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Israel according to Hollywood:
Click the BIG ARROW for the trailer from “Exodus” (1960)

The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; theyfounded Israel to help Jews escape the world.

Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.

One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise.

But both these grand inventions have something very important in common: Jewish writers.

Jewish writers created the movies that defined Hollywood. And other Jewish writers, a world away, created the movement that defined Israel. These thoughts wandered through my head as I dipped in an out of a rare offering this week, an international conference in Los Angeles on Israeli literature. Held under the auspices of the relatively new UCLA Israel Studies Program, “History as Reflected in Israeli Literature” brought together several dozen of the world’s top scholars in a surprisingly rich field.

Actually, as the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua made clear in his keynote address Sunday evening, the importance of the literary imagination to Israel should surprise no one.

“Zionism was founded by writers,” he said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a popular journalist and aspiring playwright.

“Herzl was a failed dramatist,” Yehoshua said. “Perhaps if he was a more successful dramatist….” His voice trailed off as the audience laughed, imagining Herzl forsaking his life’s mission for a three-play deal on the Ringstrasse. “We are perhaps one of his plays.”

But Herzl forsook plays and instead wrote books, bad fiction and good nonfiction, outlining his vision of a Jewish state. That tradition continued after Israel’s founding in 1948, though the quality of the fiction greatly improved. Those early works, as Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Yigal Schwartz said at one panel, mostly wrestled with the basic questions of identity.

“Most Hebrew literature dealt with trying to make a new nation through literature,” he told conferees. These works created, “the Zionist religion of Nationhood.”

But on their heels, in the 1950s, came novels challenging the hard-won status quo.

“The major subject of this literature is the disappointment with the state,” said professor Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University. “There wasn’t any writer who didn’t express disappointment.”

Holtzman pointed out that the early Soviet literature evinced the same kind of post-revolutionary letdown.

The difference was, of course, that the Soviets killed their disappointed novelists. Israel lauded hers. Another generation — Yehoshua’s — blossomed, and its literature was still more complex, combining political themes with the personal and historical. And as these Israeli writers gained fame, something extraordinary happened — Israelis continued to listen to them.

As professor Robert Alter pointed out in a presentation with Yehoshua, this attention marks a great divide between Israeli and American novelists. Israel has a tradition of novelists and writers engaged in the public square.

“How different this is from the American writer,” Alter said. “I think very few practicing American novelists today feel any impulse to comment on political matters, and even more crucially, if they did, if Phillip Roth did comment on American politics, nobody would pay attention to him.”

In fact, Roth denies that his book, “The Plot Against America,” is a direct critique of the Bush administration, despite the fact that many have read it as such.

When Yehoshua gave a press conference last summer alongside novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman calling for an end to the recent war against Hezbollah — Yehoshua supported it but believed it was going on too long — it made national headlines. When Yehoshua declared that in the Diaspora being Jewish “is a jacket you take on or off,” while in Israel it is “a skin,” the outcry made international headlines. (He repeated the charges Sunday night, with considerably less shock value.)

In fact, the importance of the artistic imagination to the Israeli endeavor should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into L.A. culture these days. The Israel Film Festival is at the Laemmle theatres, featuring a slate of cutting-edge movies from Hollywood-on-HaYarkon. This May, a vast exchange is in the works bringing Tel Aviv fine artists to galleries in L.A. Musicians from David Broza to the entire Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have played to large audiences recently.

And last week’s literary conference was, according to professor David Myers of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, which co-sponsored the event, the first of its kind in Los Angeles.

In America, it’s fair to say, Hollywood’s writers have more power than novelists over the public political and cultural consciousness. But in Israel the lions of literature still have an impact, and that, Yehoshua said, is not by chance.

“The others,” he said, going back to the beginnings of that other Jewish invention, “the rabbis, the leaders of the community, they could not foresee what was happening, what will happen to the Jewish people. It was only by a certain imagination, an audacity, that these writers could understand what has to be done in order to avoid the catastrophe.”

“My feeling is that we continue this certain tradition of writers, this vision for Zionism of seeing clearly what is to be done,” he continued. “I don’t say we have seen always the right thing, that our analysis was always correct. But the fact is that this is a certain tradition of Zionism, that writers and intellectuals are important and the public is hearing us. Maybe they were thinking we were perhaps na?ve, perhaps stupid, but there is a place for the intellectual to say his words. In this sense I am always grateful to Israel for the way in which it never persecuted us, and always gave us attention.”

Would you expect anything else from a great Jewish invention?

Quarterly calendar


MARCH

Fri., March 16

“Irish Writers Entertain: An Evening in the Company of Irish Writers.” One-man show starring Neil O’Shea. Part of the annual Irish Cultural Festival. Loyola Marymount University (LMU). 7:30 p.m. Free. LMU, Barnelle Black Box, Foley Building, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-3051.

Sat., March 17

“Cult of Childhood.” Multiple artists explore the menace and charm of childhood. Opening reception 7-10:30 p.m. Through April 15. Black Maria Gallery, 3137 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 660-9393. www.blackmariagallery.com.

Thu., March 22

Joffrey Ballet Performances. Two dance programs, one featuring live orchestra accompaniment, and the other featuring contemporary music by The Beach Boys, Prince and Motown artists. Choreography by Twyla Tharp, George Ballanchine and four others. Through March 24. $25-$115. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-0711. www.musiccenter.org/dance.

Werner Herzog Tribute and Film Retrospective. Screenings of “Heart of Glass,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Grizzly Man,” and other films by the German director. Herzog will be discussing his work at some of the programs. American Cinematheque. Through March 25. $7-$10. Max Palevsky Theatre at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456. www.aerotheatre.com.

Ventura County Jewish Film Festival. Film subjects include the fate of European art during the Third Reich, a French butcher who saves the lives of three Jewish children, the journey of musician Debbie Friedman and a romantic tale of unrequited love. Through March 25. $36 (festival pass), $10-$12 (individual screenings). Regency Theatre Buenaventura 6, 1440 Eastman Ave.; and Temple Beth Torah, 7620 Foothill Blvd., Ventura. (805) 647-4181. www.vcjff.org.

Sun., March 25

“Projectile Poetry.” Hosted by Theresa Antonia, Eric Howard and Carmen Vega, the program features readings by published poets as well as an open mic for newcomers. 3 p.m. Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-6263. www.duttonsbrentwood.com.

“Requiem.” World premiere of Christopher Rouse’s musical piece, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and baritone Sanford Sylvan. Conducted by Grant Gershon. 7 p.m. $19-$109. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (800) 787-5262. www.lamc.org.

“Distracted.” Lisa Loomer’s comedy about an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with ADD and the fast paced, overly wired environment that may have caused it. Directed by Leonard Foglia and starring Rita Wilson and Bronson Pinchot. Center Theatre Group. Through April 29. $20-$55. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.

Tue., March 27

“Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” Tony Award-winning dancer stars in a musical production celebrating her 50-year career. Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Through April 1. $25-$75. Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-4900. www.wilshiretheatrebeverlyhills.com.

Fri., March 30

Roy Zimmerman’s “Faulty Intelligence.” Singing political satirist takes aim at Saddam, Dick Cheney, creation science and more. 8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall at Fields Pianos, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

“California Style: Art and Fashion From the California Historical Society.” Exhibit includes Victorian-era paintings, ball gowns and a re-created private parlor from the 1880s. Through May 27. $3-$9. Autry National Center, Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000. www.autrynationalcenter.org.

APRIL

Thu., April 5

“The Art of Vintage Israeli Travel Posters.” Commemorating Israeli Independence Day, the exhibit displays posters produced by Israeli government tourism agencies as well as national and private transportation companies during the 1950s and 1960s. Through July 8. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, Ruby and Hurd Galleries, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Fri., April 6

John Legend Concert. Special guest Corinne Bailey Rae. 8:15 p.m. $30-$75. Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. (818) 622-4440.

Sat., April 7

“Sleeping Beauty Wakes.” Musical adaptation incorporating deaf and hearing actors signing and singing to the book by Rachel Sheinkin. Also features GrooveLily .Center Theatre Group/Deaf West Theatre. Through May 13. $20-$40. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.

Wed., April 11

“The Elixir of Love.” Gaetano Donizetti’s light-hearted romantic opera is set in a West Texas diner in the 1950s. Opera Pacific. Through April 22. $27-$200. Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (800) 346-7372. www.operapacific.org.

