Jews, Too, Should Beware the ‘Code’
by David Klinghoffer
The Catholic Church has good reason to take issue with Dan Brown’s megaselling “The Da Vinci Code” — and the film version of the book that opens this weekend. But should non-Christians be concerned? And should Jews, in particular, care when, in effect, another religion is maligned through a popular and persuasive work of fiction that pretends to be more than fiction?
The answer to both questions is yes.
In fact, Jews, in particular, need to be aware of the unwitting gift Brown has given to anti-Semites.
As most everyone knows by now, Brown uses the medium of a gripping suspense story, set in the present, to inform us that Jesus was not celibate but instead married Mary Magdalene, and that he has descendants living in Europe today. Furthermore, according to the film, the members of this surviving family of Jesus have been protected for centuries by an altruistic secret organization, the Priory of Sion, which is locked in combat with a sinister, violent Catholic group, Opus Dei, which seeks to keep the secret of Jesus’ fecundity from getting out. Behind Opus Dei stands the Catholic Church. For millennia, the church has perpetrated what the film calls “the biggest cover-up in human history.”
Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic lay order, asked Sony Pictures to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie admitting that the story is fictional — as of press time, the studio refused. Sony’s compliance or noncompliance hardly makes a difference, though, for much damage has already been done. Brown himself states at the outset of the novel that his tale is grounded in “fact”: “The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization” and so on.
Scholars have done a solid job of pointing out the fictions that interweave Brown’s “facts.” Notably, the Priory of Sion is real only in the sense that it really is the modern invention of Pierre Plantard, an eccentric and paranoid Frenchman. Plantard’s creation co-opts the name of an ancient order that disappeared into history, but the incarnation of his hoax dates to 1956 not 1099. The historic Priory of Sion was a medieval monastic order that ceased to exist by the 14th century and had nothing to do with legends about Jesus’ fathering children.
You may wonder if Brown’s readers find his tall tale convincing. The answer is, they do. A Barna Group poll found that 53 percent of the book’s readers said “The Da Vinci Code” aided their “personal spiritual growth and understanding.”
But why should a Jew care?
Consider that the alleged conspiracy underlying the “biggest cover-up in human history” bears a remarkable resemblance to another phony conspiracy, the one that underlies the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
In both conspiracy theories, an ancient world religion turns out to be a massive fraud perpetrated to gain or maintain power. In Brown’s version, the Priory of Sion (“Sion” means “Zion” in French) is the good guy. It’s been sitting on the secret about Jesus having children, waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth, meanwhile giving safe harbor to the children of those descendants.
The priory also practices a pagan goddess worship that, as we’re supposed to understand, is the true religion intended by Jesus and his spouse, Mary Magdalene. All the while, in the tale, the Catholic Church plots to hide the truth about the holy “goddess” and the “sacred feminine” forever. To ensure that the world’s people remain in the dark, the story says Opus Dei is willing to go to any lengths, including murder, all to keep the male-dominated church hierarchy in power.
In the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a text thought by many scholars to have been authored by Russian monarchist and anti-Semite Mathieu Golovinski in 1898 — a secret society of Jewish elders plot to rule the world through “Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheism.” Here the “Zion” (or “Sion”) team is the bad guy. Like the Catholic Church in Brown’s scenario, the elders of Zion are committed to keeping their diabolical plot absolutely secret.
Plantard (1920-2000), the French monarchist and anti-Semite who gave us the Priory of Sion hoax, spent much of his life inventing fantastical, esoteric organizations intended to “purify” France of the evil influences of modernity — and of Judaism. A group he started in 1937, Alpha Galates, which like all his efforts attracted few followers, supposedly devoted itself to fighting “the corrupt principles of the old democratic Judaeo-Freemasonry.” In 1940, he wrote of the “terrible Masonic and Jewish conspiracy” that threatened France.
The Priory of Sion existed almost exclusively on paper and in his imagination. The point of this occult order was to advance Plantard’s claim that he was the surviving heir of the ancient Merovingian line of French kings, whose “holy blood” was guarded by the priory. The idea that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was added later by others — not Brown.
