Intro to Israel considers what ‘Matters’

Much heated conversation is conducted in these pages and elsewhere in the media about Israel. We debate every aspect of Israel’s present and future — the ups and downs of its political leadership, the role of religion in the Jewish state, the path to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, the security risks that threaten its very existence, and much else besides.

The conversation assumes that we already possess a depth of knowledge about Israel. But we need to pause here and ask: What do young people, Jewish or not, actually know about Israel? After all, anyone under the age of 40 will have no personal recollections about the founding of the state, the wars that have shaped the status quo of the Middle East, or the men and women who played such a crucial role in these events.

That’s the problem to be solved in “Israel Matters: Understand the Past, Look to the Future” by Mitchell Bard (Behrman House: $22.50), a short and friendly introduction to the history, culture and politics of Israel that is clearly directed to younger readers but has something important to offer everyone.

Historian and political scientist Bard is executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the author of numerous books about Jewish history, including “The Arab Lobby,” which I recently reviewed in The Journal. His newest book was developed with the support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and represents an earnest effort to familiarize readers with both the origins and destiny of Israel.

“When most people talk about Israel, they talk about the pressing issues of the moment,” Bard explains. “Yet it is impossible to understand the context of the issues without looking at all the dimensions of this small country: its historical and religious significance, its technology achievements and its archaeological wonders.”

Indeed, Bard styles his book as a conversation with the reader. He acknowledges that the media is preoccupied with controversy and criticism when it comes to Israel, but he addresses a challenge to those who open his book: “This book was written to help you sort out these complex questions and help you form your own relationship to Israel.”

“Israel Matters” is eye-catching and eye-pleasing, full of sidebars, maps, charts, photographs and drawings, if only because an image is often worth a thousand words — Bard shows us that the entirety of Israel is a small fraction of the size of California and only slightly larger than New Jersey, which silently makes the point that the embattled little Jewish state sits on a tiny sliver of the Middle East, as we see for ourselves on a page that shows a snapshot of the region taken from space by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

We meet young people who represent “Faces of Israel” in all of its ethnic and cultural diversity. We are offered the opportunity to “Look Closer” in a series of sidebars that highlight some fascinating details of Israeli life. Source documents from crucial points in history are quoted or presented in their entirety. Now and then, Bard invites the reader to answer a provocative question about an event in history: “What Would You Do?”

“You are a Palestinian living in the refugee camp in the city of Jenin in the West,” goes one such exercise. “You have several paths you can follow in your life, including joining a group that interacts with Israeli peace organizations or choosing to stay out of politics … [b]ut you could also join a group that advocates armed struggle that may ask you to try to attack Israelis.” Many of these sidebars tell the reader what actually happened in a real-life incident, but this one ends provocatively: “This episode in history hasn’t closed. Young Palestinians face these types of choices every day.”

“Israel Matters” has a point to make, of course, and the sharper edges of Jewish history and politics are buffed off. While Bard writes respectfully about the other faiths that claim the Holy Land as a place of significance, for example, he emphasizes the spiritual and historical Jewish linkages that “helped sustain Jews during long centuries of exile and nurtured them in times of persecution.” By contrast, he pauses to make the argument that “[t]he Arab connection to Palestine did not begin until after the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, and most Palestinian Arabs arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Even so, Bard provides enough of the raw material of history to allow the discerning reader to reach his or her own conclusions. For example, a series of maps show the various proposals for the division of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, starting with the original British mandate, continuing through the armistice lines drawn after the various wars between Israel and its Arab enemies, and including more recent peace proposals, all of which puts in perspective the current argument over the boundaries of Israel.

Some of the incidental details that enliven the text are clearly meant to enable young people to identify with Israel even if they have no strong Jewish connections. On one page, for example, we are introduced to violinist Itzhak Perlman, a native of Tel Aviv, and on the opposite page we meet Natalie Hershlag, a native of Jerusalem better known as the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. By the end of the book, however, it is clearly the hope of the author that the reader will not only be more knowledgeable but also more sympathetic toward Israel.

“[M]aybe Israel is too abstract right now, a faraway place that is only familiar from the news, the Bible, or from discussions with friends and family,” he concludes. “One’s feelings may be conflicted: it is possible to admire some aspects of Israel’s history and culture, yet feel uncomfortable with particular policies.” To his credit, Bard acknowledges that his book is only “a starting place,” and he insists only that “the conversation about Israel is never-ending, passionate, and meaningful, and it always matters.”

Author’s note: I have business dealings with the publisher of “Israel Matters” but played no role in the content of the book. Irwin Field, a former publisher and current board member of The Jewish Journal, played a leading role in developing “Israel Matters” for publication.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Probing the mysterious fate of the Romanovs

Over the many years I’ve spent bumping around the book business, I have introduced my wife, Ann, to a great many literary lions and lionesses, but nothing quite compares to the evening when we first met Dora Levy Mossanen at a book-signing for John Rechy at Dutton’s in Brentwood.

Not long before that memorable event, Ann had taken along a copy of Dora’s superheated historical novel, “Harem,” on a Hawaiian vacation, and our hours by the pool were punctuated with the lively passages that Ann read aloud to me. By the end of the trip, Dora was among her favorite authors, and soon afterward, when it was my turn to read “Harem” — and then another Mossenen novel, “Courtesan” — she was one of mine, too. And so, when I happened to meet Dora at Dutton’s, I immediately steered her across the crowded courtyard and presented her to my wife: “Meet the author of ‘Harem,’ ” I was proud to say.

I later learned that Dora’s literary gifts are coded in her DNA — her grandfather, Habib Levy, was a distinguished scholar and the author of a comprehensive history of the Jews of Iran. She was born in Israel, and among her earliest memories are the singing and dancing in the streets that greeted the declaration of the Jewish state. Her family returned to Iran when she was 9 years old, and they arrived in the midst of the coup against Mossadegh. With the Islamic Revolution and the fall of the shah in 1979, she was forced to leave Iran and settled with her children in Los Angeles, where she enrolled in the writing program at USC and later established herself as “an Isabel Allende of Persia,” in the words of Amy Ephron. It’s no surprise that history marks her fiction as it has marked her life.

We have since become close friends of Dora and her husband, Nader — I could write a separate paean to him! — and their whole beautiful family. At my invitation, Dora agreed to contribute book reviews to The Jewish Journal on a regular basis. A couple of years ago, when my office co-workers and I sat down for our holiday lunch at Spago, Dora was seated at the next table with the members of her long-time writer’s group, and that’s when I first learned she was hard at work on another historical novel.

Dora Levy Mossanen’s new book is “The Last Romanov” (SourceBooks: $14.99). Like the best-sellers “Harem” and “Courtesan,” Mossanen’s latest novel is deeply rooted in an exotic time and place, ornamented with the observed detail that comes from her exhaustive but discerning research, suffused with authentic historical drama, and populated with irresistible men and women who come fully alive on the page, all of which are her trademarks as a novelist. For those of us who have been waiting for Mossanen’s next book with pleasure and anticipation, our patience has now been rewarded.

“The Last Romanov” focuses on Darya Borodina Spiridova, a richly imagined character set among the real-life figures who populated the court of the last Tsar of Russia. The unforgettable Darya is adorned with a miniature Fabergé egg that contains both a scent and a secret, attended by butterflies who may be the restless spirits of murdered Romanovs, and equipped with one eye that resembles “an orb of cracked opal” — “Not the type of milky opal mined from the crevices of the earth,” Mossanen writes, “but a lucid golden shade, defiant and full of mystery.”

These qualities, of course, are found in Darya herself, whom we first meet at the age of 104 as she is summoned to a convocation of Russian aristocrats who, like her, are still haunted by the slaughter of the imperial family during the Bolshevik Revolution. We are soon transported back in time to the embattled Romanov court and the origins of the mystery that Darya will spend her life trying to solve — the fate of the Tsar’s son, heir to the throne of Russia, who may or may not have died along with his parents and siblings on that bloody day in Ekaterinburg.

Darya, in fact, is an eyewitness to history, but she sees the events and personalities at close hand and in intimate detail. As a young woman, she is summoned to the Romanov palace to attend to the Tsarina. “Darya seems to possess a healing touch,” the empress observes. “Perhaps she might heal me, too.” As we are drawn back and forth between contemporary Russia and the turn of the 20th century, we come to realize that Darya possesses a unique ability to see glimmers of light in the thickets of invention and fabrication that have come to surround the Romanovs: “There’s so much myth surrounding your life, Darya,” one character tells her. “You need to tell me the truth.” Thus begins Mossanen’s contemplation of one of the great and enduring enigmas of the troubled 20th century, the destiny of the royal family of Russia.

Mossanen embroiders and embellishes the historical mystery with fascinating details, some real and some imagined — high ceremony, court intrigue, sexual adventure and the rhythms of what passes for ordinary life in an imperial court. She conjures up sights and smells that are sometimes strange and eerie, sometimes sensual and intoxicating, sometimes comical. At moments, Mossanen manages to do all of it at once, as when she describes the ornate baptismal ceremony for the Tsarevich and pauses to observe how “the screaming Tsarevich lets loose a stream of urine on the ecclesiastic pendant of rubies and emeralds Father Yanishev wears on his habit,” and then quotes the cleric: “He is now doubly sanctified.”

She introduces a few inventions of her own to “The Last Romanov.” Darya befriends a Jewish artist named Avram Bensheimer and introduces his work to the Tsar and Tsarina, who are so impressed by his artistry that they overlook his Jewishness and commission him to paint a portrait of the Tsarevich. It’s a romantic subplot that strikes sparks between Darya and Avram, but it also allows Mossanen to show us one of the uglier aspects of imperial Russia, a place where anti-Semitic violence was state policy and Jewish lives were always at risk. “I could call you Opal-Eyed Queen,” says Bensheimer, “since like the biblical Queen Esther, you, too, came to our defense.” The scene is set for a sly joke that Darya plays on the royal family — Bensheimer has painted a Madonna and Child for them, and Jesus is modeled after the Tsarevich, but they do not suspect that his model for the Madonna is “White Thighs Paulina, an unknown proletariat whore.”

Mossanen brings the tale she tells in “The Last Romanov” to a grand resolution, and it would be cruel of me to spoil the reader’s pleasure by hinting at the denouement. Suffice it to say that more than one mystery is solved as a master storyteller works her powerful magic yet again.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Daughter’s journey to the other side of the mechitzah

Investigative journalists do not tend to make good storytellers. After all, they are trained to write in the taut prose of a daily newspaper, and they are constrained by the discipline of fact-checking. As a result, sometimes they cannot see the forest for the trees when it comes to a charming and cherished fiction that fixes itself in a family’s collective memory.