Thu., April 12

“KCLU Presents Terry Gross.” The host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” will speak about her experiences interviewing renowned writers, actors, musicians and political figures. Book signing will follow discussion. California Lutheran University. 8 p.m. $15-$50. Fred Kavli Theatre, Countrywide Performing Arts Center, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 449-2787.

Malibu International Film Festival. Competition festival premiering films from around the world. Opening night party at The Penthouse and awards night at Geoffrey’s Malibu. Through April 16. $10-$100. Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 452-6688. www.malibufilmfestival.com.

Jane Austen Book Club. Series of six book club luncheons discussing Jane Austen novels with UCLA Professor of English Charles Lynn Batten. Novels included. Literary Affairs. 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. May 10, June 14, July 12, Sept. 27, Oct. 25. $375. Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 553-4265. www.literaryaffairs.net.

Fri., April 13

“The Diary of Anne Frank.” Selections from the book performed as an opera and staged in specially prepared areas of parking garages. Featuring Laura Hillman, Schindler’s List survivor. Composed by Grigori Frid. Long Beach Opera. Through April 19. $15-$70. Lincoln Park parking garage, Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Avenue, Long Beach; Sinai Temple parking garage, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (562) 432-5934. www.longbeachopera.org.

Sat., April 14

“Preschool Poetry Jam.” David Prather hosts interactive children’s program with jump rope jingles, Shel Silverstein’s poetry, tumbling boxes, scooters and more. Part of Pillow Theatre Series for 3-6 year olds. Music Center. 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. Free. BP Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3379. www.musiccenter.org.

Tue., April 17

Israeli entry ‘Mud’ wins at Sundance


‘Mud’ Wins at Sundance

Two Israeli films taking critical looks at the Jewish state’s society and institutions have won major prizes at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival at Park City, Utah.

“Sweet Mud,” or “Adama Meshugaat” in Hebrew, a top-grossing film in Israel, follows a 13-year-old boy coming of age in a 1970s kibbutz while coping with a mentally unstable mother. Director Dror Shaul was honored with the World Cinema Jury Prize for best drama film. It had been Israel’s entry for Oscar honors in the foreign-language film category but was not named among the five finalists.

“Hot House,” directed by Shimon Dotan, received a special jury prize in World Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance. The film depicts Israeli prisons as a breeding ground for future Palestinian leaders, as well as terrorists.

The Sundance awards illustrate both the festival’s growing role as a showcase for independent foreign films and Israel’s rising prestige in the world of cinema.

Last summer’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival, for instance, featured an Israel Day for the first time, with the screening of an unprecedented 15 Israeli films.Sundance gave one of its highest honors, the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary, to Jason Kohn, a young New York expatriate. In “Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”), his first feature-length work, Kohn explores the violence and corruption of Brazilian society.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Reich’s Pearls of Music

Disney Hall was packed for the West Coast premiere of “Daniel Variations” by composer Steven Reich.

As Reich, one of America’s greatest composers, watched from his perch in the control room, conductor Grant Gershon led the L.A. Master Chorale through the haunting, evocative work Reich wrote in honor of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Afterward, VIPs gathered in the Founders Room to honor Reich, who turned 70 this year. The composer, clad in black and wearing a signature baseball cap, spoke of the emotional pull the story of Daniel Pearl had for him.”I’m also a father,” he said.

Judea Pearl, speaking on behalf of his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Tamara, who were also in attendance, praised Reich’s “dark and exuberant” work, which was commissioned in part by the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

“I was totally impressed by how you expressed the darkness turning into hope,” he said.

Pearl, himself a musician, said he realized how Reich did this, by using violins to weave light, upbeat notes through the 20-minute work.

“I kept saying, ‘Danny, this is your humor,'” Pearl said.

— Staff Report

Pepperdine Connects Genocide and Religion

On July 6, 1941, Simon Wiesenthal was arrested with other Jews in the Ukraine and ordered to line up in rows to be shot by Nazi forces. The shooting lasted through the afternoon — but suddenly stopped when a church bell rang and the soldiers had to stop for prayers.

Wiesenthal’s life work as a Nazi hunter embodies issues such as these, at the crossroads between genocide and religion: justice, vengeance and forgiveness, justification and responsibility.

Now, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Pepperdine University School of Law will explore many of these issues in an upcoming conference, “Genocide and Religion: Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Resisters,” on Feb. 11-13 at both the Wiesenthal Center and the Pepperdine campus in Malibu. The conference will explore all the components of genocides in the 20th and 21st centuries, beginning with Armenia and continuing today in Sudan. The conference will examine what role law should play in mediating this intersection between religion and genocide.

Speakers include Hebrew University professor Israel Charny, president of the International Association of Israel Scholars; Bruce Einhorn, U.S. immigration law judge, and Michael Bayzler, a Pepperdine Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law who was a fellow at Yad Vashem.

For more information, call (310) 506-7635.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Teen Readers and Writers Talk Shop

Teens and young adults, and authors who aspire to write for them, are invited to attend Sinai Temple’s “Focus on Young Adult/Teen Literature” conference, Sunday, Feb. 4, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m., at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. The panel of young adult authors will include Sarah Littman, Debra Garfinkle, Dana Reinhardt and Simone Elkeles, and will be moderated by Linda Silver, editor of New Jewish Valuesfinder. An afternoon program will feature an interactive historical survey of Jewish literature for children. Participants can shop at a children’s book sale and marketplace, or they can try to improve their own marketing by meeting with an editor available for manuscript consultations ($40 fee).

For reservations and information, call (313) 474-1518 or e-mail lsilverman@sinaitemple.org.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

The art of keeping a travel journal


I was going through some old boxes the other day when I found a beat up old notebook that contained a journal of my trip to the Philippines almost nine years ago. The journey had been my first to a tropical country, and thumbing through those wrinkled pages was like stepping into a blast of Southeast Asian humidity: The more I read, the more I began to feel the emotions I felt when I first wandered through Manila and Cebu and Boracay.

Admittedly, the prose in my old journal was far too purple and unfocused to submit for publication in the greater world, but it was a wonderfully vivid evocation of the trip, by myself and for myself — an author and audience of one.

My travel journals haven’t been quite so detailed in the years since I returned from the Philippines — mainly due to the professional demands of travel writing, which takes up most of my note-taking time on the road. Moreover, since a lot of my leftover travel perspectives have gone electronically into my blog in recent years, my pen and paper travel journals have been a bit skimpy in recent years.

Nevertheless, I believe that keeping a travel journal can be one of the most rewarding habits a person can keep on the road. Since I’m a bit out of practice, however, I got in touch with my old friend Lavinia Spalding — a Utah-based writer and travel-journal guru currently at work on a book titled, “Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Journaling on Vacation” — to winnow out some expert advice on keeping a journal on the road:

Rolf Potts: What are the benefits of keeping a travel journal? Why not just enjoy your experience organically without recording it?

Lavinia Spalding: Every traveler who keeps a journal does so for different and valuable reasons. On the most basic level, a travelogue is a place to record information — the name of that historic hotel in Livingston, Mont., or directions to the best Khmer restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a log of what not to forget. It can inspire writing to publish or share with friends and family; serve as a confidant on solo journeys; store memorabilia such as stamps, ticket stubs and wine labels; or provide a clean canvas for impromptu sketches. It can be a mirror of self-discovery along the way.

For me, the ultimate reward is being forced, regularly, to slow down and be present. If I sit with my notebook for even a few minutes each day to write about where I am in that moment, and what I’m currently experiencing with all of my senses, it becomes a practice. It takes me out of thinking only of past and future — the site I’ve just visited, or my next destination. It demands an immediate stillness and awareness, and in doing so enriches the whole experience.

RP: What advice would you give to a first-timer, who has never kept a travel journal and doesn’t know where to start?

LS: Begin by treating yourself to a new unlined blank book. Choose it carefully, paying close attention to the weight of the pages and the feel of it in your hands. Will it lay relatively flat when open? Will it hold up to weather and wear? My favorite journals are actually sketchbooks — they’re affordable, sturdy and versatile, and can be found in any art supply store.

Once you’ve set yourself up with the perfect blank book, take it home and display it on your bedside table along with a favorite pen. Soon it’ll call to you like keys to a new car. If you’ve bought your journal for an upcoming trip but want to start writing in it at once, begin by listing expectations and goals for the journey, as well as any preconceived notions of your intended destinations. Include your to-do list, packing list, estimated budget and any useful travel tips you’ve received. Not only will this spark excitement and get you into the habit of journal writing, you’ll also have fun reading it upon your return, at which point you can recount the ways in which your expectations met or differed from reality.