In Plantard’s fantasy, this priory was not founded by him but by Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Godfrey is the same person who in reality presided over the massacre of the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1099.
Undoubtedly Plantard knew of the “Protocols.” How did it influence him?
That’s hard to know. But we can say with certainty that the same poisonous European air of delusional paranoia that fed the “Protocols” also fed Plantard’s fantasies about Jews and himself.
The fact that the two conspiracies highlight the word “Zion” or “Sion” would only be an interesting coincidence, except that both myths share an understanding of how to deal with ideas you disagree with. Rather than taking traditional Christian beliefs at face value and arguing against them, Brown portrays the religion as a belief system based on a lie told about history. The purported lie that Jesus had no wife allows the church’s elders, who are all men, to perpetuate male-domination of the Christian religion. This strategy excuses Brown from having to make any arguments for his book’s promotion of the “sacred feminine.”
Anti-Semites do much the same thing. The “Protocols” were composed initially as a response to Russian revolutionary socialism. In form, they are the supposed instructions to a new member of the Jewish conspiracy of the elders of Zion, outlining how the Jews will manipulate the media and financial institutions to establish control over ignorant gentiles. The elders’ tools include the modern secular, liberal ideologies, which will detach non-Jews from their old loyalties to traditional structures of the church and of the monarchy.
Rather than coming out honestly and openly against Darwinism or Marxism or modernity in general, the author of the “Protocols” concocted a story about Judaism as a conspiracy taking the form of a religion — a cover-up, a lie, designed to perpetuate the rule of the Jewish elders over the unlucky non-Jews. Judaism, in this view, may be a religion, but its primary importance is as a conspiracy. The “Protocols” remains a global phenomenon of staggering popularity and, to many readers, especially in the Arab world, it’s accepted as truth.
I don’t mean to imply that Brown ever intended to foment bigotry, nor that he is an anti-Semite, a bigot or anything remotely similar. There would be no warrant whatsoever for saying that.
But we live in a time when conspiracies based on flagrant hoaxes captivate millions. A healthier culture would demand serious proof for startling claims or simply put no stock in them when they appear in fictional entertainments. Today, Americans and others will accept dubious beliefs simply because they tickle their fancy, or because those beliefs appeal to an increasingly influential anti-religious impulse — about which Jews often seem strangely unconcerned.
Such a world stands in peril of succumbing to all manner of untruths, from the benign to the deadly. Like other intellectual and physical capacities, the ability to distinguish fact from fancy needs to be exercised to remain strong. Each time we fall prey to another hoax, our powers of discrimination are weakened.
If you don’t think America has fallen prey to the hoax of the Priory of Sion, then contemplate the Barna Group finding: More than half of Brown’s readers believe their “personal spiritual growth and understanding” was aided by knowing about, among other things, the wild conspiracy theory given as fact in Brown’s novel.
Brown has inadvertently encouraged in his readers the habits of paranoia and gullibility. For anti-Semites and other conspiracy theorists, the gullibility of Americans is welcome news. For people committed to finding the truth through investigation and argumentation, it’s worrisome.
For Jews, it’s even more troubling. Historically, we as a people haven’t fared well when the culture we live in turns to entertaining fantasies and delusions at the expense of unfashionable religions.
“The Da Vinci Code” phenomenon has more serious potential ramifications than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ever did — because it’s been a long time since the ancient slur that the Jews killed Jesus got any serious traction. On the other hand, the charge that Judaism is a conspiracy seeking power over gentiles is one that still claims numerous believers. Many Muslims find the idea entirely plausible — and not only Muslims, as anyone who listens to talk radio can tell you. “The Da Vinci Code,” in encouraging people to think of religions as conspiracies, is playing with dynamite in a way that Gibson wasn’t. Surely, this merits some attention from our official community. So far it has received none.