Lucette Lagnado, however, is a notable exception.

Like many of her admiring readers, I first encountered her work in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where she has long served as an investigative reporter. But her remarkable gifts as a family chronicler were richly displayed in her best-selling book “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” an endearing and unforgettable account of her family’s journey from Cairo to the mean streets of New York in the mid-20th century. A winner of the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2008, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” established Lagnado as an accomplished memoirist.

She continues the saga of the Lagnado family in “The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn” (Ecco: $25.99), yet another luminous account of her colorful and compelling family and, in the most intimate sense, the author herself.

The story opens in the women’s section of the Shield of Young David synagogue in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, when young Lucette experienced the first stirrings of the ambition that would set her apart from the traditions of her Jewish family, which was rooted in the Levant and was struggling to adjust to the newfangled American ways. As she watched the men on the other side of the mechitzah, she began to glimpse a very different destiny.

“I was anxious to trade places with them, to be the one to lead prayers and lift Torah scrolls high in the air,” she recalls. “In my mind, there were two worlds — the gossipy, trivial, inconsequential world of the women’s section and the solemn, purposeful world beyond it, the world where men sat in vast and airy quarters communing with God. The world that I longed to join and where I felt I belonged. The world beyond the divider.”

The willful little girl was a source of anxiety for Lagnado’s mother, Edith, who figures as vividly and as crucially in “The Arrogant Years” as her father did in “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.” Edith cherished the memories of her life in Cairo, “where a daughter knew exactly what was expected of her and her parents also knew, and life made so much more sense than here in New York.” She was convinced that the family was under the influence of what she called the mauvais oeil — the French phrase for the evil eye. And she was distressed by her young daughter’s aspiration to enter a world beset with even greater dangers: “I am worried sick about Loulou,” Edith confided to her friends.

At the heart of “The Arrogant Years” is the relationship between Lagnado and “my tender false messiah of a mother, who always seemed to be pinning her hopes — and mine — on the unattainable, who was always dreaming the impossible dream.” Edith, we see, always contrasted her formative years in Cairo as a teacher, a librarian and a favorite of the pasha’s wife with her struggle to adjust to the expatriate life in an outer borough of New York City after the upheavals following the Sinai Campaign in 1956 prompted the family to leave Egypt.

“Mom, who had always bitterly resented the endless dreary household duties brought on by motherhood, found that she could pawn me off to my father or sister and go on about her business,” recalls Lagnado, “though I was never exactly sure what that business was.” 

It is a measure of Lagnado’s glory as a teller of tales that she allows us to see the exotic underpinnings of an otherwise familiar urban landscape. “We were all Arab Jews, a culture most Americans found puzzling and that even other Jews viewed with suspicion,” she explains. “We had no choice but to band together, and seek comfort and protection among one another, shunning the outside world.” So it was that the hard realities of America reminded them of the lost pleasures of the Levant, as when Edith organized the occasional family outing “to the poor man’s Alexandria — Brighton Beach in Brooklyn,” as Lagnado puts it, and the reference is to the storied city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

Above all, “The Arrogant Years” is a coming-of-age story that Lagnado tells about herself. We watch her engage in a battle of wits with her rabbis: “How would Baby Alexandra return,” she demanded when they spoke of the glories that would attend the coming of the Messiah, referring to the sibling who had died in infancy, “as an eight-day-old infant, or as a child a couple of years older than me, the sage she would have been had she lived, or as a grown woman?” We witness the “rich fantasy life” that focused on an older boy who sat on the other side of the mechitzah. And we follow Lagnado through the dire health crisis that beset her in her 20s and amounted to yet more evidence that her mother had been right about the Evil Eye.

“ ‘Loulou, ya helwa,’ she kept saying, ‘Loulou, my pretty one.’ But her words made me even sadder. I felt a thousand miles away from pretty; I felt a thousand miles away from helwa.”

Lagnado seems to credit her mother not only for the defeat of a life-threatening illness but also for what she went on to accomplish in her life and work. “[My mother] had sacrificed herself for my father, had abandoned her dreams to marry him, had given up the key the pasha’s wife had handed her and all the doors it would have opened,” explains Lagnado. “But as far as she was concerned, my illness was enough of a sacrifice, and she was telling me not to be like her, not to give up my hopes and my ambitions. I had to become tough and even ruthless. …”

Each of Lagnado’s twin memoirs can be approached as a tribute, one to her father and one to her mother. Yet neither one of these books is merely a eulogy to a beloved parent. Precisely because Lagnado is a truth-teller as well as a storyteller, both Edith and Leon — and the author herself — loom up as fully human and utterly unforgettable.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Jerusalem, behind the veil of piety

Jerusalem is always in the headlines, or so it seems, but the same city on a hill has commanded the attention of the Western world without interruption since biblical antiquity.  That’s why Jerusalem is the subject of enough books to fill a library, the latest of which is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf: $35.00), a lively yet magisterial work that offers a fresh look at the city that three religions regard as holy.

Montefiore comes by his interest in Jerusalem in a unique way.  He is descended from the family of Moses Montefiore, one of the great Jewish benefactors of Jerusalem in the 19th century, and the windmill that his ancestor bestowed on the city is still one of its iconic sights.  “I feel I have been preparing to write this book all my life,” the author explains. “Since childhood, I have been wandering around Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem’ is my family motto.”

Of course, the London-based Montefiore is best-known for his lush biographies of Joseph Stalin, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and “Young Stalin.”  Perhaps that’s why he chose to characterize his new book, rather fancifully, as a biography rather than a history. Indeed, he previews his own personification of Jerusalem when he quotes Amos Oz at the very outset of his book: “Jerusalem is an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover and lover to death, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, a black widow who devours her mates while they are still penetrating her.”

Montefiore fully understands how Jerusalem figures in the Abrahamic religions — “A history of Jerusalem must be a study of the nature of holiness,” he concedes — but he insists on tearing aside the veil of piety and revealing the contradictions and conflicts that abound in the long history of the Holy City.  “This is a place of such delicacy that it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine — always a sensual, living woman, always a beauty, but sometimes a shameless harlot, sometimes a wounded princess whose lovers have forsaken her,” Montefiore writes. “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice — in heaven and on earth.”

Significantly, Montefiore disclaims any intention to write about “God in Jerusalem,” and he astutely refers any reader in search of such a book to Karen Armstrong’s “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.” Rather, he declares his mission to “pursue the facts,” which is certainly an understatement.  His effort begins in distant antiquity — a period for which his only source is the Bible itself — and the principal narrative ends in 1967 because, as he explains, “the Six Day War essentially created the situation today and provides a decisive stop.”

Along the way, he provides a rich, provocative and often surprising overview of Jerusalem’s long history, always directing the reader to colorful details and incidents, always writing in the supercharged prose that is his trademark, whether his eye falls on Jerusalem during the Jewish War (“Spymania and paranoia ruled Jerusalem the Holy”) or the Islamic conquerors and rulers of Jerusalem (“His enemies taunted him: ‘Yazid of liquors, Yazid of whoring, Yazid of dogs, Yazid of monkeys, Yazid of wine-swoons’”), or the Crusaders who set up a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land in the late Middle Ages (King Baldwin IV, a leper, “had to endure a variety of treatments — blood lettings, oil-rubs in ‘saracenic ointment’ and enemas”).

His own ancestors figure in the tale he tells.  When the British financier Moses Montefiore visited Jerusalem in the 1820s, the city was “fallen, desolate and abject,” according to Montefiore’s wife, Judith.  The experience transformed Montefiore: “He left as a reborn Jew, having prayed all through his last night there,” recalls the author. Montefiore became one of the city’s great and enduring benefactors: “Jerusalem’s Jews welcomed them ‘almost like the coming of the Messiah,’” the author explains, “but begged them not to give too much because the Turks would simply cripple them with higher taxes after they had gone.”

“Jerusalem” ends with a brief epilogue that reflects upon the unanticipated and unintended meaning of the victories of 1967. “[T]he possession of Jerusalem gradually changed Israel’s ruling spirit, which was traditionally secular, socialist, modern, and if the state had a religion it was as much the historical science of Judaean archaeology as Orthodox Judaism,” he writes.  But the entry into the Old City created a consensus that had not existed the day before. “Religious and nationalistic Jews alike shared the conviction that they must energetically embrace the exciting mission to rebuild and forever keep the Jewish Jerusalem.”

By this point, Montefiore has reminded us in fascinating detail that changes of sovereignty are commonplace in the history of Jerusalem; indeed, a cycle of conquest has been endlessly repeated since the Babylonian Conquest.  So we are hardly surprised when he shows that something as unremarkable as an archaeological dig in contemporary Jerusalem was capable of causing riots that resulted in 75 deaths and 1,500 injuries, yet more proof that “archaeology is worth dying for in Jerusalem.”

Montefiore’s conclusion is characteristically quirky.  “When they are not in conflict, Jews, Muslims and Christians return to the ancient Jerusalem tradition of ostrichism — burying their heads in the sand and pretending the Others do not exist,” he writes. “By the bile-splattered standards of Jerusalem, this ostrichism is a sign of normality — particularly since the city has never been so globally important.”

Such shoulder shrugging is an occupational hazard among those of us who love to read and write about history.  The more things change, we know, the more they remain the same.  “For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic,” writes Montefiore, “and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.”  Precisely because Jerusalem is holy, ironically enough, it has always been — and remains — a battleground.

Montefiore returns to Amos Oz for an idealistic proposal: “We should remove every stone of the Holy Sites,” Oz once wrote, “and transport them to Scandinavia for a hundred years and not return them until everyone has learned to live together in Jerusalem.”  But Montefiore knows that messianism of any kind is futile and, in any case, 100 years is only the blink of an eye in Jerusalem’s long history.  His final word, then, takes the long view.

“Jerusalem, so lovable in many ways, so hate-filled in others, always bristling with the hallowed and the brash, the preposterously vulgar and the aesthetically exquisite, seems to live more intensely than anywhere else,” he writes. “Everything stays the same yet nothing stays still.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.  He blogs at

A scholar reveals the Qur’an

No book is regarded with more fear and loathing in the West than the Qur’an, the fundamental religious text of Islam, and yet I am confident that most people who are anxious about what is written in the Qur’an have never actually held a copy in their hands, much less opened it and read it.