RP: How do you keep a consistent journal on the road without letting it interfere with your experience?

LS: I think of my journal as a travel companion. Not a whiny or strict companion demanding my constant attention, but an affable, playful, ever-available friend that doesn’t mind spending a lot of time locked in my hotel room. Then, as I go about my day, taking in sights and having adventures, I keep it in the back of my mind, thinking to myself, “I can’t wait to tell my journal this story.” I pick up small gifts for it while I’m out — a colorful candy wrapper to glue inside, a flower to press between the pages, a museum pass or a hologram sticker of Kuan Yin.

A mistake many people make is feeling obliged to carry their journal everywhere they go. Instead, tuck a small spiral notebook into your pocket or daypack. That way you can jot things down on the spot and later transfer over the information, or better yet, tear out the page and paste it into your journal. Another mistake is trying to describe in exhaustive detail the events of every single day. If you make yourself write daily long entries, eventually it’ll start to smell like homework.

Some consistency is necessary, though. It’s a good idea to commit to eking out a few words every day — short notes on where you went and what you saw, or a funny overheard quote. Entries in my journal from Tibet are as brief as, “steaming plates of yak momos,” and in my Mexico journal, “The lady renting us the casita has a shiny gold star on her front tooth.” A few words are enough to solidify memories.

Maybe later you’ll expand on what you’ve written. Maybe not. Either way, you’ve managed to include the journal in your experience without allowing it to take over. I like to save longer entries for idle moments, when no one else is around and I’m feeling reflective, or when I’ve been drinking.

Jewish Book Month’s Table of Contents


With fall comes the annual harvest of books (and authors) to hit town for Jewish Book Month, Nov. 15-Dec. 16, with fare ranging from politics to social commentary to humorous memoir.The autumnal visitors will include David Mamet at the Central Library, Harry Shearer at Temple Beth Israel of Pomona and children’s book writers at the Jewish Community Library.Here’s just a sampling of dozens of other events that will reap food for thought around town:

Host: The Jewish Book Festival, presented by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, Nov. 2-Dec. 3

Author: David Brog, Nov. 30
Book: “Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State”
Scoop: This Capitol Hill insider says evangelical Christian Zionists are Israel’s friends, not foes
Info: At Sinai Temple of Glendale: (818) 246-8101 (the event is sponsored by The Jewish Journal)

Author: Sandy Tolan, Dec. 3
Book: “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East”
Scoop: True story of the friendship between a Holocaust survivor whose only son died in a terrorist attack, and a Palestinian whose relatives were killed by an Israeli missile
Info: At Beth Shalom of Whittier: (562) 941-8744

Host: The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles

Author: Michelle Markel, Nov. 19
Book: “Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall”
Scoop: Portrait of the artist as a shtetl kid who worked hard and made good
Info: At the Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644

Host: ALOUD at Central Library

Author: David Mamet, Nov. 8
Book: “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews”
Scoop: The Pulitzer Prize winner will dish on his scathing new tome with Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor David L. Ulin
Info: At the Central Library downtown; for reservations: (213) 228-7025 or www.aloudla.org

Author: Steve Wozniak, Nov. 30
Book: “Iwoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon — How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple and Had Fun Doing It”
Scoop: Geek sheds his low profile to tell all about how he masterminded the most globe-altering invention of this past century
Info: See above

— Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sex at the Skirball


When sexy authors like Erica Jong and Jerry Stahl get together onstage, you expect fireworks. But when I drag my friend Kay up to Skirball for the Writers Bloc conversation, the room is too bright, and Kay tells me Jong’s blue-framed eyeglasses and gold necklace make her come off more Carol Channing than “sex goddess.”

“Sex goddess” is how Writers Bloc founder Andrea Grossman introduces Jong, known for her 1973 literary sensation, “Fear of Flying.” Now 64, Jong has a new memoir, “Seducing the Demon,” which seduced most of the middle-aged women into coming tonight.

“Of course that’s why I’m here,” says a woman in a Princess Cruises pumpkin-colored pantsuit. “Her book had such a big effect.”

“I wanted to see what she’s up to now,” adds the female half of a baby boomer couple sitting near us.

Two hipsters in berets and leather (Stahl fans?) complete the scene in the Skirball’s Haas room.

Stahl wrote his own 1999 sexual memoir, “Perv — A Love Story,” and his first book, 1995’s “Permanent Midnight,” a memoir about his time as a drug-addicted TV writer, became a Ben Stiller movie. Kay finds heroin a tired literary cliché. But at the first mention of “sex” she perks up as a bent smile lifts one side of Stahl’s mouth.

And we’re off!

But instead of gland-to-gland combat, what we’re witnessing is an intimate exchange — sex talk in the salon. Jong, called by Grossman “a lightning rod for the last 30 years,” comes off strong in front of a crowd. Stahl plays it self-deprecatory. The one-time creator of Penthouse Letters mixes the right combination of dirty talk and fawning to coax Jong into going for the water bottle. In her newest confessional, Jong writes about sleeping with Martha Stewart’s husband. Stahl quips that he did the same with Stewart’s husband.

“Martha’s a sister,” Kay whispers. “Erica shouldn’t go around bad-mouthing her.”

But she digs the quick, black-clad Stahl. He generously lets Jong bang her political gong to make points against fundamentalist anti-Semites and fixed elections. And when she mentions Justice Sandra Day O’Connor “worried about a drift toward fascism,” Stahl says he slept with her, too.

“How was she?” Jong asks.

“Brittle,” Stahl replies. “But rightward leaning.”

He teases Jong into enticing us with a tale from “Seducing the Demon,” about a British poet (her demon muse) whom she resisted with a sudden revelation: “I can’t [sleep with] this guy … he’s an anti-Semite!”(Didn’t Larry David do something similar on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?)

Then, in keeping with a Skirball tradition, someone in the audience shouts out: “Can’t hear you!”

“Sorry,” Stahl says. “We’re all getting old. Some go deaf. I just speak quietly.”

This segues into what we came for: Jong taking on taboos.

Her next book? A study of her father’s death. She says death and aging are taboo because we’re in denial. But being 64 offers a unique perspective.

“Death starts taking everyone around you,” Jong says. And at the same time, “your kids in their 20s become very needy. So here you are in between these two generations.”

Sounds like a whole new area for her “to blow open,” Stahl prods.

“We all end up a heap of chemicals and a black spot on the ground,” Jong says. “Within a year there’s nothing there except the words you left behind.”

Aging and death. How the baby boomers have turned! Luckily, these two discuss elderly sex.

People with Alzheimer’s make love, Stahl says, “like there’s no tomorrow.”

Jong describes nursing homes where bed hopping has become de rigueur.

“I’m thinking about investing in designer diapers,” says Stahl, drawing laughs. “Seriously.”

Wham bam, pass the Depends? By the time the gal in the orange pantsuit asks about Jackie Collins, Kay has heard enough.

“How about an interview with the Skirball landscape artist?” she says. “That’s impressive work.”

Hank Rosenfeld just helped Irv Brecher compete his memoir on aging and sex and Groucho Marx, called “Go for the Jocular!”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, November 19

Keshet Chaim Dancers and the Idan Raichel Project come together tonight to raise funds for some 20,000 Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. Raichel hasn’t made it to L.A. since last February, so this one-night-only concert might be your only chance for a while to see the ensemble voted “Group of the Year 2005” in Israel. Keshet Chaim will open with colorful dance numbers, including one that combines traditional Yemenite dance with hip-hop.

8 p.m. $45-$150. Kodak Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. (213) 480-3232.

Sunday, November 20

Celebrate L.A. Jewish authors today at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Jewish Federation of San Gabriel Valley presents a special multiauthor day as part of its Jewish Book Festival, which begins with a bagel breakfast with Rabbi Abner Weiss, author of “Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” and continuing with a “Mystery Mavens” mystery writers panel and box lunch program featuring authors Rochelle Krich, Jerrilyn Farmer and Robert Levinson. The day concludes with an afternoon appearance by Peter Lefcourt, author of “The Manhattan Beach Project.” Attend one event or all three.

9:45 a.m. $18 (all-day). Individual tickets available. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. R.S.V.P., (626) 332-0700.

Monday, November 21

Now’s your chance to respond in person to Maureen Dowd’s doomsday New York Times column on the state of women today. The Writers Bloc presents Dowd, author of “Are Men Necessary?,” in conversation with her former boyfriend, “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin.