I hope that our discerning anti-defamation groups, committed to defending Jewish interests as well as to fighting the unfair maligning of other faiths, will take an interest in the way the Catholic Church is being defamed by Brown.
To recognize the peril in his storytelling would be in our own interest. It’s also the right thing to do.
David Klinghoffer (
|A Holy Mess for Church Leaders
by Gabriel Meyer
The May 19 release of the film version of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” published in 2003, promises, if anything, to intensify the controversy that has swirled around this dark thriller — and its breathless and profoundly misleading tour of medieval Christian esoterica — what New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who liked the book, calls “the motherlode of religious conspiracy theory.”
Not surprisingly, Catholic opposition to the “Code,” off to a fairly slow start, has become more vocal. The Vatican is the predictable bogeyman of Brown’s story, which features an upside down version of the canonical Christian Gospels, with Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and real leader of the church and subsequent co-divinity — a narrative, according to the “Code,” that the Catholic Church both knows to be true and ruthlessly suppresses.
For good measure, the international Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is brought on stage as the principal agent of the Vatican’s murderous cover-up — complete with an albino monk. (Shades of “Monk” Lewis and the 19th century Gothic novel!)
(A priest friend of mine recently got a taste of what may be in store for him, when, after responding long and thoughtfully to a young person’s question about Jesus’ celibacy, was told: “Well, you would say that, of course.”
One Vatican official, Msgr. Angelo Amato, has called Brown’s “slanders” — on par with insulting the prophet Mohammed or denying the Holocaust, and some church leaders have called for a boycott — no doubt, to the delight of the film’s producers.
Last year, Genoese Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s official doctrinal watchdog, called for a boycott of the book and this past March launched a series of public debates on Brown’s work in Italy in anticipation of the release of the film adaptation. You couldn’t pay for better publicity.
A number of Catholic publications and Web sites, such as the El Cajon, Calif.-based Catholic Answers, have posted fulsome point-by-point refutations of the “Code.” More seriously, Catholic scholars Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel — Miesel is an expert on medieval history — weighed in with a thorough debunking of Brown’s historical claims in “The Da Vinci Hoax” (Ignatius Press, 2004). And they’re hardly the only ones.
Amid this furor, casual readers — and now moviegoers — can be forgiven for asking: What’s all the fuss about? It’s a pulp thriller, for goodness sake, not a theological treatise: it’s an airport read with a plot twist at the end of every chapter, the sort of book you stick into your carry-on for the long flight to Cincinnati. It’s just entertainment. Nobody takes this stuff seriously, do they?
Well, yes they can and do. According to recent polls, more than one-third of Brown’s 18 million readers to date are persuaded that the book’s “motherlode of religious conspiracy theory” is literally true. That’s worth pondering — not only in terms of Brown’s book, but, more importantly, in terms of the larger questions it raises about our society and culture.
Part of the problem is inherent in the material — its goulash of “facts” and fiction, the interweaving of real people and institutions with fictional ones. Brown is often quoted as saying that his book is a work of fiction. Fine, but he also stresses how meticulously researched “The Da Vinci Code” is and how factual its historical assertions are.
Brown even appends a fact page to the front of the book, underscoring the purported reliability of the book’s claims, particularly about the so-called Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals. As one critic put it recently in a television interview: “Brown offers [his work] as fiction, but sells it as fact. You can’t have it both ways.”
In a revealing comment on his Web site, Brown isn’t as coy about the question of fact or fiction:
“The secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries. It is not my own. Admittedly, this may be the first time the secret has been unveiled within the format of a popular thriller, but the information is anything but new.” (Emphasis added.)
As Miesel has written: “By manipulating his audience through the conventions of romance writing, Brown invites his readers to identify with his smart, glamorous characters who’ve seen through the impostures of the clerics who hide the ‘truth’ about Jesus and his wife. Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle: ‘Every faith in the world is based on fabrication.'”