That’s exactly why “How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, With Select Translations” by Carl W. Ernst (University of North Carolina Press: $30) is such a unique, timely and important book. His self-appointed mission is to break through “the blank slate of sheer unfamiliarity with the Qur’an among Americans and Europeans.” But Ernst, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading American expert on Islam, is fully aware of the political and theological minefield that he treads in his scholarship.

“The Qur’an is the source of enormous anxiety in Europe and America,” where it is treated not as a text to be studied and explained but “a very dangerous problem,” Ernst reminds us.  With the characteristic understatement of a scholar, he proposes that “such an attitude of suspicion is hardly conducive to a fair-minded understanding of the text.”  Indeed, he insists that we are obliged to approach the Qur’an with the same open-mindedness that we employ when considered the Bible: “[R]eading the Qur’an from a literary and historical perspective is a humanistic exploration of the text that treats it like any other writing.”

To be sure, Ernst acknowledges that “a small minority of extremists” in the Islamic world “quote the Qur’an in support of terrorist violence,” but he refuses to allow them to hijack what is, after all, an ancient text that is organically linked to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Indeed, he condemns the “conspiracy theory” that has come to be attached to Islam in general and the Qur’an in particular in the minds of many Westerners.

“It is irrational, it is paranoid, and it is out of touch with the realities of the lives of most Muslims around the world today,” he writes. “In part because of these contemporary anxieties, it is difficult for most Europeans and Americans to read the Qur’an.”

So he leads us, gently and patiently, through the intricacies of the Qur’an, starting with the fact that it is no longer fashionable to use the familiar spelling, “Koran.” He puts aside the troubling theological issues that arise whenever a scholar encounters a work that is presented by its human author as divine revelation, and instead approaches the Qur’an “as a literary work that exists in history.” This is the key with which Ernst unlocks a door and allows us to enter the text.

“[O]nce this barrier is removed it becomes wonderfully apparent that the Qur’an was aimed at an audience that was quite aware of a wide range of ancient religious literature that was also claimed by the West,” he explains. “Moreover, like other prophetic writings, the Qur’an engages in critical rewriting of those previous texts as a way of establishing its own voice.”

He explains how the Qur’an came into existence as oral recitations by the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina in the early seventh century, how the text was conveyed, memorized and written down on bone, wood, leather and other materials, and “how the Qur’an itself testifies to history.”  He discusses the so-called “satanic verses” that Salman Rushdie made famous, to his own misfortune. Although Ernst acknowledges the tradition that the Qur’an cannot and should not be translated, he asserts both the right and the rightness of his own enterprise.

“From a strictly literary perspective,” writes Ernst, “there does not seem to be any good reason why the Qur’an should be privileged among all other texts in the world as being only accessible in the original language.”

Along the way, he points out some of the striking commonalities between the Qur’an and the Tanakh.  Like the Jews, whose liturgy is rooted in biblical Hebrew, “all observant Muslims need to know at least portions of the Qur’an by heart in the original language, to recite in their daily prayers.”  Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Joseph are invoked in some of the suras, as the basic literary unit of the Qur’an is called, and Ernst focuses on a passage in which a notably clueless Moses is instructed in the divine mysteries by an emissary known as al-Khidr: “Don’t blame my forgetfulness, or ask something difficult,” implores Moses, and al-Khidr scolds him: “Didn’t I tell you? You won’t have patience to bear with me.”

Of course, despite Ernst’s best intentions, it is impossible to avoid all controversy.  Merely to entertain the notion that the Qur’an is a work of human authorship, written by a flesh-and-blood human being in a particular time and place, is itself an affront to pious Muslims. But here, too, is a commonality; scholars make the same assumption about the Torah and the New Testament, and they manage to offend pious Jews and Christians when they do. 

To Ernst’s credit, he is applying to the Qur’an the same tools of scholarship that have long been used in studying the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity, and he thereby seeks to open a conversation in which all Jews, Christians and Muslims of good will can and should participate.

Israel’s ‘Unmaking’

No book review I’ve written for The Jewish Journal has prompted as much feedback as the one I wrote about “A New Voice for Israel” by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street. His argument that Israel must make uncomfortable compromises and take dire risks in order to secure peace with the Palestinian Arabs is clearly unsettling to a great many Jews, both in Israel and America.

But Ben-Ami will find a kindred spirit in Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli author (“The Accidental Empire”) and journalist who comes to some of the same conclusions in “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins: $25.99), which he describes as “a selective and personal journey through Israel’s past and present, for the purpose of presenting an argument: that Israel is unmaking itself, and must put itself back together.” Gorenberg provides a deft but penetrating and highly nuanced account of the recent history and current politics of Israel, and he offers a prescription for curing the ills that afflict the Jewish state.

“Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation movement of the Jews,” Gorenberg begins. But the land on which a Jewish homeland was to be built was also the homeland of an Arab community. “Seen from the shores of Palestine, Zionism was a movement of foreigners coming to settle the land, to colonize it.” The struggle between these contending points of view must be put aside, he writes, if we hope to find a path to peace.

What’s at stake, according to Gorenberg, is nothing less than the character and destiny of Israel itself. “[A]t the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself apart,” he writes, referring to the history-changing victories of the Six-Day War. “Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the ideal of democracy. … The settlement enterprise was a multi-pronged assault on the rule of law. … [T]he government’s support of settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism into a movement of the radical right.” Above all, Gorenberg insists, all of these trends “now threaten Israel’s democratic aspirations and its existence.”

The current crisis, as Gorenberg demonstrates, can be seen as an accident of history. He reminds us that the founders of Israel lived in a world where the exchange of populations was one of the tools of geopolitics, and “it should be no surprise that Zionist leaders thought about transfer.” Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled from Israel during the War of Independence, a kind of de facto population transfer. By 1967, however, an even greater number of Arabs were back under Israeli rule. Thus began the “unmaking” of Israel, as Gor-enberg puts it.

The dilemma, of course, is that Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic for very long if its population includes a substantial and growing number of Arabs. Then, too, Gorenberg points out that Jewish settlement in the West Bank was undertaken by what he calls a “radical religious culture” that was itself a danger to democracy.

“A new generation of settlers has come of age, as radical or more in its theologized politics, alienated from the institutions of the state that have so assiduously fostered its growth,” he writes. “The meaning of these changes is a democracy in greater danger, a state that is weaker and less capable of ending the occupation.” Indeed, he puts it even more bluntly: The radical fringe of the settler movement “barbarized Judaism” by encouraging the kind of violence that ultimately took the life of Yitzhak Rabin.

Gorenberg warns that the growing role of observant Jews in the Israeli army is itself an obstacle to peacemaking. Only 9,000 settlers were removed from Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces, but no fewer than 65,000 Jews — and possibly many more — would need to be removed from the West Bank under even the most grudging version of an Israeli withdrawal. “The army would have to confront a young generation of settlers determined not to repeat the ‘shame’ of Gaza,” he points out. “Yet since 2005, the army’s dependence on soldiers coming out of the Orthodox academies … and other yeshivot aligned with the theological right has increased.”

Gorenberg is quick to characterize himself as “a religious Jew” and “an Israeli by choice.” He issues a heartfelt and heart-rending plea for the repair of the Jewish democracy: “I write from an Israel with a divided soul,” he writes. “It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them.”

“For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes,” he concludes. “First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue. … Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

Gorenberg does not provide us with much reason for optimism that any of these things will happen soon, or at all. But he seems to embrace the old Zionist aphorism — If you will it, it is no dream — and he sees something uniquely Jewish in the argument that he hopes to provoke in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.

“This, perhaps, is the best definition of a Jewish state,” he concludes, “the place where Jews can argue with the least inhibition, in the most public way, about what it means to be Jews.”

A guide to becoming Jewish

Jennifer S. Hanin was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man.  Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is the distinguished spiritual leader of Kehillat Israel, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world and a landmark on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades. Together, they are the authors of “Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion” (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95), which they describe as a “gutsy guide to entering the tribe.”

An insistent lightheartedness and more than a few comic moments enliven “Becoming Jewish,” starting with a jokey preface by comedian Bob Saget: “I was circumcised. Thank God by a professional. That is not something you want done by a novice.” The authors, too, are full of banter. “Conversion is a serious business,” writes Hanin, “but it doesn’t mean you need to down two pots of coffee to wade through it.”

The authors assume they are addressing a prospective convert to Judaism. “While achieving your conversion isn’t as a gut wrenching as auditioning for “American Idol” (though the bimah may feel every bit like a stage), it does require discipline and dedication.”  But I suspect that a good many Jewish spouses and partners will be reading the book over the shoulders of their beloveds, if only because, as the authors point out, the motivation for conversion is often the prospect of marriage or the responsibilities of raising children in a mixed marriage.

Indeed, Jewish readers will be surprised and enlightened by some of the details of the conversion process.  They point out, for example, that the process of conversion begins with the rabbi who instructs and prepares the convert, but it ends with a ruling by a bet din.  Even here, however, the authors offer a joke to lighten the moment: “You would have to present a deep conflict for them to have reservations about rubberstamping your conversion,” they write about the bet din,  “like wearing a kaffiyeh, crossing yourself, or whipping out a BLT.”

Reuben and Hanin describe the conversion process with both sweep and precision. It begins with the selection of a rabbi who will conduct the conversion and ends with a dip in the mikveh.  Along the way, they discuss the implications of adult circumcision, the choice of a Jewish name, the study of Hebrew, the celebration of Shabbat and the holy days, the keeping of kashrut, the challenges and responsibilities of raising Jewish children and the other rituals and observances of Jewish life.

The authors also invite us to ponder what Judaism is, what it demands of us, and what makes someone a Jew.  They sum up Judaism as a matter of “believing, belonging, and behaving.” But they point out that belief is probably the least crucial element in contemporary Judaism outside the highly observant denominations.

“[B]eing part of an ancient and extended spiritual family of Jews…forms our primary sense of religious identity,” they explain. “This is why so many nonobservant Jews are still passionate about being Jewish.” And, for that reason, “believing takes a backseat to belonging and behaving when it comes to Jewish identity.”

They also deal with the unique issues of conversion with sensitivity and compassion. “Becoming Jewish doesn’t mean amputating your past,” they write. “You can be secure enough in your own Jewish identity to experience sacred, moving moments that other religious traditions evoke. This is definitely a case in which you can go home again, and if you want to share your parents’ holiday or any other relatives’ celebration, feel free.”