Temple Emanuel, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, November 22

American Jewish Committee and Temple Beth Sholom join with various Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Sikh organizations for a special Orange County-wide interfaith Thanksgiving service, celebrating the diversity of America’s cultures and faiths. The themes of hunger and homelessness will also be addressed, and participants are encouraged to donate to Orange County’s Second Harvest.

7 p.m. Free. Wallace All Faiths Chapel, Chapman University Campus, University Drive, Orange. (949) 660-8525.

Wednesday, November 23

Now at the Jewish Artist Network (JAN) Gallery is the group show, “Chance,” an exhibition of abstract paintings “for peace and the future.” The seven exhibitors will donate 20 percent of sales to the purchase of art supplies for underprivileged children.

Through Nov. 28. 8 p.m.-midnight (Tues., Thurs. and Sat.) or by appointment. 661 N. Spaulding Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 230-8193.

Thursday, November 24

What’s with Jewish guys wanting to be rappers? One more group for your, um, listening pleasure is Chutzpah, which recently released an eponymous CD. That is, if you can get over the hip-hop posturing and the disturbing image of the hairiest white guy we’ve seen in a basketball jersey.

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Friday, November 25

Opening this week is the Hammer Museum’s “Masters of 20th Century American Comics” exhibition. The extensive show features in depth views of works by 15 of the most celebrated American comic strip and comic book creators, including Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine), R. Crumb (Zap Comix contributor) and Art Spiegleman (“Maus”).

10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7041.

A New Blend of Chick-Lit Sleuth


 

“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte” (Red Dress Ink, $17.95)

Like her protagonist Sophie Katz, Kyra Davis has skin the color of a “well-brewed latte.” That’s why she has spent a large portion of her life fielding comments about her ethnicity.

There was her supervisor at a clothing store, for example, who asked about her Star of David necklace, since how could Davis be Jewish when she looks black? Or all the times people have assumed she’s Puerto Rican and lecture her on taking pride in one’s heritage when they discover she can’t speak Spanish.

“Occasionally, when people ask me where I’m from, I’ll make up some country in Africa and act really offended if they say they never heard of it,” Davis said.

Growing up black and Jewish has paid off for the 32-year-old Davis, whose debut novel, “Sex, Murder and a Double Latte,” manages to address issues of race and religion while blurring the lines between mystery and chick-lit fiction. “So many books with ethnic characters don’t make it in the mainstream,” said Davis, who will be reading at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 24. “But here, I’ve got this biracial protagonist and I’m thrilled that publishers are opening their minds. Of course, Sophie is both Jewish and black, so I guess she’s doubled her market.”

Davis, who signed a four-book deal with her publisher, joins a small-yet-growing group of new chick-lit authors like Laurie Gwen Shapiro (“The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and Elise Abrams Miller (“Star Craving Mad”), who write about distinctly Jewish characters. Due out next month, Davis’ novel stars mystery writer and frappuccino addict Sophie Katz, who’s convinced that someone wants to kill her by re-enacting scenes from one of her books. To complicate matters, she’s dating one of her murder suspects — a dashing Russian Israeli who likes making l’chaim toasts in bars. And, of course, Sophie’s mother piles on plenty of Jewish guilt as her daughter plays sleuth. “What is this, you’re discovering bodies now? Why can’t you live a nice, normal life like your sister?”

Margaret Marbury, executive editor of MIRA Books and Red Dress Ink, says she had been searching for the “perfect chick-lit mystery but most I saw either had too much mystery and too little girl stuff or vice versa. Kyra’s book has the perfect balance.”

Marbury, who rejects most of the hundreds of manuscripts she reads every year, adds that she’s “really picky about female protagonists. But the major draw of Kyra’s book was her main character, Sophie. She’s real, multidimensional, sympathetic and incredibly funny.”

In a telephone interview from her San Francisco home, Davis, gregarious and effusive, describes a rags-to-riches saga that bears some striking similarities to J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame. Like Rowling, Davis was a single mother with a precarious financial situation when she began writing her novel.

“My life was falling apart and I wanted to get lost in a fictional world,” she says.

Born to a black father and a Jewish mother, Davis primarily grew up in Santa Cruz. Raised by her mother and maternal grandparents, “we were a High Holidays kind of family,” she says. “But I’ve always felt at home in the Jewish community.”

Though her grandmother always thought that her granddaughter should be a writer, Davis originally wanted to be an actress. After graduating high school, she opted to pursue fashion marketing and merchandising and spent some time in New York before returning to San Francisco to study business and humanities at Golden Gate University. She married, had a son and found a job as a marketing manager of an upscale sports club.

In 2001, Davis filed for divorce and felt her life had “become a Woody Allen joke. I had all these plans and none of them worked out,” she says. “I was a single mother afraid of losing the house my grandfather built.”

When Davis began to write, she knew she wanted to create “escapist fiction” but considering her state of affairs, “definitely not romance. I had all this anxiety and that lent itself to writing a murder mystery,” she says. “Just take all your pent-up stuff and kill people off on the page.”

Davis consulted a few books on fiction writing, worked during her lunch hours and late at night and after two years of labor, had a completed manuscript. Her mother covered the expense for a writing conference and Davis traveled there to pitch her book. Davis soon found an agent who swiftly secured a deal at Red Dress Ink.

“It’s an American dream story,” Davis says. “But it never would have happened if I hadn’t gone through all these challenges. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have written this manuscript if my life was going well.”

Now that she no longer needs a day job, Davis plans to write two novels a year and stay home with her 5-year-old son Isaac.

While she of course hopes that her books will be successful, more importantly “this whole experience has taught me that I have the strength and ability to get through some really bad stuff,” she says. “I can pursue my passions and dreams and demonstrate it for my son so that one day, he can do it, too.”

Kyra Davis will be at Borders-Brentano’s booth No. 201 on Sunday, April 24, at noon, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. For more information, visit www.kyradavis.com or www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks/.

 

The Many Lives of Lev Nussimbaum


 

“The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House, $25.95).

Lev Nussimbaum lived as though life were theater, inventing an identity, dressing the part, shifting scenes, seeking audiences everywhere. He thought he could keep rewriting the ending, believed he could talk his way out of anything including his Jewish past, but ultimately he could not.

Nussimbaum was born in Baku in 1905, the son of a Russian Jewish émigré who made a fortune in the oil business. In a case of hiding in plain sight, he later on became known as Essad Bey, a well-known writer of books on Islam and global politics, and then Kurban Said, a novelist whose best-known work, “Ali and Nino,” published in 1937, is still in print.

Tom Reiss spent seven years trying to untangle the threads of this most unusual life. His new book is a richly detailed biography that’s also a memoir of his quest and an uncommon view into the Holocaust era. “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House) makes for fascinating reading.

From childhood, Nussimbaum daydreamed of the East, of Turkish warriors, Persian princesses and Arabic architecture. After the Russian Revolution, he and his father fled from Baku to Turkestan and then across the desert in a 50-camel caravan, finally arriving in Constantinople and then Paris. They moved to Berlin, where he secretly attended high school and university simultaneously, “cramming his head full of the mysteries of the East,” as Reiss writes.

At a time when many European Jews were interested in Orientalism, Nussimbaum went a step further and converted to Islam. He enjoyed dressing in full regalia, and was celebrated in literary and intellectual circles for his work, publishing 16 books — including biographies of Lenin and Stalin — before the age of 30. As Essad Bey, he married a Jewish heiress, and when their marriage fell apart in the late 1930s, the story was reported in tabloid newspapers around the world.

He died in Positano, Italy in 1942 at age 36, while under house arrest; although the courtly gentleman was known by townspeople as the Muslim, his Jewish identity was suspect. He was impoverished, unable to collect royalties due on his books. One of the remaining mysteries of his life is why he went to Italy — and offered to write a biography of Mussolini — and then chose to stay there, when he might have had a chance of escaping to the United States or elsewhere. He’s buried in a cliffside cemetery in Positano, the tombstone set to face Mecca.

It’s no surprise that researching a life as unusual as this one would entail remarkable adventures. Reiss, who was dogged in his research and reporting, traveled to 10 countries, interviewing a range of relatives, publishers, aged childhood friends of his subject in Baku, others who claimed to know another author of “Ali and Nino.” Doors seemed to open to Reiss at unexpected moments, yielding gifts.