Just for the record, hardly any of the facts in “The Da Vinci Code” are accurate nor are they the result of original or even respectable research. Brown’s ideas are drawn not from primary source material, but from popular New Age excursions through the Grail legend and goddess worship and from popular books about early Christian gnosticism. When he has his characters confidently assert hitherto unknown facts about the origins of the biblical canon, for example — that the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea codified the Bible as we know it — this is, at best, willful ignorance.
One example of many: The Knights Templar were a real 12th century military-religious order, set up to accompany and protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. But the myth of the Templars as masters of occult wisdom is a creation of the late 18th century, where they loom large in Masonic lore and later in the speculations of the Nazis.
And so on.
There are larger problems here than sloppy research, however, and larger issues at stake.
With nearly 20 million in sales and editions in 44 languages, and with a film adaptation in release, there’s no doubt that “The Da Vinci Code” has struck a chord in the modern world, but we would do well to ask what the nature of that chord is.
As David Klinghoffer points out, the popularity of conspiracy theories, in whatever form, is always a matter of serious concern.
The infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” portions of which were first serialized in a Russian newspaper in 1903, may have been plagiarized, in part, from a mid-19th century French political satire that had Freemasons playing the “heavy.” In the hands of Russian anti-Semites, the work was recast to feature Jewish leaders and financiers as the “puppet-masters” of world events and has gone on to play a vicious role in 20th century European anti-Semitism. It currently unleashes its toxins in cheap editions that can be found on street corners throughout the Muslim world.
Conspiracy theories are perennially attractive because they not only provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena, but they usually do so in such a way that our prejudices remain blissfully unchallenged.
The story line remains the same — betrayal and deception for the sake of power, though the identity of the villain may change: now the Masons, now the Jews, or the Rothschilds, or the Vatican or whomever else we have been taught to hate or fear. And as the 20th century proved all too conclusively, what begins in triviality may end in murder.
Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and is the author of “War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans, 2005).
High Ideals and a Hot Bod
7 Days in The Arts
Saturday, May 13
The beat goes on today at the annual Santa Monica Festival. Head down to participate in a drum circle; hear multicultural music, including a concert by Bucovina Klezmer; and enter the Eco Zone. The city steps up its commitment to environmental responsibility this year, with totally solar powered stages and a host of activities centered on caring for the Earth, including an outdoor adventure challenge course for kids, and a mobile TidePool Cruiser.
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt =””>
Sunday, May 14
When a lovely young woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, it takes a minyan to cast out the demon. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” they only have nine, until they pull a troubled man off the street to help with the Jewish exorcism. But he’s got his own demons. The play opens this weekend at The Skylight Theatre.
8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.
Monday, May 15
Great American music takes center stage this evening, with a tribute to the works of celebrated lyricist Dorothy Fields. Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch and others perform “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a celebration of the life and lyrics of Fields, who wrote the titular hit, and numerous others including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m in the Mood For Love.” A post-performance cast party will follow. The event benefits L.A.’s Center Theatre Group’s discount ticket programs, and is hosted by Corina Villaraigosa.
8 p.m. $200 and $500. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3139.
Tuesday, May 16
S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.
5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>
Wednesday, May 17
Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”
Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>
Thursday, May 18
Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.
2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.
Friday, May 19
Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.
8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.
‘Pretty’ Prime Minister?
Search for Similarity in Aliyah Tales
“Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel” by Liel Leibovitz (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).
When the Pilgrims were making their way to the land that would become America, Liel Leibovitz’s German ancestors were moving to the Holy Land. A cultural writer for The Jewish Week, Leibovitz is a ninth-generation Israeli, now living in New York City. His own story of leaving Israel — for now — and his constant grappling with that question is the back story for his compelling and original book, “Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel,” in which he profiles three families who made aliyah at different points in Israel’s history: 1947, 1969 and 2001.
Since 1947, approximately 100,000 American Jews have made aliyah. Last year, 3,100 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel, an increase of 15 percent over 2004, and the highest number since 1983. In fact, aliyah numbers have been rising steadily over the last three years, with a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an improving economy.