I expect that more than a few copies of “Becoming Jewish” will be purchased by Jews and handed to non-Jews in order to open a conversation about conversion.  Indeed, it seems that the authors expected and intended the book to serve that function. But I am also convinced that the Jewish men and women who open and read the book will connect with traditions that they have forgotten or perhaps never knew at all.  In that sense, the book offers a path into Judaism for both the Jew by birth and the Jew by choice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

An insider’s view of also being an outsider

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a variant of Gresham’s law at work in the arts and letters of the digital age: Is bad writing driving out good? The sheer volume and velocity of the blogosphere, for example, seems to hide the moments of discernment and reflection.

Now and then, however, we are offered a reading experience that reminds us of the gold standard in literature, and one such book is “Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere” by André Aciman (Farrar Straus and Giroux: $25). Aciman, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, first attracted attention and praise with a memoir of his childhood in Alexandria, “Out of Egypt,” and then with two novels, “Eight White Nights” and “Call Me By Your Name.” He aspires and deserves to be called a writer’s writer.

His new book is a collection of 18 essays, most of which previously appeared in various distinguished journals, ranging from The American Scholar to Condé Nast Traveler. The subtitle suggests that “Alibis” is a book about the experience of exotic locales, and it’s true that he writes about not only Alexandria and Rome but also Paris, Venice, Tuscany and Barcelona, among other places. But it is not a travel book, or perhaps I should say it is not just a book about travel.

“One reason I think I make a terrible travel journalist is that, as soon as I visit a place, I am totally unable to write about it,” Aciman writes of himself in an essay titled “Temporizing.” “If I want to write I must pretend to remember.”

So “Alibis” is more accurately described as a book about the intricate workings of memory in the mind of a writer. Aciman is the editor of “The Proust Project,” and he shares with Proust an ability to plumb the depths of memory and meaning in the observed details of ordinary life. In the essay titled “Intimacy,” for example, he writes about a return visit to the street in Rome where he had lived four decades before, and he reflects on the power of writing to crack through the numbness of the experience itself.

“Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I’d been while living there,” he muses. “Writing wouldn’t alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on.”

Aciman is describing here the writerly craft whose tool marks can be detected in each of the essays in the collection. My favorite example is “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” which opens with Aciman’s ruminations on a series of formal portraits of famous figures: Freud, Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt. Ostensibly, he is deconstructing the inner meanings of the portraiture, but he is also working his way toward “a disquieting question, which reflects my own very personal worries and anxieties, not Freud’s or Einstein’s. Didn’t they know they were Jewish?”

The essay suddenly turns confessional. He likens the struggles of these famous European Jews to make sense of their Jewishness with his own family’s experiences in Alexandria, and the lens of observation suddenly becomes a mirror. “I am a provisional, uncertain Jew,” he writes. “I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to remain a bachelor.”

Indeed, “Alibis” includes what is, for a writer, an intimate and shattering confession. You will find it in the essay titled “Rue Delta,” which appears toward the end of the book and serves as a kind of climax, and I won’t spoil the experience for Aciman’s readers by revealing it here. Once again, he is pondering the tension between memory and imagination, the choice between an empty truth and an artful lie, and he allows us to see how he has resolved the inner struggle.

“The Egypt I craved to return to was not the one I knew, or couldn’t wait to flee,” he writes, “but the one where I learned to invent being somewhere else, someone else.”

Indeed, the whole book can be seen as an exercise in dialectics. “I was born in Alexandria, Egypt,” Aciman writes in an afterword to the collection. “I am African by birth, everyone in my family is from Asia Minor, and I live in America. Unlike my ancestors the Marranos who were Jews claiming to be Christians, I enjoy being a Jew among Christians as long as I can pass for a Christian among Jews.”

Aciman resolves the contradictions that he embodies — “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time” — with a simple credo: “Art is nothing more than an exalted way of stylizing distortions that have become unbearable.” The statement surely applies to his own book, a work of alchemy that turns lead into gold.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Joseph Heller’s daughter gets the final word

As a rule, a novel speaks for itself and its author, but when it comes to Joseph Heller, we are privileged to have an especially intimate source of information about his life and work. In “Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22” by Erica Heller (Simon & Schuster: $25), we find out exactly what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of America’s greatest writers.

At the very outset of her memoir, for example, Erica Heller tells us about the calls that her father made to her during the final illness of her mother and his ex-wife, Shirley. “He wasn’t the caustic, clever master of the verbal arabesque who for years had answered the question ‘How come you’ve never written a book as good as “Catch-22”?’ with the sly, talmudic response to put any other to shame: ‘Who has?’ he’d ask, genuinely wanting to know. He was not bombastic or self-satisfied during those nightly calls. He was only sad.”

Erica clearly shares her father’s wry sense of humor and his gift for storytelling. When her mother and father divorced, she reveals, “My father had begged, cajoled, and finally actually offered me a hefty bribe of ten thousand dollars in cash if I would only tell him my mother’s secret pot roast recipe.” On her deathbed, her mother extracted a solemn promise: “No matter what, don’t ever give him the pot roast recipe.” The payoff for me, an ardent fan of Heller’s comic masterpiece of midrash, “God Knows,” is that I recognized in Joe and Shirley Heller’s marriage the model for his depiction of the immortal David and Bathsheba.

“Yossarian Slept Here” is, at once, a literary biography, a family chronicle and a memoir. Erica harks back to 1952, when the family moved into a quirky old apartment house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called the Apthorp, and she recalls that it was in apartment 2K South that he wrote “Catch-22,” turning to his typewriter “early in the mornings and after returning home in the evenings from his pleasant but prosaic job as ad writer.”

The stakes were high. When Heller first met his future wife at Grossinger’s, in the Catskills, he had boasted that he was going to be a writer, “and not just a writer, but a great writer” who would produce “the definitive book about World War II.” Nor were his literary ambitions a good preparation for fatherhood: “I don’t do children,” Heller cracked in a 1998 interview, which Erica interprets to mean that “he was not willing to exert the effort and expend the time and concentration” that was necessary when it came to children, whether his own or those of his friends.

Heller’s appetites were famously large, both for literary achievement and for the delicacies of Coney Island. “He would circle the counters at Nathan’s, pacing, thinking, studying it all, eventually settling on pea soup, a hot dog, fries, a slice of pizza, chow mein on a roll, and a hamburger smothered in onions,” Erica writes. “Notice there was no ‘or’ in that sentence.”

Food was a way to measure success in the Heller family. Erica recalls that during the era she calls “B.C.” — that is, Before “Catch” — she would receive a kick under the table if she tried to order a shrimp cocktail at the local Italian restaurant. “After the publication and eventual success of ‘Catch-22,’ ” she reports, “the kicks under the table at Tony’s suddenly stopped. It was in this way that it suddenly dawned on me that my father’s book must have been successful.”

Erica had the courage to write a novel of her own, “Splinters,” and to ask her famous father to mark the galleys with the same red pen he used to put comments on the work of his writing students at Yale and City College. “They came back three days later, covered in that red felt-tip scribble, like a wild rash erupting,” she recalls. Her mother flatly refused to read it at all. “What if it’s terrible? What will I say to you?” “ ‘What if it’s not?’ I countered, having learned at the feet of the master.”

Erica felt her father’s sting more than once. She recognized the brutal scenes between father and daughter in “Something Happened” as autobiographical: “How could you write about me that way?” she confronted him. “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” he demurred. She interpreted the exchange to mean that “if I was interesting enough to write about, he had written terrible things,” and “if not, the girl in the book wasn’t me and I could rejoice in that, except for the fact that I was boring.”

She is utterly honest about her father and herself. When she gently suggested that his second wife might not be comfortable at her wedding, he refused to attend on his own. “I was only doing what felt right, but still, it was certainly uncharacteristically optimistic of me, and not in the natural Helleristic order of things.” He stopped talking to his daughter, and then, as she puts it, “the notion of Dad having the ‘last word’ suddenly took on an altogether new meaning” when Joseph Heller died.

“Yossarian Slept Here” is a must-read for anyone who delights in finding out exactly how our favorite books entered the world. Some of the most delightful illuminating moments, in fact, have nothing to do with family conflict, as when Erica describes a ritual that involved Osner’s typewriter repair shop at 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “Typewriters there were a religion, and the shop had cared for the machines of Isaac Bashevis Singer, David Mamet, Alfred Kazin, Erich Maria Remarque, Roger Kahn, Philip Roth, Howard Fast, and Murray Schisgal,” she recalls. “Dad always went there when a book was finished to announce that he was done.”

As someone who loves (and misses) typewriters, and as a reader who reveres (and rereads) the work of Joseph Heller, that’s a memory I will cherish.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Never enough of Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, as we are reminded in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff” (Random House: $27), has long served as a polestar in the American literary firmament. He is best-known and loved for his witty contributions to The New Yorker, but he has also displayed his acerbic good humor and powers of social observation on the off-Broadway stage, in a series of comic novels (including “Tepper Isn’t Going Out”), in “deadline poetry” for The Nation and in a heart-tugging memoir about his late wife, “About Alice,” among many other efforts.

Trillin may be an emblematic New York writer, but his origins and interests are not limited to the inner boroughs. Born in Kansas City, Mo., and educated at Yale, he quips that “T.S. Eliot and I constitute the Missouri school of poetry.” Although he has written only sparingly about his Jewish background, he affirms that “in Kansas City, where I grew up, Calvin Trillin is a very common Jewish name.” And he can be credited with a leading role in the invention and improvement of American food journalism, a specialty that was inspired by his voracious appetite and all-consuming curiosity: “Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life,” he once wrote, “I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.” 

Trillin talked to The Jewish Journal from his New York City home shortly before embarking on a national tour that will bring him to Los Angeles on Sept. 21 for a conversation with “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon, at an event sponsored by Writer’s Bloc at the Writers Guild Theater.

Jonathan Kirsch: The first stop on your author tour is an event at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. What does the venue mean to you personally?
Calvin Trillin:  It’s where my family didn’t go. My family came to America in the period when a lot of people lived in tenements on the Lower East Side, but my family went to Galveston, Texas, instead.

JK:  The headline on The Journal’s story about the passing of Amy Winehouse was “Jewish Chanteuse Dies.” A close reading of your book — but it takes a close reading — suggests that you would be entitled to a similar eulogy. What does your Jewish background amount to, and what does it mean to you?
CT:  I grew up in what most people would call a typical middle-class, Midwestern neighborhood. I sometimes say that it’s like being in an episode of “The Brady Brunch” as played by actors who just got off a yearlong tour of “Fiddler on the Roof.” My father was born in the Ukraine, but he was brought as an infant to St. Joseph, Mo., so he spoke like Harry Truman and used phrases like: “I haven’t had so much fun since the hogs ate Little Sister.” So it was an astonishment to me to hear him speak Yiddish, which was probably his first language.