Reiss found the woman who took over the publishing company (after the Jewish owners were expelled) that published much of Nussimbaum’s work in Vienna. She had gone to see Lev in Positano, and returned with six small leather notebooks in which he had handwritten his final and unpublished work, “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love.” She kept them in a closet for more than 50 years and presented them to Reiss, who was then able to fill in many gaps in the story. Another great discovery was a box of letters, recording a correspondence between Nussimbaum and Pima Andreae, an influential Italian salon hostess who tried to help him in Positano. Nussimbaum was a man who never wrote a boring letter. Theirs was an intellectual love affair, and she was his last link to the outside world. He reveals his deep sadness that in the end he could no longer protect his father, who ultimately died in Treblinka.

Reiss was drawn to Nussimbaum’s story during a trip to Baku in 1998, on assignment for a travel piece. A friend recommended “Ali and Nino” as a useful guide to the city. The author named on the cover was Kurban Said, and Reiss learned there was some disagreement as to Said’s true identity. At the same time, he happened to pick up one of Essad Bey’s early books in his hotel, a memoir and history titled “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” and he immediately saw connections between the two works.

As he got more involved in tracking down the truth about Nussimbaum, the 40-year-old Reiss came to see his subject as a character he had been waiting his whole life to meet, as he said. Reiss is the grandson of German Jews who left in the 1930s, although many relatives remained trapped in Europe; his mother came to the United States in 1948 as a French Jewish war orphan. In his early childhood years, Reiss lived among relatives in Washington Heights before his family moved to Texas and then Massachusetts. The book is dedicated in part to his late great-uncle Lolek, an émigré who would have been Nussimbaum’s contemporary and regaled him with stories of his adventures.

Offhandedly, Reiss refers to himself as a novelist.

“That’s how I write,” he said, “through the experiences of individuals. I think of myself as a novelist who must write the truth.”

He added that he has been obsessed with facts since childhood.

If there has been a theme to Reiss’s books and articles — he wrote about neo-Nazis in Dresden for The Wall Street Journal, a book called “Fuhrer-Ex” on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe — it has been “trying to find the back door into the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe,” he said. “I’ve always tried to find a way of seeing it that pulled me away from the clichés of the era.”

“In some ways, I’m very attracted to the assimilated Jews of Europe,” he said. Reiss has come to see assimilation as a profoundly creative act, particularly in Nussimbaum’s case.

“He was a Jew being forced to become anything else but a Jew,” he said. “Forced to assimilate all the other cultures of the world as a way of running away from being Jewish.”

In talking about his subject’s capacity for self-invention, Reiss sees Nussimbaum “as an unusually American character for a European Jew.”

Over the years, in his different guises, he rewrote his autobiography several times, another quality that strikes Reiss as American.

The multicultural Nussimbaum didn’t write directly about Zionism but one of his last published works, “Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World,” published in 1936, was co-written with Wolfgang von Wiesl, a leading Zionist who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-hand man. In Weimar Berlin, Nussimbaum found a number of other Jewish writers who “sought refuge from the new political realities in esoteric vistas on sympathetic Orientalism.” They saw the Jews as mediators between East and West.

Working on this project has influenced the author’s view of history.

“It made me see the whole early 20th century as one continuous tragedy beginning in 1905 and ending in 1945,” he said. “It was a disaster that began in Czarist Russia, for Jews and for everyone else.”

Did Reiss like his subject?

“I grew very attached to Lev, as often happens with a biographer,” he said. “I grew defensive of him in an odd way and went through stages of being disturbed by his disguises and choice of friends. Over time I grew to not exactly admire him, I grew deeply sympathetic. I guess that means I like him.”

“He feels like a friend who you would want to shake, to come to his senses,” he added. “But what does it mean to come to one’s senses if living in Nazi Europe. If he was crazy in behavior, most people were much crazier. There’s something inspiring in him — he’s someone who creates ways of escape even if in the end it’s just imaginative.”

Reiss, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two daughters, still has the last notebooks and correspondence. His hope is to find an institution, perhaps in the United States or Israel, interested in creating a collection. He could see the letters published as “one of the most interesting 20th-century correspondences.”

To Andreae’s practical questions, Lev would often respond with fantastical tales, drawn from the invented life he lived.

“Up until his last letter,” Reiss said, “he thought he could save himself.”

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Chug on down to the Getty today or tomorrow, as they present Sharon Katz and the Peace Train as part of their Garden Concerts for Kids series. The Grammy-nominated South African ensemble gives a family-oriented performance of jazz-/folk-/rock-infused African music and teaches South African songs and dances.4-6 p.m. Aug. 14 and 15. Free. 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday

On a somber note, the Workmen’s Circle hosts a Soviet Yiddish Writers Commemoration this afternoon. Aug. 12 marked the 52nd anniversary of the Stalin regime’s execution of 14 Yiddish writers, in an attempt to suppress Jewish culture. Today, a coalition of secular Jewish organizations presents a dramatic recreation of the writers’ “trials.”2 p.m. Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Monday

The Jewish “Frankenstein” comes to the Silent Movie Theatre’s big screen tonight. See the 1920 horror classic “The Golem,” with musical accompaniment by Rick Friend. Film scholar David Shepard provides a rare print from the film, as well.8 p.m. $10-$15. 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-2520.

Tuesday

Tonight, Improv Olympics presents “Beta Male,” featuring the comic stylings of Dave Kessler, who tackles dating, Jewish parents and other neurosis-inducing topics for your amusement. His buddy, Kurt Bodden, does a half-hour of his own schtick, as well.8:45 p.m. $10. 6366 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 962-7560.

Wednesday

Now on display at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts are “California Modernist Works on Paper.” The survey of from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s features watercolors, graphite and charcoal drawings, linoleum block prints, woodcuts, serigraphs and lithographs by Peter Krasnow, Paul Landacre, Henrietta Shore and other significant modernist artists.Through Oct. 30. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.), and by appointment. 9200 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 273-8838.

Thursday

For those whose summer vacations don’t include Broadway,a piece of it is now available for the masses. Recently released, the originalcast recording of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” features the soundtrackto the show about the civil rights movement, the 1960s and the relationshipbetween a Southern Jewish family and its black maid. $20.99. www.amazon.com

.

Friday

In 2001, actress Kathryn Graf’s husband died suddenly of a heart attack, just shy of his 51st birthday. Left to care for their two young children and to deal with the tragedy of his death and life as a young widow, Graf eventually enrolled in a playwrighting class for therapeutic purposes. The result was a play titled “Surviving David,” which her instructor encouraged her to produce. It opens today, for a limited 16-performance run. Ten percent of proceeds benefit “Our House” grieving center.Through Sept. 9. 8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.). $20. 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (800) 595-4849.

‘L-Words’ in a J World


The 2000 book “Best Lesbian Erotica” includes Jewish writer Joan Nestle’s short story and its provocative, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination title referencing sex with World War II pinup Rita Hayworth.

“Desire and passion are a very big part of my life. I am a Jewish woman and I refuse to give up that part of my territory,” said the 63-year-old author of short stories in the anthologies “Queers Jews” “The Oy of Sex” and “Friday the Rabbi Wore Lace.”

It is two decades of work from such writers that is being honored Sunday at the USC-affiliated gay and lesbian ONE Institute & Archives. The event celebrates ONE’s long-running Lesbian Writers Series and also coincides with the institute’s Feb. 29-April 10 photo exhibit, “Image from Sapphic L.A.’s Photography Community.”

Nestle is one of many Jewish lesbian writers with work catalogued at ONE, an archive similar to New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archive, which Nestle co-founded in 1973.

“I’m a secular Jew, but memory is how I live the history of the Jewish people as I know it,” she told The Journal.

Other Jewish writers to be highlighted at Sunday’s retrospective include Alice Bloch, Elizabeth Nonas and Robin Podolsky, an aide to state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles).

For writer Sarah Schulman, crafting stories about her sexual identity has isolated her from prominent publishers.

“It’s not because I’m Jewish, it’s the gay part,” Schulman said. “It’s very hard to know what I would do if I felt free. I’ve had so many problems with censorship that I write very defensively at this point.”

For a lesbian writer, she said, isolation also can be felt through Judaism’s family-centric institutions.

“Women are supposed to reproduce the Jewish culture,” Schulman said. “It’s one of the few cultures that has no role for single people.”

Nestle said Schulman seeks, and deserves, popular acclaim that older Jewish lesbian writers like her are not as drawn to.

“She has a sense of entitlement that is perhaps much more healthy than mine,” Nestle said. “I’ve never been really bothered by competing identities but I don’t expect my work to be ‘mainstream.'”