Through detailed, intimate reporting about his subjects’ lives, Leibovitz describes their motivations, but comes to understand that stated reasons aren’t enough, that the “real answer simply isn’t available to the cognitive facilities. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one’s ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago.” As he explains, it’s a spirituality that has less to do with texts and ritual than with “the air and the hills and the sea.”
Leibovitz is not a character in this book; his politics are not expressed. But the book is the narrative he lives and thinks about daily, albeit with a twist, as he says in an interview. Rather than asking about why he decided to leave Israel and live here, he ponders, after living in America and coming to know the American Jewish community, “why people who seemingly have it all would leave a comfortable place for a place that’s still unsafe.”
Now 29, he traces the intellectual journey that led to this book back to his childhood in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. His fascination with things American began when he was about 9 years old and visited relatives here; he was awestruck by the variety of food, television shows and movies. He remembers his absolute shock when he learned that these same relatives were making aliyah, giving up America.
After serving in the army and attending Tel Aviv University’s film school, he moved to New York, first working in a hardware store and then as a senior press officer for the Israeli Consulate. He later enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“As much as I wanted to pretend that I was cosmopolitan at heart, once I came to live here, I realized just how Israeli I am at my core — it’s more biological than ideological,” he said. “I thought furiously about what my move meant, as opposed to the move of my cousins.”
At Columbia, when he began thinking about a book topic, he had no doubt about its theme. He spent two years researching, making 11 trips to Israel. To find the three families, he interviewed 180 people.
Stylistically, “Aliya” is in the tradition of serious nonfiction books by journalists that look at the events in ordinary people’s lives as a way of illuminating the historical landscape. Perhaps the first and best-known contemporary book in this genre is J. Anthony Lucas’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Common Ground,” which told the story of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools, through the stories of three families.
Leibovitz is a fine storyteller, and he succeeds in capturing the character and mindset of his characters. His three families represent the three main waves of immigration: the first, between 1947 and 1952, including people who had experienced World War II in some way; the second and strongest wave, between 1967 and 1972, inspired by the Six-Day War and the American sociopolitical culture of the late 1960s; and the third wave, from 1980 to the present, when the largest group of immigrants were Orthodox families.
Betty and Marlin Levin, an energetic couple now in their 80s, moved to Israel in 1947; their voyage by ship was their honeymoon. In New York, Betty worked as Hebrew teacher and Marlin, who fought in World War II, was a journalist and photographer. They were both passionately moved by the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and Marlin, after fighting the Germans, questioned how he could sit back while his own people were on trial. After arriving in Jerusalem and finding things not quite as they had pictured, the Levins were still determined to love their new city — “where strangers were virtually nonexistent” — and did. Marlin immediately found work with The Jerusalem Post and on his first day on the job, witnessed an explosion in the street. He continued to cover the city’s struggles as the nation was founded and war broke out.
Mike Ginsberg first moved with his mother and brothers to Israel before the 1967 war and they returned to the United States; he moved back in 1969, inspired by the Six-Day War. He fought in the Yom Kippur War and settled on a kibbutz in the north, where he has helped repel terrorist attacks. Over the years, he has spoken to many groups of American tourists and now is always moved when some young American-born Israeli soldier says that hearing Mike inspired him to make aliyah. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for every Jew to move to Israel. “The most important thing, he tells anyone who will listen, is to make the Jews united, in the United States and all over the world, to make them united in their support of each other and in their love for Israel. That, he says, is what he lives for.”
Sharon and Danny Kalker, the parents of four children, are the most recent arrivals — they moved to Israel from Queens in 2001, settling in Hashmonaim, a community just outside the Green Line. Making aliyah was something they considered for many years, and they were inspired by their oldest daughter’s decision to stay following a post-high school year there. Their religious and working lives are quite different than they expected and eventually very satisfying, although in the course of getting adjusted to their new lives, their marriage breaks up. Leibovitz explains that he gave them the option of not appearing in the book once they decided to divorce, but they chose to have their story told.