JK: Did you pick up any Yiddish in Kansas City?
CT: I picked up a lot of words, but not words that would do me any good in a conversation — unless the conversation was in a locker room. I can have long conversations on the difference between a shlimazel and a paskudnik, but I couldn’t say, “Pass the salt.”

JK:  Thanks to your long association with The New Yorker, I tend to think of you as a quintessential New Yorker, and yet you disclose that you keep a famous line from “The Wizard of Oz” on your bulletin board: “Toto, I don’t think we’ re Kansas anymore.” Have you been fully Manhattanized?
CT: That’s still on the bulletin board right in front of me, and I still think of myself as a resident out-of-towner. I’ve lived here permanently since I came up from the South in 1961, but there are still subway lines I’m unfamiliar with, and I don’t know in which car to stand in the way my daughters do. I think there are things that real New Yorkers keep secret from the rest of us.

JK: Did you personally do the work of selecting the various pieces that appear in your new collection, more than 130 in all? Did you work from your own archive of your writing?
CT:  Yes, I did, but “archive” would be much too serious a word for what I have. I have some stuff in the computer, some stuff that I asked people for, but there is also some stuff that I didn’t have and couldn’t get. I’m not organized enough to even use words like “archive.”

JK:  Larry David and Sarah Silverman are willing to make jokes about the Holocaust, and you are able to write comically about the Shoe Bomber. As a humorist, do you think there are any subjects that are beyond humor?
CT:  Not really. You know that they ought not to be joked about if they’re not funny. It’s self-selecting. You know whether you can make a joke about something because otherwise it wouldn’t be funny. Zero Mostel used to say about the Romanian-Jewish restaurants in New York that Romanian-Jewish cooking has killed more Jews than Hitler. Well, I thought that was funny, but I’m not sure I’d feel that way if I were the son of a Holocaust survivor. 

JK: One of your couplets refers to the Rodney King beating and invokes the Viet Cong (“If I done right or I done wrong/I’d sooner be held by the Vietcong”), which prompted me to wonder: What is the expiration date of a good joke? 
CT:  Most humor depends on specificity. It’s funnier to say that a cheese steak tastes better when you’re leaning up against a Pontiac than when you are leaning up against a car. People have still heard of the Viet Cong, but at some point, it may not be funny anymore. I don’t think the humor changes, but the references change.

JK:  You devote one section of your new book to “Twenty Years of Pols.” Do you think that American politicians are getting better or worse?
CT:  Well, they’re not getting better, for sure. But that only makes them better targets for people in the small-joke trade.

JK:  You have written that “the average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.” Do you think that the advent of electronic publishing means that books will have an even shorter shelf life, or perhaps a longer one?
CT:  I’ve heard all sides of that argument. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. The last people who know about that are writers. But I expect that people are going to keep reading books in some kind of format for a long time.

For tickets, contact Writers Bloc at {encode=”” title=””}.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The gift Poland once offered

The long history of the Jews in Poland has been almost wholly eclipsed by the Holocaust. Fully half of the victims of German mass murder were Polish Jews, who numbered approximately 3.5 million on the eve of World War II. But the fact remains that Poland was the seat of a vibrant and enduring Jewish civilization that survives on the printed page and, in a real sense, in many of our own ideas about what it means to be Jewish.

The point is vividly and memorably made by Hava Bromberg Ben-Zvi in the pages of “Portraits in Literature: The Jews of Poland, An Anthology” (Vallentine Mitchell: $74.95), an extraordinarily rich collection of more than 50 excerpts from fiction, reportage, poetry, memoir, correspondence, folklore and humor, all touching in one way or another on the Jewish experience in Poland.

“My Jewish ancestors resided in Polish lands for approximately 1,000 years,” affirms the author, who shares a Polish-Jewish heritage with millions of American Jews. “This book is a saga of Jewish life in Poland as reflected in the mirror of literature.”

Ben-Zvi has selected some of the most affecting and enlightening passages from her remarkably diverse source material, and she makes them even more meaningful by providing her own annotations and illuminations.  For example, she begins with a passage from Sholem Asch’s novel “The Rebel,” and she introduces the once-revered Yiddish writer to a new generation of readers who know little or nothing about him or his work. She points out that his novels about the life of Jesus, intended to show “the common roots of Judaism and Christianity and to bridge the gap between them,” resulted in a charge of apostasy. “Misunderstood, he defended himself for the rest of his life,” she points out, “mostly without success.”

Other selections are meant to remind us, quite literally, of the rhythms, sounds and tastes of Jewish life in Poland. A charming memoir by Nina Luszczyk-Ilienkowa, for example, evokes the experience of a modest little store that was, in the eyes of the writer, nothing less than a place of wonder. “Look, ladies and gentlemen, what we have here. Hats of Vilnius milliners, from Zamkova Street, slightly out of fashion, but at convenient prices. Christmas ornaments and colorful tissue paper, laces, beads, pins, ribbons, clasps for girls’ braids. Tooth-combs, side combs, and gloves of fabric and wool, or lightly knit and transparent. On the other side, on little shelves, choice morsels galore.”  Even now, the writer confesses, “I swoon at the memory of the aromas long forgotten, not experienced for sixty years.” And so do we.

Of course, Ben-Zvi feels an obligation to remind us that the victims of the Holocaust were flesh-and-blood human beings and not merely numbers.  Aliza Melamed recalls the unspeakable sights that she saw in the Warsaw Ghetto, but she also gives us a glimpse of the famous ghetto fighter Mordecai Anielewicz at an unguarded moment: “He always wore a gray coat, sports trousers and golf-socks; he had a thin face and greenish eyes with daring in them, which would sometimes smile, and then they looked so fatherly and forgiving.”

Another intimate view of Anielewicz is given in an essay by the ghetto documentarian Emanuel Ringelblum, who recalls how the young man would borrow books on history and economics. “Who was to know that this quiet, modest, pleasant youth would, three years later, be the most important person in the ghetto, and that his name would be spoken of with veneration by some and with fear by others?” Anielewicz himself, who died in combat during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, speaks for himself in a brief letter: “The last aspiration of my life has been fulfilled,” he wrote in the last moments of his heroic life. “Jewish self-defense and Jewish revenge are a reality.”

“Jewish literature and culture did not perish from the face of the earth,” Ben-Zvi concludes. “Inherited and transformed by a new generation of writers, it was reborn, changed and enriched, finding new configurations, images and expressions.” Ben-Zvi’s beautiful and stirring book is a superb example of the same phenomenon.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

One advocate’s argument for Israel’s longevity

When Hirsh Goodman speaks about the destiny of Israel, people listen.

Goodman is a former executive of the Jerusalem Post, founder of the Jerusalem Report, and currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Now he brings his authority and expertise to bear on a dire question that is being asked out loud, here and in Israel: Can the Jewish state survive?

“The question used to infuriate me,” Goodman writes in “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival” (PublicAffairs: $26.99). “It has taken me years to understand there is much merit to the question, for both Israel and its enemies.”

The book is lucid and lively, utterly fascinating, and full of surprises.  Goodman, for example, concedes that a nuclear-armed Iran is a worst-case-scenario for Israel — and not only for Israel — but he also argues that it is “the ‘simplest’ to deal with.”  He insists that Iran’s goal of going nuclear is “immensely complicated and highly unlikely” to be achieved.  He also emphasizes the intimate aspect of Israeli deterrence: “To make it personal,” he writes, “the Iranian leadership knows that no matter how deep the bunker they hide in, they and their families will be eliminated.”  And he insists that Israel, precisely because it is so small, can be defended from an Iranian nuclear attack by the kind of anti-missile technology that is now deployed in the form of the “Iron Dome.”

Much more concerning, he argues, is Iran’s use of surrogates, including Hamas and Hezbollah, to make trouble for Israel on its own borders using only conventional weaponry.  Indeed, he argues that the acquisition of more sophisticated rocketry by Arab militants is actually to Israel’s advantage because such weapons are more vulnerable to anti-missile technology. “The more technology dependent Hezbollah becomes,” he writes, “the easier a target it becomes.”

He is not panicked by the Syrian threat, whether or not there is war. “In either case, Israel’s survival will be tested but not threatened.”  Indeed, he predicts that the strategic goal in any war with Syria would be “not only to win the war but to damage the enemy to such an extent that it would take years before they could even think of going to war again.”

The greatest danger, according to Goodman, is to be found among the Palestinians as a people. “De-legitimization” is a new and dangerous diplomatic strategy adopted by the Palestinians and their supporters, and he faults Israel for playing into the hands of its enemy: “It should have not ignored the claims against it in the International Court of justice in the Hague, and it should have cooperated with the Goldstone Commission,” he writes. “The country has nothing to hide. Not cooperating looks like an admission of guilt.”

Goodman also points to the Arab birth rate as a ticking bomb more dangerous than any bomb that Iran is likely to acquire. “Today there is virtual parity between the 5.7 million Jews and 5.4 million Arabs in Israel and the territories,” he points out. “[N]umerical equality between them will soon be reached, after which the Palestinians will surpass the Jews.” And he makes a similar argument about American Jews: “There is great concern in America that the Jewish community is diminishing through intermarriage, disinterest, lack of identification with Israel, and religious disenchantment.” If the “umbilical chord” that links America and Israel is cut, he suggests, the threat to Israel’s survival will be profound.

Goodman is not much impressed by the quality of leadership in Israel or its ability to deal with these dangers. “Ehud Barak was as disastrous a leader for Labor as Netanyahu had been for Likud.”  But he credits an unlikely pair of political opposites for coming to the same conclusion about Israeli security: “[T]wo of Israel’s greatest warriors, Sharon and Ehud Barak,” he writes, “had both come to the same conclusion from two different spectrums of the political scale: it was vital for Israel’s future that the territories be returned, a Palestinian entity established, with the understanding that ‘we’ live here, and ‘they’ live there.”

But Goodman is, above all, a political realist, and he argues that “[t]he Palestinians have to realize that Israel cannot be expected to tear itself to pieces for the sake of peace.”  The settlement blocs that are immediately adjacent to the Green Line, he argues, should remain in Israel, and “50,000 or so Jews could live in Palestine as Israeli citizens,” thus allowing the most militant of the settlers to remain on what they regard as holy land without making the IDF responsible for their private security.