“20 Years of L-Words!” will be held Sunday, March 28 , 2
p.m.-4 p.m. ONE Institute & Archives, 909 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. For
more information, call (213) 741-0094 or visit

Kids Page


You know that harmless-looking body part inside your mouth? The tongue? It sure looks nice enough, but it gets a lot of Israelites into trouble in this week’s parsha. Do you remember getting a present and then complaining it wasn’t enough? Not the right video game; not the kind of scooter you wanted. Often, your parents end up giving you what you want, but they might get pretty mad in the process. Well this time, the Israelites complain about the manna. “We want meat! We want more!” they shout.

God gives them what they want, but gets pretty mad at them. Was it worth it? Miriam and Aaron get into trouble, too, when they use their tongues to spread gossip about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. So, think about that tongue of yours. It’s more powerful than you realize.

Special Friends

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing essays and poems by children who won the San Fernando Valley fifth-grade writing contest. The theme of the contest was: My Special Friend. Awards were given out by the California Writers’ Club on May 25, at the Encino Community Center. Meirav Fishman Cafri, 12, of Northridge, wrote the first-place essay. She is finishing up at Napa Elementary School in Northridge. She is the youngest of four children and is one of a set of triplets.

My Special Friend

My special friend is God. The reason God is my special friend is because He is the ruler of the Earth and has created me. He has dealt kindly with me throughout my 12 years. He is always there for me when I am going through good and bad times. He is even there for me when I need him most. No matter where I go He will always be watching over me. God has helped me through school and is still helping me through school. He is always where I need him most. He is keeping me alive and strong. I love him with all my heart. He always helps me through my injuries no matter how bad they are. Even when I behave badly, he does not or never will give up on me and that’s a fact.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door


“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller (St. Martin’s
Press, $23.95).

Many writers have imagined the Jewish immigrant experience,
setting their novels and short stories on the Lower East Side and places like
that, where newcomers can forge their way to become Americans. Risa Miller’s
debut novel, “Welcome to Heavenly Heights,” is a different version of that
story, with American Jews making new homes in Israel, reversing the exile. This
transition can be more pressure cooker than melting pot, mixing idealism,
religion, bureaucracy, family complexities, shifting expectations, love and,
never far away, violence.

In this graceful and engaging work, Miller, winner of the
PEN Discovery award, succeeds in creating a world inhabited by religious Jews
of different backgrounds, mostly transplanted Americans, living out the words
of their long-repeated prayers to be close to Zion. She explores the many
meanings of home, rootedness and community.

Just as the characters in those earlier novels, set in tenements,
had little privacy, so, too, the families of the newly constructed Building
Four in Heavenly Heights — with its dishwashers, built-in teak cabinets and
balconies overlooking the mountains — know much about each other’s lives. The
stacked apartments are like a vertical bungalow colony, with shared ingredients
and stories, and the gang of kids playing outside. Every Friday night, when
their husbands go off to synagogue, the women of Building 4 gather on the
largest porch “to shake off the weekday world,” speaking the way women do when
the men aren’t around.

Heavenly Heights is “close enough to Jordan that a combat
tank starting out in Amman when you boiled your water for coffee would have you
serving to its corpsmen before you finished your own first cup.”

The name has the ring of other suburbs where many Jews live,
like Shaker Heights in Cleveland. A commuting neighborhood north of Jerusalem —
a “settlement if you needed to be technical” — it is home to many new
immigrants whose mortgages are underwritten by “an unidentified do-gooder
well-wisher Godfather who wanted Judea settled — and settled now.”

Miller said that the name Heavenly Heights came to her when
she flipped open a bencher (a small book with the blessings after the meal) to
the page with the phrase sometimes translated as “in the heavenly heights may
they seek our good.” The name stuck as the name of the neighborhood and then of
the book.

“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” is a literary novel of
characters and place rather than a story driven by plot. It is unusual in its
knowing depiction of an Orthodox community, from the inside, with empathy and
without satire or ambivalence.

“I don’t know of any frum literary fiction that likes
itself,” she said.

When Miller began the novel, she set it in the ’80s, and it
seemed timely then, but as the world was changing, she shifted the time and
updated it, shading in some of the violence and tension. It goes up to the edge
of the latest intifada, focusing mainly on Tova, who moves to Heavenly Heights
from Baltimore with her husband, Mike, and children. Readers see this new world
from Tova’s eyes, following her bumpy adjustment to a place where arrogant
appliance “installators,” head lice and guns left in the synagogue foyer
weren’t part of her dream. She wonders whether she was “supposed to absorb into
something or was it supposed to absorb into her.”

Tova shifts from the marriage wig she wore in Baltimore to a
head scarf, from teaching English to Russian immigrants to studying Hebrew in a
similar class. With sensitivity and some humor, Miller captures the cycles of
the week and the holidays, with meal preparations, mikvah visits, small acts of
devotion, weddings and special days like Lag B’Omer, when Tova’s family travels
to Mount Meron for their child’s first haircut. En route, they encounter a
tzitzit-wearing cowboy nudging his horse, “mammela, bubbela.” God is rarely
mentioned but the divine presence is felt, in the kitchen and across the
landscape.

The novel also portrays the neighbors, including the soulful
Appalachian-born Debra and the back stories of how she and the others arrived
in Israel and their interconnected lives. Tova and Mike end up on an extended
stay back in America when his father gets ill while they are visiting. From
there, they experience a communal tragedy.

Miller too lived in Israel. With her husband and five
children, she made aliyah in 1988, settling in Jerusalem. But in 1990, while
back in Boston on what was meant to be a short vacation, her husband’s back
went out and he had to be in bed for a year. “It was like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’
she said, “when a ‘three-hour tour’ turned into an extended stay.” And, they
are still here.

“We lost our aliyah,” she says, recalling their resettling
in the United States as a time of trauma. They still think about returning, but
now they have grandchildren and aging parents in this country. And she speaks
of her Brookline, Mass., house — the place she’s lived longest since her
childhood in Baltimore — as her temporary home.

Although she had always been a serious reader and knew that
she took in the world a bit differently than others — recording her
observations of things on scraps of paper she’d pile up in a drawer — she began
to take writing seriously when, living back in Boston, the youngest of her children
started school. She took some writing courses and then enrolled in an Master of
Fine Arts program at Emerson College. There, she was studying with students
(and many teachers) who were younger than she was, and few had any context for
her Jewish references; that forced her to explain things with clarity for a
general audience. The heart of this novel was her master’s thesis, and with the
help of supportive teachers and other writers, she found an agent and
publisher.

“I wrote this out of love and pain,” the author said. She
wants to achieve a feeling like what she went through, “like being punched in
the stomach.”

Miller, 49, grew up in a somewhat traditional home and
became Orthodox along with her husband in their early 20s; they’re now part of
the Bostoner rebbe’s community in Brookline. In writing, she is careful about
facts, although she also gives herself freedom to make up certain things as
long as they’re in the range of the possible. Heavenly Heights is a blending of
prototypes of different settlement communities.

“When writing about Israel, I have to be ethically truthful,
to represent things as they are.”

She’s pleased that several early reviewers refer to the
novel as undemonizing the settlers, showing their very human sides. But she’s
not writing a book with a message.

“I message my children plenty,” she said. “But it’s not my
style as a writer.”

Writing comes naturally, and some paragraphs even come to
her in blocks. She tells of driving along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut
when the opening of the book seemed to “float down” to her, word for word. She
pulled off to the side of the road and jotted them down. For Miller, writing
can feel like setting jewels, taking words and fitting them in place. She’s
particularly interested in the sound of her sentences, and that’s evident in
their rhythmic qualities.

She has a talent for seeing the small, telling details. Soon
after Tova arrives in Israel, she realizes that she’s forgotten to pack rags,
“those repositories of family history,” her daughter’s first Florida T-shirt,
her husband’s worn terry robe. Instead she washes her granite counter tops with
a store-bought rag. “‘This is home,’ she rhythmed, trying to convince herself.
‘This is home.'”  

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

Funny ‘Guys’


In between schmoozing with kids for his acclaimed Fairfax High documentary "Senior Year" in 1998, filmmaker David Zeiger hung out with the funny old guys who did lunch with his dad on Tuesdays at the Mulholland Tennis Club.

The result is his new doc, "Funny Old Guys," which captures the lively interaction of a dozen Jewish octogenarian TV writers who kibitz and kvetch over Cobb salad and chicken soup.

