family, came home one day with $35 in prize money.
“Vos is dos?” his father asked angrily.
“That’s what I got for the fight,” Benny said.
“For one fight? For one night?” his father asked. “When are yougoing to fight again?”
Their stories do not end in the ring, and Bodner — in what aresome of the book’s most poignant passages — traces the full arc ofthese men’s lives. Some prospered; most didn’t. They formed a supportgroup, Ring 8, to help retired boxers keep in touch with formerfriends, foes and the glorious, long-gone past.
The Joy of Schmoozing
By Sandee Brawarsky
“Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews”(Perigee, $13) by Joshua Halberstam
In “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten explains that schmoozederives from the Hebrew “shmuos” — things heard. Both verb and noun,the word, which Rosten describes as “heart-to-heart chitchat,” hasentered American lingo; it even appears in The New York Times.
Philosopher and author Joshua Halberstam is a world-classschmoozer. With a fine-tuned ability to listen (and eavesdrop), heseems to have an open heart and mind. An interview with him about hislatest book, “Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews”(Perigee, $13), easily becomes a long and engaging conversation aboutmany subjects.
Another key to great schmoozing is access, and Halberstam, avisiting scholar in philosophy at NYU who also coordinates the policyforum at Teacher’s College, has that too. The son of a distinguishedChassidic family related to the Belz, Dinov and Sanz dynasties,Halberstam grew up in Boro Park. His paternal grandfather was thefirst Chassidic rebbe in Boro Park; his maternal grandmother, now102, counsels rebbes and has seen her grandchildren havegrandchildren. Halberstam did his rabbinical studies at Kollel ChaimBerlin and received a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU.
Now 50, Halberstam left the Chassidic community in the 1960s,although, as he explains, “Boro Park is still home.” But it’s nolonger his intellectual home, and he lives on Manhattan’s Upper WestSide. He favors blue jeans over all-black. He attends synagogueregularly, but does not classify himself by any denomination.
In researching the book, Halberstam spoke with Jews from aroundthe country, in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, from the ferventlyOrthodox to atheists; he found that they share more common groundthan they realize. “Jews talk a lot,” he says, so it wasn’t difficultto get them to schmooze. His conversation partners are “those whojoin in because it matters. The conversation is not trivial — itdefines, in a fundamental way, who we are.”
This is the talk behind closed doors — conversations about money,intelligence, sex, male-female relations, self-image, non-Jews andmore. Halberstam reports that the conversations would have been verydifferent if they were on camera. “There’s polite conversation on theOp-Ed pages of newspapers, but that doesn’t reflect what I’ve beenhearing in the back tables of shuls, at dinners.” He notes that evensecular Jews have “lingering Jewish notions,” which color theirperceptions.
In private, Halberstam says, Jews count Jewish names among theNobel prize winners and members of the Forbes 400 and name Jewishactors, and even those against intermarriage express some smugsatisfaction when someone such as Jacqueline Kennedy is involved witha Jew. About ecumenicism, Jews might publicly engage in interfaithdialogues but privately express little interest in learning about thetheology of non-Jews — “they just don’t want to get beaten up.”
In “Jews Talk About Money,” Halberstam quotes several Jews whodisagree about Jews’ relationship with money and the public displayof wealth. For some, there are still potential pogroms around thecorner, others believe that habits of consumption are causing Jews tolose their soul, and one man expresses frustration at “this exercisein Jewish self-flagellation”: “When Jews don’t make money, theycomplain. When Jews do make money, they complain. Enough already withthis gelt guilt.” The author puts the discussion in a historicalcontext, pointing out that Judaism never considered poverty a virtue.
Talking about Jewish traitors — “the enemies within” — is a wayto get to the community’s core beliefs, Halberstam explains. AmongJews across the spectrum, he finds agreement that the mosttreacherous groups are Jews for Jesus, Holocaust deniers and thoseJews who seek the destruction of Israel. Halberstam’s conversationsconfirm that American Jews are complicated — and interesting.
What else do Jews need to be talking about? Halberstam suggestsquestions of Jewish leadership (“We have Jewish leaders with nofollowers — we don’t know if that’s a sign of health or a problem”);the divisions between everyday and spiritual lives; whether and howmuch to enrich Jewish culture with the surrounding world. Moreover,”American Jews need to ask themselves which values have sustainedthem in the past and which values they want to sustain in the centuryahead.”
He’s wary of anyone making predictions about the future of theAmerican Jewish community, and he believes that looking at numbersdoesn’t tell the whole story. “The doom scenarios are destructive,”he says. “The Jews have a history of burying their undertakers.”
He admits that the conversation would be enriched if more Jewsknew about Judaism, noting, paradoxically, that this is a time whenthere’s more Jewish learning than ever — more Jews are familiar withthe Talmud — and also more Jewish ignorance, with few able to speaka Jewish language. He also urges people to “stop screaming” and togive each other space. “It’s not easy to figure out how to be Jewishin America and to be honest about it,” he says.