What the three families — who never met one another — share is a passionate commitment to Zionism and, on a certain level, to Judaism, Leibovitz explains. He also points out the tremendous hardships all have accepted: All of them, in different ways, have dodged their share of bullets. But for the most part, these are not people who questioned their decisions to move.
At home on the Upper West Side, Leibovitz and his wife, an American who has lived in Israel, speak a private blend of Hebrew and English, and move among several communities. He has come to believe, like Mike Ginsburg, “that it doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what’s in your heart.”
‘Pretty’ Prime Minister?
Three Madelehs of the Written Word
Jewish women have prominent roles in several new novels this season, penned by young Jewish writers with impressive track records — Ayelet Waldman, Allegra Goodman and Lara Vapnyar. The three have written urban stories, focused on relationships, and the books are closely observed slices of life.
The Jewish background and sensibility of these writers comes across on the page, although with varying degrees of transparency. Both Waldman and Vapnyar were born abroad: Vapnyar grew up in the former Soviet Union and came here as a young woman, while Waldman was born in Israel, came here as a child and grew up in New Jersey, although she lived in Israel again in high school and college and returns there often. Goodman may be the only well-known Jewish writer to hail from Hawaii.
“Love and Other Possible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday), who will be appearing at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend, is a novel of marriage and motherhood that is also a love story and a New York story. Emilia Greenleaf, the narrator, is a Harvard Law School graduate who meets her soul mate, Jack, at her first job. He is a Syrian Jew, a partner in the firm and he’s married with a young son. He leaves his wife for Emilia, and they live in elegant comfort, but all is not happily-ever-after.
They lose a newborn daughter — the reader learns this early on, as the novel skips back and forth in time — and Emilia struggles with her new stepson, William, a precocious preschooler. She finds the boy to be insufferable, even as she tells herself that as an adult she should be able to love this innocent 5-year-old who corrects her pronunciation and rebuffs with a smirk her attempts to please him. Emilia also has to deal with the child’s overprotective mother and the mother’s friends who watch her every step, even as she picks him up from his high-achievers’ nursery school. But in small ways, Emilia and William find their way toward bonding.
The novel is funny and a quick read, and although it might look like chick-lit, Waldman goes deeper, conveying emotional complexity. Even though Emilia has the profile of the kind of woman others sometimes can’t abide, she is likeable in her imperfections and growing self-awareness.
The author, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, keenly portrays the life of well-to-do professionals who strive for the best for their children, unable to see the downside of their single-minded pursuits.
A resident of Berkeley, where she lives with her husband Michael Chabon and their four children, she captures New York in its splendid beauty, particularly the charms of Central Park in all seasons. Waldman, author of “Daughter’s Keeper” and the Mommy Track mystery series, takes on in this novel many of the themes of romance, relationships and parenting that she writes about in her essays on Salon.com and in The New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
For years, Allegra Goodman was the poster child for the youngest generation of Jewish writers. She published her first story in Commentary during her freshman year at Harvard and her first book of stories on the day she graduated in 1989, and she has had a string of successes since then. She’s been applauded for her luminous style and originality, her humor, and her embrace of Judaism in her fiction. Now 38, she’s no longer the child at the literary table and has just published her most ambitious book to date, “Intuition” (The Dial Press).
Named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, Goodman is the author of two collections of stories and two novels, “Paradise Park” and “Kaaterskill Falls,” a National Book Award finalist. She has also won a Whiting Writers Award, National Jewish Book Award and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.
Goodman was born in Brooklyn, lived briefly in Los Angeles as a toddler and grew up in Hawaii, where she sets many stories and her novel “Paradise Park.” Her parents, who taught at the University of Hawaii, lived there for 25 years and, although the Jewish community was limited, they consciously chose a Jewish lifestyle — they attended synagogue and imported kosher meat from California. As a child, Goodman often would visit Los Angeles, where her father grew up and her grandfather still lives. “Intuition” is, in fact, dedicated to her grandparents, Calvin and Florence Goodman (her grandmother died recently).