“The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival” is provocative, to be sure, but Goodman is a persuasive advocate and.  At a time when so many commentators are reduced to fatalism and despair, he sees a path to peace and security even if he always reminds his reader that the way forward is treacherous. “I have often been accused of being an optimist about Israel, a serious charge in a country that considers paranoia a virtue,” he quips.  But Goodman shows himself to be an optimist with open eyes and clear vision, common sense and real courage.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Secrets of the Hebrew alphabet

“The letters of the Jews as strict as flames,” writes Karl Shapiro in the poem titled “The Alphabet,” “Or little terrible flowers lean/Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages/Singing through solid stone the sacred names.”

I was reminded of Shapiro’s verse when I opened “The Alphabet That Changed the World: How Genesis Preserves a Science of Consciousness in Geometry and Gesture,” by Stan Tenen (North Atlantic Books: $44). Like a poem, the book seeks to impart the deepest of meanings in the most delicate of expression.

Now I hasten to admit that I can only claim to have understood perhaps 20 percent of what Tenen has to say in this curious and challenging book. The section titled “The Ten-Point Tetractys Triangle As Discrete Dirac Delta Function Models ‘The Same and the Different’ and ‘The One and the Many,’ ” for example, left me dazed and confused.  Clearly, Tenen deserves the attention of readers who are capable of grasping his more subtle and more technical assertions more readily than I could. 

But I also have to say that whatever fraction of the book I understood, I was bedazzled by the moments of clarity and elegance in his prose, the sheer audacity of his enterprise, and the mad profusion of illustrations, charts, graphs and diagrams, including several charming figures in the form of a deconstructed Rubik’s Cube that are offered to capture the inner significance of the Hebrew letters that appear in the first verse of Genesis.

Tenen argues that the Hebrew alphabet is based on “archetypal hand gestures” that contain encoded secrets about the origin and destiny of humankind. The letterforms in which the Torah is written, as Tenen sees them, originate in those gestures, but they are also “geometric metaphors” that carry far deeper meanings. Indeed, Tenen makes the vaunting claim that “the speculative recovery of the history of the alphabet and the recovery of the practices for which the alphabet may have originally been deployed” augurs nothing less than “the emergence of the next level of consciousness.”

Sometimes the meanings are quite literal and even mechanical.  The shape of the Hebrew letter “bet,” the first letter in the Torah, is shown to resemble a human being with an outstretched arm and an open hand: “I beseech you — asking for empathy,” according to Tenen, who interprets the symbolic meaning of the letter as a reference to the Golden Rule.

At other times, the meanings are cryptic and elusive.  The torus — a geometrical figure that is manifested in “doughnuts, car-tire inner tubes, and smoke rings”— is invoked repeatedly, but try as he may to enlighten his readers, I could not really grasp what he means when he says that “the distribution of the Hebrew letters in the fist verse of B’reshit have a distinctly toroidal structure.”

The quest for hidden meanings in ancient texts is an ancient and ongoing one, and Tenen is operating in the same tradition. “Fools see only the garments of the Torah,” according to a passage from the Zohar that Tenen invokes, “the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul.” What Tenen sees, and tries to show us, is nothing less than a revelation that alphabets are “the building blocks of creation, which, in turn, could be understood as the basic states of the human mind and consciousness.”

As someone who has always been enchanted by letter forms and alphabets, I was intrigued by the title of the book, and once I started studying its text and images, I found myself entranced and enchanted by the meanings that Tenen extracts from the architecture of letters on the printed page, even when I could not fully understand them.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The Jewish story behind 264 netsukes

Memoir has come to be regarded nowadays as a highly corrupted literary form, but we are reminded of how rich and meaningful a memoir can be in “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16.00). First published in 2010 to great critical acclaim, the book is now available in a handsome paperback edition, and it’s nothing less than a treasure trove between covers.

The book begins in contemporary Japan, where the author’s aging great-uncle regales him with family stories set in Vienna in the years before World War I.  “Growing old in Japan is wonderful,” says Uncle Iggie Ephrussi. “Living the longest is hard.”  When Iggie dies in 1994, the author inherits his uncle’s collection of 264 netsuke figurines and, in a real sense, the old man’s archive of memories, too.  “How an object is handed on is all about story-telling,” muses de Waal. “There is no easy story in legacy.”

De Waal embarks upon a journey through time and space to reconstruct the history of Iggie’s netsuke collection and soon finds himself composing a chronicle of the Ephrussi family, which originated in Odessa and sent its scions to the great cities of Europe in the 19th century to expand their grain-export business.  “They were Jews with their own coat of arms,” explains de Waal. “And each deal struck with a government, each venture with an impoverished archduke, each client drawn into a serious obligation with the family would be a step towards even greater respectability, a step further from those wagons of wheat creaking in from the Ukraine.”

The author leads us from Odessa to Vienna to Paris, all the while conjuring up the experiences of his distant relations in prose so resonant that it achieves a kind of musicality.  Yet the book is also highly decorated with the findings and leavings of an old family — businesses and careers, marriages and love affairs, the things they acquired and the things they lost.  De Waal pauses now and then to reflect on what his research reveals, as when he learns that his relative, Charles Ephrussi, the founder of the netsuke collection, conducted an affair with a married woman: “I want to be bourgeois,” he confesses, “and ask how you find time for five children, a husband and a lover?”

Above all, de Waal is attuned to the powerful inner experience of the collector of objects. As Charles begins to purchase Japanese arts and crafts, the author sees in them “an air of eroticized possibility, evoking not simply the shared encounter of lovers over a lacquer box or ivory bibelots” but also “props for dressing up, role-playing, the sensuous reimagining of the self.”  And he quotes de Maupassant on the subject: “The bibelot is not only a passion, it is a mania.”

Charles collected far more than netsuke.  He owned 40 Impressionist works, and he was important enough as a patron of the arts to earn a place in a Renoir painting, “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” He even caught the eye of Proust, who describes the figure in the painting as “clearly out of place” because he wears a top-hat, but de Waal insists that “Charles Ephrussi — or at least the back of Charles’s head — enters art history.”

When Charles sends the netsuke collection as a wedding present to a cousin in 1899, the gift provides an opportunity for de Waal to travel to the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, “certainly not a house for a wandering Jew.”  We’ve already seen that anti-Semitism afflicted the Ephrussi family in Paris, but now it takes on an even uglier aspect and even for Jews like the Ephrussis, who have been raised to the nobility and are now known as “von Ephrussi.”

“In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna,” de Waal points out, “it was possible for a deputy in the Reichsrat to make speeches calling for Schussgelder — bounties — for shooting Jews.”

Now the possession of valuable objects begins to take on new and different meanings. “To get food, you part with more and more,” the author writes of the worst days of First World War. “Objects are loosened from your home and become currency.” Yet a daughter of the Ephrussi family, at the age of sixteen, is permitted to get her own books bound in “half-morocco with marbled covers” — “a rite of passage, a way of marking that her reading is significant.” But times are not good for the Jews, as de Waal allows us to see, and especially not for wealthy ones.

“Loud-voiced people were arriving from all parts of the world to buy banks, factories, jewels, carpets, work of art or landed estates,” complained one observer in post-World War I era, “and the Jews were not the last ones to come.”

Worse is to come, of course. Uncle Iggie now re-enters the story, a young man starting out in the banking business in Frankfurt in the early 1930s — an inauspicious time and place for a Jewish banker — but ending up as a fashion designer in Paris and New York.  “It was only when I found his design of cruise-wear based on US Navy signal flags that I realized how much fun Iggie was having,” writes de Waal. “It shows girls dressed in shorts and skirts being run up the rigging by magnificent swarthy sailors, while the code helpfully informs us that the girls are wearing signals for ‘I need to have personal communication you,’ ‘You are clear of all danger,’ ‘I am on fire,’ and ‘I cannot hold out any longer.’”

Back in Vienna, however, the Ephrussi family has fallen into the ungentle hands of the Gestapo, and its property is “Aryanized.”  Now the author shows how possessions can take on life-and-death implications, and the pleasure that he has previously taken in making inventories and providing lush descriptions of the beautiful things that the Ephrussis owned turns into a Kafkaesque horror.

“[E]very single drawer is wrenched open, the contents of every cupboard pulled out, every single ornament is scrutinized,” writes de Waal. “And all these things, a world of things – a family geography stretching from Odessa, from holidays in Petersburg, in Switzerland, in the South of France, Paris, Kövecses, London, everything – is gone through and noted down. Every object, every incident, is suspect. This is a scrutiny that every Jewish family in Vienna is undergoing.”

And what of the netsuke collection?

The author omits the collection from the inventory of goods that are looted from the Ephrussi family by the Nazis, and these precious objects disappear from our view.  At the end of the book, however, the mystery of their disappearance is solved. I won’t reveal it here except to observe that history has provided de Waal with a poignant and unforgettable ending to his saga — “a resistance to the sapping of memory,” as he writes in a phrase that elegantly sums up all that he has accomplished in “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Fried millipedes and life in China

The best way to tell if a city has a sizable Jewish population, as my father used to say, is by the number of good Chinese restaurants. 

The same cannot be said of China itself, of course, which has a billion Chinese but hardly enough Jews to make a minyan. Still, the undeniable affinity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people is very much in evidence in “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion” (Holt: $15) by Michael Levy, a funny, endearing and fascinating account of his sojourn in China, where he quickly earned the nickname “the Friendship Jew.”

The Peace Corps sent Levy to China in 2005 to teach English in the city of Guiyang. From the outset, as we learn in Levy’s utterly winning book, he suffered a kind of continuous culture shock. When he was offered a bowl of deep-fried millipedes, it was less a matter of kashrut than visceral revulsion that put him off — “I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable” — but he played the kosher card: “I’m a little different than most Americans,” he demurred. “I’m a Jew.” He quickly discovered that his Jewish identity had some interesting resonances in a communist country.

“Comrade Marx was a Jew,” said one of his hosts. “So was Einstein,” said another. And a third man observed: “Why would the CIA send us a Jew?”

When Levy dreamed of China, he confesses, he dreamed of “rice paddies and kung fu, egg rolls and Chairman Mao.” When he landed in Chengdu, what he found was a “an unregulated,

crony-capitalist dream, generating a thick, pore-clogging smog,” a totalitarian country where some 40,000 full-time Internet censors are at work to maintain “the Great Firewall of China,” and a place where one quickly needed to master the niceties of the “squat toilet.” He is soon eating pork dumplings, which represents a compromise of his vegetarianism rather than his Judaism, and when he eyes the tantalizing hemline of one of his fellow teachers, he writes, “I had unkosher thoughts.” 