Recalling an important lesson he learned from one of his NYUprofessors, he says that when asked what the best conversation he hadever had was, he described — “being a good yeshiva boy” –adversarial arguments. His teacher countered that the best were whenthe parties agreed, not disagreed, and worked on an answer together.”I’m finally beginning to realize that he’s right.” Jews will havethe best conversations, he says, “when we realize we’re talkingbecause we’re on the same side.”
The author of “Everyday Ethics” and a forthcoming book on themeaning of work in Americans’ lives, Halberstam aims to bringphilosophical issues to a broad audience. His writing style has abreeziness and sense of humor, layered with serious ideas.”Schmoozing” makes for great reading.
Sandee Brawarsky is a book critic who lives in New York.
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One Man’s Obsession
By Rabbi Jack Riemer
“An Obsession With Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and theDiary” (University of California Press, $l5.95) by LawrenceGraver
It is too bad that Meyer Levin is not remembered for “The OldBunch,” which was a major novel about growing up in Chicago duringthe Depression. And it is too bad that he is not remembered for “TheGolden Mountain,” which was one of the first books to introduceChassidism to America, or for “Yehuda,” which was the first novelabout kibbutz life to come to this country.
And, surely, he deserves to be appreciated for “The Illegals” andfor “My Father’s House,” the two films that brought the reality ofthe journey of the Jews of Europe to the closed gates of Palestineafter the war to the attention of so many.
These books and films and his other novels have long since beenremaindered or gone out of print or been relegated to the bins ofhistory.
And what Levin is most remembered for now is the 30-year war thathe fought against Lillian Hellman, Kermit Bloomgarten and,eventually, Otto Frank himself for the rights to produce his ownversion of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
But if this is to be his lot, then he is at least fortunate inhaving a diligent historian to record the battle.
Lawrence Graver has gone through the papers of Meyer Levin,Tereska Torres Levin, the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Whartonand Garrison, and the others who were involved in this long,drawn-out battle, and has written a book that is sympathetic,although not uncritical.
The story is of interest not just because of Meyer Levin and notjust because of Anne Frank but for what it can tell us about life inthis country during the 1950s and what it can tell us about theconflict between Judaism and assimilation, universalism andparticularism, commercial interests and morality, on Broadway, in themedia, in the legal profession and in Jewish life of that time.
Levin deserves undeniable credit for being one of the first tonotice the power and the value of Anne Frank’s diary.
When he first entered the concentration camps, shortly after thewar, he was overwhelmed by the horror of what he saw there, and hewrote that no outsider, no one who had not lived through what thesepeople did, could possibly tell the tale, but that he hoped thatsomeday “a teller would arise from among themselves” who could dojustice to the topic.
When his wife gave him a gift of the French copy of the diary, hefelt that that teller had arisen, and he immediately set out to dowhat he could to bring the book to the attention of the world.
He wrote to Otto Frank and offered his services in finding anAmerican publisher, and he pointed out that the book might even havethe potential to be a movie or a play someday.
From that point on, the facts are debatable. Levin claimed thatFrank had given him legal rights — to be his agent, to take the bookto publishers and to producers, and to do a dramatic version of it.
Frank claimed that there was no such legal contract, that Levinwas only a volunteer who promised to help, and that he alone had thelegal right to make contracts for the book or for the play.
Frank, on the advice of Lillian Hellman and others, ended uprejecting the version of the diary that Levin wrote.
They said that it was because his version was not suitable; Levinsaid that it was because his version was too Jewish, and that, asassimilated Jews themselves, they were eager to de-Judaize the storyin order to make it more of a commercial success.
And so began years of fighting, in court and out, with Levintrying to win, in letters to the editor and in passionate editorials,what he was unable to win in court.
He made a binding agreement that his version of the play would notbe staged and then reneged on it and had it put on in Israel. He alsotried to organize a petition campaign to have it put on in America.It became, as he himself admitted, the great obsession of his life.
He saw those on the other side as persecutors, not only of him butof all that he believed in and stood for and represented — Jewishself-respect, Jewish continuity, the authenticity of Anna Frank’sbook, and more.
He was laughed at by the Broadway elite and not supported by mostof the Jewish establishment.
And he ended his days, feeling betrayed, his one great opportunityfor lasting fame stolen from him, and Anne Frank’s opportunity forJewish witness stolen from her.
When we look back on the dispute from the perspective of our owntime, we must feel a measure of sympathy for Levin, for one man’sobsession is another man’s cause.
In retrospect, I think it is now clear that he was a more faithfulguardian of this girl’s legacy than were those who staged her diary.
Word has it that we are about to have a new version appear onBroadway — this time a musical!
Her name is the best known of all the children who perished in theHolocaust, but the play that purports to tell her tale is — to saythe least — not the whole story.
The darker side of her situation is downplayed; her innocence andnaiveté are highlighted while her ambivalence toward hermother and her sexual awakening are minimized. And, above all, herfaith in human goodness is stressed, and her Jewishness, even withthe famous Chanukah scene, is not taken seriously. Levin was notwrong in his fundamental assertion, and the Jews of the l950s whowere too timid or too ambivalent to back him in his protest were.
For this reason alone, this book is well worth reading.
Rabbi Jack Riemer of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Boca Raton,Fla., is the editor of “Wrestling with the Angels” and co-editor of”So That Your Values Love On.”
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