While her previous novels involved Jewish communities, “Intuition” is about a professional community, although several characters are Jewish. Compellingly told from several points of view, the novel is set at a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Mass., where a team of scientists does sophisticated cancer investigations. Goodman shows readers the inside workings of a lab, from how projects are assigned to how mice are sac’ed — or sacrificed — to how scientists compete for funds. The cast of the novel is something of an ensemble, functioning in certain ways as a family, with relationships based on power, love, ambition and shared interests.
The novel has elements of mystery, as one postdoc raises questions about whether a colleague, her former boyfriend, may be falsifying his data. She acts based on intuition, which, in the lab, as Goodman writes, “was a restricted substance. Like imagination and emotion, intuition misled researchers, leading to willful interpretations.”
In a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Goodman explains that although the subject of this novel may be different, she remains interested in themes of “ritual, hierarchy, closed communities, questions of doubt and belief, who you believe in, what you put your faith in.”
This book is less comic than her others, but the distinctive Goodman voice — attentive to all details, wise, inventive, strong on characters’ inner and outer lives — is recognizable.
“I’ve been surrounded by scientists all my life,” she says, referring to her mother, sister, brother-in-law and husband.
She also spent time observing in an actual lab to understand its rhythms and mindset. As a writer who works in solitude, she is envious of the close collaborative nature of scientific work and sought to explore that. As a writer, she seeks truth, as scientists do — but she recognizes that she gets to make things up.
Goodman never shies away from writing about religious themes or religious people and sees this as “a very Jewish book. My subject in all my books is the American Jewish community, which is huge.”
In the book, both lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are Jewish. While Glass (who shortened his name from Glazeroff “not just to forget that his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but for aesthetic reasons. He could not countenance living and working in such a Russian bear-coat of a last name, and so he’d distilled Glazeroff to its purer form”) is intermarried and assimilated, Mendelssohn is neither, but Glass tries to use his Judaism when questions are raised about lab results. For several characters, their religion is science.
In conversation, Goodman, the mother of four children who range in age from 3 to 13, is upbeat — with a personality that matches her writing. She seems easygoing, likes to laugh and is drawn to the philosophical side of things. She has a doctorate in English and as a reader, she favors writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Among the contemporary writers she cites are Marilynne Robinson and Kazuro Ishiguro.
She’s not a confessional sort of writer; her novels aren’t memoiristic: She’s more interested in writing about other people. About her own writing, she thinks she’s getting better, having matured as a craftsman: “I’ve grown more patient, more willing to spend time to get things right. That comes with age.”
Lara Vapnyar, a Russian American Jewish writer, is at the forefront of a new generation of immigrant Jewish writers. Like Goodman, she has published stories in The New Yorker. Her first book, “There Are Jews in My House” a collection of short stores set in the former Soviet Union and in New York, won awards and much praise.
In her first novel, “Memoirs of a Muse” (Pantheon), Vapnyar again turns to the world of immigrants. With the understated humor characteristic of her stories, she portrays a young immigrant woman named Tanya who as a child in the Soviet Union developed an obsession with Dostoevsky and the woman who was his muse. In New York, she is determined to become the muse of a great American writer. When she meets a novelist at an Upper West Side reading, she becomes his live-in girlfriend, earnestly trying to help him. But she finds that while he goes to book parties and the gym and visits his analyst, he does little writing. As she learns English, she comes to understand all sides of her new world, and she learns about genuine artistic inspiration.
Published in 2003, “There Are Jews in My House,” received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. The novel, like her stories, touches on issues of alienation, identity, contrasts between East and West.
From her well-tuned prose, it’s hard to believe that English is not her first language. Vapnyar went through the Moscow school system and earned a master’s degree in Russian language and literature before moving to New York, where she largely taught herself English through reading.
Ayelet Waldman will be a panelist on the “Fiction: Reinventing the Family” event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 29.
7 Days in The Arts
Life More Ordinary
I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.
“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”
She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.
“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.
Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”
In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.
But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.
The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.
This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.
Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”
How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.
Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Food for Thought