Levy allows us to understand the twists and turns that both separate and unite America and China. A communist official tells him, “Chinese women want to ‘become white like Michael Jackson.’ ” The town where he is assigned to teach, he discovers, has not one, but two Walmarts.  On his first day of class, his students debate among themselves whether he is a “foreigner” or a “foreign devil.” When asked to choose English names to use in class, one student calls herself by the colloquial English word for a young cat, which occasions a frank discussion of American euphemisms and their Chinese equivalents; the young woman eventually chooses a synonym: “Kitten.” 

He is quickly recruited to serve as leader of the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, which serves as an occasion for some lively cultural exchanges, some highly inventive culinary adventures and much practice at what he calls “Crazy English.” He joins a basketball team and learns how the hot-button issue of Taiwan can affect the world of sports. He is much sought after for advice on everything from relationships to real estate, and for information on all aspects of being American and being Jewish. Indeed, the fact that he is Jewish is a matter of intense interest among his Chinese acquaintances, which helps to explain why one best-selling book in China is titled “Jewish People’s Secrets for Success.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Levy is playing for laughs or if his experiences in China were as comical as he makes them out to be, but there are plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud humor in “Kosher Chinese.” Levy is still working as a schoolteacher, but he would make a gifted sitcom writer. When asked to describe how Christmas is celebrated in America, for example, he tells his students how American Jews engage in “the yearly ritual of spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant.”

“Is that because Comrade Marx was Jewish, and China upholds his belief?” asks one Chinese student.

“No,” answers Levy. “It’s because everything else is closed.”

Thus does Levy earn his nickname, “Friendship Jew.” Indeed, he succeeds in charming the reader just as he charmed his friends, colleagues and students in China. “We Chinese cannot trust a person until we have been drunk with them,” one young man tells Levy. “It’s only after much drinking that we can see each other’s true minds.” That’s exactly how I felt about Michael Levy after the pleasurable and sometimes uproarious experience of seeing China through his eyes.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Summer reads in all varieties

Some beloved and celebrated authors will hit the road in support of their latest books as this summer begins. Here are a few of the most intriguing titles and some of the places where their authors will be reading and signing their books in Southern California:

Lisa See, author of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” (now a motion picture) and other recent best sellers, continues the tale she began in “Shanghai Girls” by chronicling the further exploits of the characters — the sisters Pearl and May, and May’s daughter, Joy — during the tumultuous 1950s in China and other exotic locales around the world in “Dreams of Joy” (Random House: $26). “Looks like another hit,” predicts Publishers Weekly. A reading group favorite, See works her magic yet again in a tale that shows how the intimate experiences of life play out amid the great events of history. See’s national book tour will bring her to Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, on Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m. and, as a sign of the times in the publishing industry, she will also sign books at Costco, 6100 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, on Friday, June 3, at 1 p.m.

Former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi first came to national attention by putting Charles Manson and the Manson Family behind bars — an experience he chronicled (with Curt Gentry) in “Helter Skelter” — and he went on to write about other notorious people and events in “And the See Will Tell” (with Bruce Henderson), “Reclaiming History” and “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder.”  Now Bugliosi tackles the biggest and oldest question of all in “Divinity of Doubt: The God Question” (Vanguard Press: $26.99). As he surveys the arguments for and against the existence of God, he directs our attention to “the uniform thread of common sense in the evidence,” which is, he asserts, “my only master.” The verdict? Bugliosi is neither a believer nor an atheist, but a principled agnostic. He will appear at Book Soup, 8188 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Tuesday, June 21, at 7 p.m.

Comedian Paul Reiser, among those first-generation stand-up comedians who reinvented themselves as sitcom stars, made a third career for himself on the best-seller lists with his chatty and lighthearted humor and advice books, “Couplehood” and “Babyhood.” Now he completes the trilogy with “Familyhood” (Hyperion: $26.99), a likable look at the aspirations and realities of family life. He confides that he chronicled his own family of origin in a list titled “Things I’m Not So Crazy About in My Family,” and he is just as frank about the family he belongs to now. Reiser will appear at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmers Market in Los Angeles, on Wednesday, June 15, at 7 p.m.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and we’ve got the Hollywood sign, an artifact that is explored and explained in compelling color and detail in Leo Braudy’s “The Hollywood Sign” (Yale University Press: $24).  The story that Braudy tells is all the more surprising for the fact that we see the sign every day, and he reveals what we don’t know about it — how and why it was built, the scandals associated with it and the powerful role it has come to play in popular culture. Braudy will be featured in conversation with another Los Angeles institution — Kevin Roderick, founding editor of L.A. Observed ( — in the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Public Library, on Thursday, July 21, at 7 p.m.

Long before “Twilight” and “True Blood,” there was “Dark Shadows,” a groundbreaking variant of the standard American soap opera featuring a cast of vampires and a young actress named Kathryn Leigh Scott as the much-preyed-upon ingenue.  She recalled her experiences in “My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows,” a memoir that launched her parallel careers as both an author and a publisher. Now Scott conjures up a thriller of her own — and something of a roman a clef — in “Dark Passages” (Pomegranate Press: $14.95), which depicts the various kinds of bloodsuckers who haunt the set of a ’60s-era soap opera. Scott will be feted at a publication party for her new book at Diesel Books, Brentwood Country Mart, Santa Monica, on Sunday, Aug. 7, at 3 p.m.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

A skeptic looks at why we believe

Based on firsthand experience, I can say that if you find yourself in a room with Michael Shermer, he’s likely to be the smartest guy present, and I do not mean in the Enron sense.  Shermer, author of “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “The Science of Good and Evil,” among other books, is the founder of Skeptic magazine, and a fearless and tireless advocate of rationalism in the face of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. And he brings a scalpel-sharp and laser-focused intelligence to his work as America’s arch-skeptic.

“When I call myself a skeptic I mean simply that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims,” he writes. “Science is skepticism and scientists are naturally skeptical.”

Shermer’s latest book is “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths” (Holt: $28), a wholly fascinating account of how our brains are hard-wired to turn raw data into true belief. Indeed, Shermer argues that the brain is a “belief engine,” and he shows us exactly how and why the capacity to believe may be the most important distinction between homo sapiens and all other forms of animal life. 

“Here I am interested in more than just why people believe weird things,” he explains, “but why people believe anything at all.”

Shermer offers a bit of personal background to frame his inquiry. He was raised in a nonreligious home, briefly embraced born-again Christianity as an adolescent, then put aside childish things to devote his life and work to science. “For a materialist such as myself, there is no such thing as ‘mind,’ ” he insists. “It ultimately reduces down to neurons firing and neurochemical transmitter substances flowing across synaptic gaps between neurons, combining complex patterns to produce something we call mind but is actually just brain.”

That’s not to say that Shermer dismisses the power of belief. Quite to the contrary, he shows how our beliefs, whether true or false, shape not only our own lives but also the world we live in and even our destiny as a species. A rustle in the tall grass on the plains of prehistoric Africa might have been understood as a gust of wind, or the breath of God, or a tiger preparing to attack, and evolutionary biology favored the hominid who entertained the belief that it was a tiger. “[P]eople believe weird things,” he writes, “because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”

As he drills down ever deeper into the fundamentals of human brain function, Shermer offers a wealth of surprising information and insights — why we love sweet foods and rich foods even though they make us fat, why a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio is sexually attractive, why incest taboos are genetically imprinted and why we are hard-wired to see faces in photographs of distant moons and planets. None of these characteristics were bestowed upon us by an Intelligent Designer, he argues, but we are here today because all of them favored the survival of the fittest among our far-distant progenitors.

But he also shows how the wiring of the human brain provides the “cognitive basis” for a whole range of beliefs that can be seen as barriers to reason, including not only “shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms,” but also alien abduction, astral projection, conspiracy theories, the search for UFOs, telekinesis and much else besides, all of which he dismisses as “superstition and magical thinking,” and even plain madness.

For anyone who cares about religion, whether as an artifact of human civilization or a source of moral instruction or even a divine revelation, “The Believing Brain” will be challenging but also illuminating and enriching. “Why do so many people believe in God?” Shermer ponders. “Your culture may dictate which god to believe in and which religion to adhere to, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world as an indispensable part of a social group is universal to all cultures because it is hardwired into the brain.”

That’s not to say that Shermer reduces all of human experience to biochemistry and evolutionary biology. The fact that he does not believe in a supernatural deity or an afterlife only sharpens his appreciation for life in the here and now: “If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities — and how we treat others — when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts. …”

To which even a skeptic can say: Amen!

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The book festival gets a new home

The headliners at the 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books range from literary luminaries like Carolyn See, Dave Eggers, T.C. Boyle and Jennifer Egan, to fitness icon Jillian Michaels and master prestidigitator Ricky Jay, but the biggest news is the change of venue. After a 15-year run at the UCLA campus, the event has moved to the lively and welcoming campus of the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles.

The festival kicks off, as it does every year, with the presentation of the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The winners in 12 categories will be announced at a ceremony on the evening before opening day, but one winner has already been announced — the Robert Kirsch Prize for lifetime achievement, named after my late father, which will be awarded to beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary.

For complete information about the schedule of events — including readings, performances, panels and exhibits featuring more than 400 authors and 300 exhibitors — and for information on how to order free tickets, visit Parking on the USC campus is $10. Free nonstop shuttle service between USC and Union Station is sponsored by Target.