The Algonquin Round Table it isn’t. Instead, the guys reminisce about working for shows from "Bonanza" to "The Brady Bunch," tell off-color jokes and argue about subjects such as the early days of TV to the state of their prostates. The film takes a serious turn when one of the guys gets cancer.

David Shaw, a veteran of 1950s TV dramas, and Frank Tarloff ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") describe how they met at age 12 while living on the same street in Brooklyn. They became writers when Shaw came out to Los Angeles to visit his brother, novelist Irwin Shaw, met Irwin’s writer friends and then told Tarloff, "We’re funnier than they are."

But the youths didn’t have artsy ambitions. "Like all the guys, they grew up poor, the sons of immigrants," Zeiger told The Journal. "There wasn’t money for medical school, so they became writers to make a good living."

Zeiger’s dad, Irv, a businessman, the only non-writer at the weekly meetings, met the guys at the tennis club in the 1960s. "But I didn’t pay any attention to them, because I kind of saw them as ‘old farts,’" says Zeiger, 52, who was more interested in counterculture politics.

When he rediscovered the "Guys" in 1998, he says he "had an epiphany that these were the guys who had created the TV shows I grew up with. I also wanted to learn how they were facing life’s biggest challenge: The End."

Zeiger and "Guys" will appear at a Museum of Television and Radio screening on Sept. 4. For more information, call (310) 786-1000.

A Trivial Pursuit


You don’t plan to become a trivia writer, it just happens. The next thing you know, you’re a one-woman trivia carnival, packing up your trunk of battered almanacs and dictionaries and moving on to the next show.

"Goodbye, guys," you say, because you’re often the only female on the team. "And who stole my Bartlett’s?"

This was the case last Friday, as I wrapped up a five-week stint on my fifth game show since moving to Hollywood.

What is "career stagnation"? You are correct.

I’ve never met a trivia writer that wants to be a trivia writer. Some of us want to be screenwriters, others comedians, sitcom writers, novelists. We’re like actors who came here to play Hamlet and end up playing the bellhop in "Hotel Sodom 6." Trivia is our porno. We tell ourselves we’ll never do another one; we’ll never go back, but the lure is too much. Game shows beckon.

The money is pretty decent. And technically, we’re still in show business, working on studio lots with producers and television executives. Words we write do appear on television. We may be on the slag heap of Hollywood writers, but at least we’re making a living.

Everyone’s path is different, but here’s how I accidentally became a trivia writer. A comedian friend recommended me for a job on a comedy game show, I wrote a sample of jokes and questions and was hired. The joke-writing aspect of that job rescued it from the taint of trivia.

After that, I began getting referred to other shows, "straight" Q&A type shows. I was usually broke at the time and thought, "it’s only a month" or "it’s only four months." I was always grateful for the work, but felt a little like I was entering what my dad calls the Dr. Faustus Pawn Shop, where you sell your soul and hope they pay you enough to buy it back.

What is a typical day in the life of a trivia monkey? You get a quota, meaning you have a certain number of questions to write each day. Topics vary from the "meat and potatoes" categories of science, history and geography to the "chick" categories for which I’m usually brought in — pop culture, art, fashion — although, for a chick, I do write my fair share of sports questions. Nicknames are my bread and butter. If you see a question about "White Chocolate" or "The Mailman," it was probably mine.

In game show argot, some questions get "killed." They aren’t interesting enough, they’re too hard or too easy. A question might be deemed "too Jewish" or "too female" or even "too ethnic." An example of this was a recent big-money, multiple-choice question I wrote asking the surname of the title character in the best-seller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The answer: Schwartz. The verdict: too Jewish for network prime time.

There are speed demons who finish their quota and run off to meetings or auditions. Others practically move in, sleeping on the office couch and toiling in the trivia mines until all hours, fueled by Red Bull, Red Vines and takeout. Either way, trivia is nothing if not draining.

As in all jobs, there are those who have been institutionalized, who get defeated when a question dies, crying, "My questions are like my children." This is just sad. Still, losing perspective can mean gaining dignity. If you think about how silly the shows are, how small our part is in them, how trivial trivia can be, you will be paralyzed staring at a list of state mottos and wanting to hoist yourself out of the window of the writers’ room.

Wait. There are no windows. Game show security is so stringent these days that writers are usually sequestered in windowless rooms. All documents that aren’t used are shredded. Tensions run high, and the people at the top take it very, very seriously. See above adage about losing perspective to gain dignity.

Cheesy trivia books and "fun fact" Web sites are frowned upon. Even at our low level, we strive to think our occupation requires some modicum of creativity. Never, ever let anyone see you with Trivial Pursuit cards. That is the last refuge of trivia scoundrels.

Occasionally, while crafting a question about Rodin or "Road Rules" or Rhode Island, a debate will break out in the room. We’ll put down our quotas for the eternal question about which of us will "make it out."

I maintain the grudgingly positive attitude that I’m lucky to have a skill that pays the bills and doesn’t involve saying, "Hello, I’m Teresa. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about your long-distance plan?"

If you want to feel that you matter, that you have something to say, that your life has meaning, you can’t always find that where you work. For some things, you’ve just got to phone a friend.


Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in “The Teresa Monologues,” April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.

Deaths in the Family


Whenever one of our writers or contributors — or I myself — use the term "Jewish community," I think of Lew Wasserman. An interviewer once asked the former MCA chairman and power broker about the Jewish community here. Wasserman shot back: "I don’t know of a Jewish community. It is nonexistent."

What Wasserman meant, I assume, was that the Jews of Los Angeles don’t cohere into a single, like-minded political mass, a "structured community," in his words. And in that he was right: If 100 Martians landed beside 100 different L.A. Jews and said, "Take me to your leader," no doubt they’d end up at 50 different addresses. Maybe 100.

But to say we’re not easily led or defined doesn’t mean there’s no there there. After all, community is not something that exists apart from our creation of it, or apart from our individual efforts to connect with those around us who share the same values, interests, history. To a certain extent, you inherit community, but more importantly you help create it.

For Rebecca Amato Levy and Myrtle Karp, that creation was a lifelong endeavor.

I met Levy several years ago while preparing an article on Passover. A warm, energetic woman, she welcomed me into her daughter Mati Franco’s Beverly Hills home with a plate of precisely shaped butter cookies she had just made. Levy, then 85 years old, was the matriarch of a vast, yet tightknit, group of Sephardic Jews, and their ever-expanding families, who had lived in Rhodes. She fled in 1939, just before Hitler’s troops murdered all but 150 of the Greek island’s 2,000 Jewish inhabitants. The community she cherished was gone, but Levy worked to recreate it by passing on its food and traditions.

Two weeks before that Passover, Levy had called a friend and said, "I feel terrible."

"Is it your phlebitis?" the woman asked.

"No," Levy said. "It’s my oven." If she was unable to cook Quajado de Spinaka de Pesach for the masses, how would they acquire a taste of the Old Country?

Fluent in Turkish, Ladino, English, French, Spanish and, of course, Greek, she passed on her traditions through books and video, but mostly through example — cooking for hundreds at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, participating in an annual Rhodesli trip to Catalina, teaching the next generation the beauty of its heritage.

Myrtle Karp was a different kind of activist: intensely energetic, devoted to fundraising and organizing, and expert at both.

Her mother’s death forced her as a teenager to become the matriarch of her own family, and she lived out that role in adulthood, taking on key roles in the United Jewish Fund, Hadassah, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Jewish Family Service.

Women of Karp and Levy’s generation rarely led in the way a Lew Wasserman did. Their power lay in volunteerism, hard work and example. They created the structure of a community through which others could express their own Jewish identity.

Myrtle Karp died Aug. 2 at the age of 92; Rebecca Amato Levy passed away on Saturday morning, Aug. 4, at her daughter Mati’s home. She was 89. No such thing as a Jewish community? Lew Wasserman’s dictum would be Greek to both of them.

Obituaries for both women are on page 33.

7 Days In Arts


11/Saturday

Middle-aged, mild-mannered Barney Cashman craves excitement in the form of an extramarital affair. Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” follows this bumbling protagonist as he attempts to seduce three women, including his wife’s best friend, in his mother’s apartment. $18 (general admission); $15 (industry guild members); $12 (students and seniors). Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. Through Sept. 2. Knightsbridge Theatre, 35 S. Raymond Blvd., Old Town, Pasadena. For reservations or more information, call (626) 440-0821.