The festival takes place Saturday, April 30, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday May 1, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Among the author appearances on the USC campus, there are several standouts:

Chris Hedges (“The World as It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress) is among the participants in the panel titled “Fear & Trembling in the New World,” which assures some pyrotechnics. Also featured on the panel are Barry Glassner (“The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things”), Shane Harris (“The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State”) and Russell Jacoby (“Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present”). It will be my honor to serve as moderator. (Saturday, 2 p.m., Davidson Conference Center)

Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai will moderate a panel on “Fiction of the Middle East” featuring Reza Aslan (“Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East”), Assaf Gavron (“Almost Dead”) and Laila Lalami (“Secret Son”). (Saturday, 2 p.m., Norris)

Ricky Jay (“Celebrations of Curious Characters”), who has worked magic in print, on stage and in movies, will be featured in conversation with Joe Morgenstern. (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Campus Center Ballroom)

Reza Aslan will moderate a panel titled “People Power: The Rise of a New Middle East,” featuring Laurie Brand (“Citizens Abroad: Emigration and the State in the Middle East and Africa”), Tom Hayden (“The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama”) and Parag Khanna (“How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance”). (Saturday 10:30 a.m., Bovard)

Aimee Bender will read from the latest of her unique and enchanting works of literary fiction, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” (Saturday, 11:45 a.m., Harris)

Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton will moderate a panel titled “From the Front Page to the Book Shelf,” featuring Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch (“Chasing Aphrodite”), Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe”) and Judy Pasternak (“Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed”). (Sunday, 1 p.m., SAL 101)

Carolyn See, literary lioness and author of enduring, delightful and important novels (ranging from “Golden Days” to “The Handyman”) and memoirs (“Dreaming” and “Making a Literary Life”), will be featured in conversation with Times staff writer Thomas Curwen. (10:30 a.m., Taper 201)

Feminist author and scholar Lois Banner will moderate a panel titled “Hollywood Icons” featuring Leo Braudy (“The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon”), M.G. Lord (“Astro Turf”) and Karen Sternheimer (“Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility”). (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Harris)

Poet and USC professor David St. John will moderate a panel titled “The Poet’s Journey: Personal Reflection and Public Revelation” featuring Nick Flynn (“The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir”), Dana Goodyear (“Honey and Junk”), Yehoshua November (”God’s Optimism”) and Matthew Zapruder (“Come on All You Ghosts”). (Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Annenberg Auditorium)

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Once a sign, now an icon

“Icon” is a much-used word — and I am as guilty as anyone else of overusing it — but when it comes to the Hollywood sign, no other word will do. In fact, Leo Braudy’s fascinating new book, “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon” (Yale University Press, $24), is published as part of the “Icons of America” series, which includes artifacts ranging from the Liberty Bell to the hamburger to “Gone With the Wind.”

Braudy, a literature professor at USC, is one of our leading critics and historians, and a go-to guy for a sharp take on the semiotics of American popular culture. When KPFK news analyst Ian Masters wanted to discuss the significance of Bristol Palin’s surprising success on “Dancing With the Stars,” for example, he called on Braudy to explain it all. The same penetrating intelligence and deep-rooted knowledge of history, culture and politics is now brought to bear on the Hollywood sign.

“The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons,” explains Braudy. “Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself.”

As Braudy points out, the sign does not depict a human figure, like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, and it is not a unitary object like the Washington Monument. “[The sign] cannot be visited,” he observes, “only seen from afar.” The word “Hollywood” itself is ubiquitous and thus meaningless even as a place identifier; I have seen it used on restaurants, salons and health clubs all over the world. But the particular arrangement of outsized white letters on a chaparral-covered hillside, slightly disarranged in a way that is recognizable at a subliminal level of consciousness, “embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape.”

Braudy’s book is full of insight about an object that is always there and yet seldom intrudes on our consciousness. “Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object” — the sign was first erected as a temporary billboard to promote a real estate development called “Hollywoodland” — “the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is in fact a comparably recent phenomenon.” 

Even the fact that the sign now evokes movie-making rather than tract housing itself is something of a surprise. Braudy reminds us that Los Angeles was once a place where a rooming house might display a sign in the front window, “No Jews, actors or dogs allowed.” Even when the studios began to proliferate in Southern California, Burbank and Culver City were (and are) as important as Hollywood when it comes to actually making movies. But Hollywood eventually became “an emblematic center that held together a wide array of studios, stars, and all the other paraphernalia of movie-making,” and the sign came to embody the same powerful symbolic meaning.

The development called Hollywoodland was located in upper Beachwood Canyon on a site that had been used for a 1916 production of “Julius Caesar” starring Tyrone Power Sr. and a cast of 5,000 extras, including “five hundred dancing girls.” To publicize the project, starlets were recruited to pose in the bucket of a steam shovel with the sign in the background. But Braudy insists that some elements of the sign owed nothing to movie magic: “The lighting of the sign by 4,000 twenty-watt bulbs, another crucial element in its ability to be seen at a distance, may have been influenced by the ubiquitous wooden derricks in Los Angeles, otherwise an eyesore, that had for some time been rigged out with electric lights as part of publicity for the oil industry.”

Virtually every incident that touches on the Hollywood sign is the occasion for a wholly fascinating excursion in Braudy’s book. Peg Entwistle is the young woman who, according to conventional wisdom, committed suicide by jumping off the “H” on a lonely night in 1932. But Braudy offers nothing less than a scenario for a film noir when he calls into question every item of received wisdom in the tale. “Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?” he wonders. “Was this another crime cover-up so common in the corrupt Los Angeles of the 1930s?”

Not until after World War II was the word “LAND” removed from the sign, a facelift that allowed the sign to float free of its mundane origins and soar into the cultural heavens. “So, in one sense, in January of 1949, the Hollywood sign was born, or perhaps reborn,” writes Braudy.  “Like a phoenix, it would have a few more rebirths before it became the icon we now see.”

“The Hollywood Sign,” not unlike the sign itself, achieves something far more elevated and expansive than its ostensible function. It is not just a history of a famous object on the Southern California landscape; rather, it is an artful, illuminating and absorbing meditation on a place, an era, an industry, a cast of unlikely characters and a zeitgeist. For that reason, like Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” or “City of Quartz” by Mike Davis, it is an instant classic that belongs in any collection of books about Los Angeles.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Victim of violence calls for peace

If there is a Palestinian Arab who deserves to feel aggrieved, surely it is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of his daughters and a niece were killed by a shell fired by the Israel Defense Forces during the fighting in Gaza in 2009. Yet Dr. Abuelaish has refused to resort to recrimination and struggles instead to make sense of these tragic deaths.

“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” he told an Israeli medical colleague, “then I could accept it.”

Dr. Abuelaish speaks for himself in “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity” (Walker & Company: $24.00), a remarkable memoir by a remarkable man.  He was born in 1955 in Gaza and witnessed the Six Day War at close quarters: “Israeli tanks rolled right onto our street,” he recalls. “It happened right in front of my eyes, and it looked like the end of the world to me.”  And he grew up in hardship in the Jabalia refugee camp: “We were everything that the word refugee stands for: disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalized, and suffering.”

Still, as a gifted child whose promise was recognized early in life, Abuelaish found a way out of the suffering. He earned a medical degree in Cairo, a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology through a joint program of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health and the University of London, and a master’s degree in public health at Harvard. He completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the Soroka Medical Center and served as a senior researcher at the Sheba Medical Center, both in Israel. “All of my adult life I have had one leg in Palestine and the other in Israel,” he writes, “an unusual stance in this region.”

As a medical professional working in Israel, he writes, “I did my share of pushing the envelope for coexistence” by inviting his Israeli colleagues to tour the Jabalia refugee camp and to join his Palestinian friends for coffee and conversation.  “Although I wore a name tag with a Palestinian surname and spoke Hebrew with an accent, no one seemed to object,” he writes. “Disease doesn’t recognize borders.”  But peace-making on a personal level was one victim of the second intifada that began in 2000. “How can you help these Jewish women to have babies?” he was asked by his colleagues in Gaza. “They will grow up to be soldiers who bomb us and shoot us.”

Dr. Abuelaish describes a medical career that took him all over the world, from one “conflict zone” to another, and he shares the terrible loss that his family suffered when his wife died of leukemia. But nothing quite prepares us for the fateful day in December 2008 when Israel launched an attack on Hamas fighters in Gaza. “[A]ll hell broke loose in Gaza,” he recalls. “Israeli rockets, bombs, and shells came from every direction.” Tragically, a cease-fire seemed within reach in the early days of 2009 but not before a tank shell struck the apartment where Dr. Abuelaish and his family were sheltering.

“To this day I’m not absolutely certain about who was killed when,” he writes in a horrific account of that day. “There was a monstrous explosion that seemed to be all around us, and thundering, fulminating sound that penetrated my body as though it were coming from within me.”  When the smoke cleared, three of his children and a niece were dead. “All I could think was: This is the end. This is the end.”

Dr. Abuelaish describes how his fellow Arabs cried out for revenge and reprisal.  “What about the soldier who fired the deadly volleys from the tank?  Didn’t I hate him?”  But, like the lamed-vovnik that he truly is, Dr. Abuelaish rejected yet another round of bloodshed. “[T]hat’s how the system works here: we use hatred and blame to avoid the reality that eventually we need to come together.”  In a real sense, then, “I Shall Not Hate” is Dr. Abuelaish’s earnest effort to repair not only the wounds that he and his family have suffered but the troubled world in which both Arabs and Israelis find themselves.

So Dr. Abuelaish offers a cry of conscience in “I Shall Note Hate”: “The catastrophe of the deaths of my daughters and niece has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide,” he writes. “I understand down to my bones that violence is futile. It is a waste of time, lives, and sources, and has been proven only to beget more violence.”  But, at the same time, he insists that Israelis and their supporters must open their eyes to the suffering that is the breeding-ground of extremism. Among the many eye-opening moments in “I Shall Not Hate,” for example, is a glimpse of the “facts on the ground” in Gaza, something that is mostly absent from the sporadic news coverage. 

“This is my Gaza: Israeli gunships on the horizon, helicopters overhead, the airless smugglers’ tunnels into Egypt, UN relief trucks on the roadways, smashed buildings, and corroding infrastructure,” writes Dr. Abuelaish. “There is never enough – not enough cooking oil, not enough fresh fruit or water. Never, ever enough.”  He points out that “it is sometimes hard to know who is in charge, whom to hold responsible: Israel, the international community, Fatah, Hamas, the gangs, the religious fundamentalists.” As a result, he warns, “Gaza is a human time bomb in the process of imploding.”

Above all, Dr. Abuelaish pleads with the reader to consider how the plight of Gaza residents feeds into the “vicious cycle” of violence and counter-violence and prompts what he calls “parasuidical behavior” like rocket attacks and suicide bombings. “The acts of violence committed by the Palestinians are expressions of the frustration and rage of a people who feel impotent and hopeless,” he explains. “The occupation and oppression of the people in Gaza is like a cancer, a disease that needs to be treated.” And he concludes: “I am arguing that we need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and quality, one that inoculates them against hatred.”

To which his readers can only say: “Amen.”

Note to the Reader: Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of “I Shall Not Hate,” will appear in conversation with Washington Post journalist Laura Blumenfeld in the ALOUD at Central Library’s Interfaith Series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The City of Lights at its darkest hour

Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sight-seeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the Fuehrer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors” and former cultural correspondent for the New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour.  He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” muses Riding. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” said Jean-Paul Sartre many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” writes Riding, “the options – and dilemmas – faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.”  Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain.  Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ and P. G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theatre.  The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.”  Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.”  One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” wrote the French writer Jean Cocteau in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account.  Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.”  Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at