12/Sunday

On Aug. 12, 1952, Stalin ordered the execution of 24 prominent Yiddish writers and intellectuals in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison. Today, a program titled “Remembering the Enduring Legacy of Soviet Yiddish Writers” commemorates the notable works of 14 writers who perished that day. Poetry in English and Yiddish will be read, accompanied by the Lomir Ale Zinger Chorus and conducted by Ruth Judkowitz. Light refreshments will be served. Free admission. 2 p.m. Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

13/Monday

Tonight, Galerie Yoramgil debuts “From the Treasure Chest III,” a group exhibition featuring new acquisitions from more than 25 of the gallery’s artists. David Aronson, the Lithuanian-born son of a rabbi and founder of Boston University’s School of Art, draws inspiration from his Jewish heritage; Dalit Tayar, a compulsive sculptor who specializes in bronze casting, studied art in Los Angeles and now lives and works in Israel; Israeli multimedia artist Uri Dushi draws from the clutter of urban culture; while Moti Cohen’s sculptures and paintings depict characters from the Talmud and kabbalah. Mon., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; and Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Sept. 5. 319 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 275-8130.

14/Tuesday

This “Sleeping With the Enemy” doesn’t star “America’s Sweethearts” star Julia Roberts; rather, it documents the struggle to find compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. The PBS-sponsored documentary focuses on 20 leaders from each side who attended a summit in Tokyo, held last year by the Japanese government. Far from the war zone, the group discovers ways to respect and understand each other. The newfound friendship between Benny, an Israeli police officer and Adnan, a Palestinian activist, exhibits the extent of the peace agreement between the representatives from each country. 9:45 p.m.-11 p.m. KCET (Check local listings for channel).

15/Wednesday

Dani fears letting go of her wild-and-crazy secular past when her husband-to-be converts to Judaism in “The Move,” a play written and performed by Dani Klein. As his religious observance becomes increasingly zealous, she finds herself swearing off shrimp, buying challah and lighting candles on Shabbat. The trouble is, she likes it. $15 (general admission). Tuesdays and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Through Sept. 12. Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (323) 465-1010.

16/Thursday

The August Sunset Concert Series continues tonight with The California Guitar Trio, accompanied by bassist Tony Levin, performing a combination of jazz, country, blues and surf music, and blending such works as Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” and Dick Dale’s “Miserlou.” The band’s members include rock guitarist Paul Richards, classical guitarist Bert Lam and surf guitarist Hideyo Moriya. $5 (parking). 7:30 p.m. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.

17/Friday

Diane Keaton originally played the odd ESL teacher in the 1976 Israel Horovitz comedy “The Primary English Class.” Now Dana Rosenbaum is trying to teach English to five recent immigrants as she takes on the role with the L.A. Jewish Theatre. $18 (general admission); $16 (students and seniors). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Sep. 9. The A! Theatre, 1528 Gordon St., Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (310) 967-1352.

‘Strange Fruit’ and Stalinism


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

David Margolick, writer of books and articles on legal issues for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, has hit a raw nerve with his haunting book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Running Press). The book is an account of the scalding impact of one song – a song about a lynching – on scores of Ameri-can activists, writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals.

When I interviewed him, Margolick told me of how he discovered “Strange Fruit”: “I got into Billie Holiday 15 years ago and bought a record. When I saw the song’s title, I thought it might be a sort of goofy long song with that playful title, kind of exotic and sexy. So I was utterly unprepared for what it actually was. I was amazed by two things: what it was about, and that I didn’t know about it.

“I fancied myself a student of civil rights a little bit. I grew up reading about it, caring about it, and I never knew anything about this. So I sensed there was a void. I always had at the back of my mind to write something about it. It stayed and grew in my mind. I just knew there was a story.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, who used the nom de plume “Lewis Allan,” combining the names of two of his children who died as infants.

Meeropol, a Communist who adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 when they were executed as Soviet spies, first wrote the song as a poem, later setting it to music, when he saw a photograph of a horrendous lynching in a civil rights magazine. In 1939, Meeropol brought the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, a legendary, integrated Greenwich Village club. Josephson gave the song to Billie Holiday, who made it indelibly her own.

Columbia refused to record the song, and Holiday took it to Milt Gabler, a producer who ran his record label out of his Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan. Gabler recorded it, and it has never gone away. In recent years, the song has been performed by Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Cassandra Wilson, Sting and UB40.

“Decades later,” Margolick writes, “the experience of listening to, and watching, Billie Holiday perform ‘Strange Fruit’ – her eyes closed and head back, the familiar gardenia over her ear, her ruby lipstick magnifying her mocha complexion, her fingers snapping lightly, her hands holding the microphone stand as if it were a teacup – lingered in many memories.”

As Pete Hamill has commented, “Strange Fruit” was not concocted by a songwriter with a fedora and a cigar sitting at a piano in the Brill building hoping for a hit. It put a searchlight on one of the ugliest facets of the American experience from 1889 to 1940, when, according to a study by the Tuskegee Institute, 3,833 people were lynched in the United States, 90 percent of them in the South.

Margolick’s concentration on just one song’s impact is an illustration of the power of the written word to change and transform our lives. I will never forget my own epiphanies of this kind – among them Kay Boyle reading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” to my writing class at the New School for Social Research when it came out in The New Yorker.

I come to Margolick’s book from a somewhat unique perspective. While writing my novel about the Rosenbergs, “Red Love,” I researched the Communist Party’s deeply cynical and exploitative role in the campaign supposedly to free them (in fact, the party, at Soviet direction, wanted nothing of the kind). I also drew upon my own personal adolescence experience, when Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, chronicler of slave rebellions, with his blazing red hair and equally blazing eyes, gave his last lectures at the crumbling Jefferson School of Social Science after Khrushchev’s speech about Stalin’s crimes in 1956.I loved to watch Aptheker; he was highly intelligent, and there was an inspired lunacy about him.

Sometimes he started “talking black.” And sometimes he turned his back to the class for long periods of silent contemplation. We would wait patiently. Stalin’s words of inspiration were on the blackboard, and in a shaking voice, Aptheker defended Soviet troops in Hungary and quoted a Brecht poem that Communists did not kill, they stopped killing. Yeah, right. I remember Aptheker once whispering to me that Tennessee Williams was “on our side,” that Stanley Kowalski was a “splendid revolutionary,” and that Williams’ plays were magic (he was right about that).

Aptheker also told me of his own youthful days risking his life battling Jim Crow in the South. On that score I believed him then and I do today. American Communists could betray a good cause in a heartbeat (and Ralph Ellison writes brilliantly of their abrupt abandonment, literally overnight, of Harlem in “Invisible Man”), but like other ideologues, if instructed to do the right thing, they could do it with passionate hearts and sometimes even do it well.

Which brings me to the only difficulty I have with Margolick’s elegant and compact book, as enduring an achievement as it is. Margolick uses the word “progressive” to denote everything good, and that includes Henry Wallace, his leadership of the Communist-dominated Progressive Party, and the Communist Party itself. By not critically examining the party’s historic role, Margolick almost unwittingly lends himself to the currently fashionable revisionist view of the party as somehow, maybe in spite of itself, a force for democracy-that it really was indigenous, radical and progressive, and not a servile defender of a brutal, anti-Semitic and murderous Soviet status quo that embraced the Hitler-Stalin pact, barbarous repression and concentration camps.

Abel Meeropol’s great and beautiful song helped pierce the American conscience and transform society, and that is almost entirely what David Margolick’s book is about. But there is an inherent problem in embracing an ethos that somehow suggests, if only by historical omission, that democracies have “no enemies on the left.” Stalin and Pol Pot, among many others, would hasten to disagree.

Of One Mind


Joel and Ethan Coen, the quirky auteurs of “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” are groaning.

They are recalling a recent viewing of their first feature film, “Blood Simple” (1984), a stylish, noirish tale of murder in Texas, which is being reissued in theaters today. “We cringed through the whole movie,” admits Joel, the elder brother, who is tall and thin, with tousled long hair and a scraggly goatee.”It was a bizarre and interesting exercise,” adds Ethan, who has freckles, round spectacles and a closely clipped red beard.

When an impending DVD release led to the restored director’s cut of “Blood Simple” not long ago, the unconventional Coens did exactly the opposite of what one might expect: They made the movie a bit shorter. “We cut out all the boring parts,” they say, in stereo, with twin shrugs. They also did some re-editing, remixed the sound and added some music they couldn’t afford when they were just a couple of tenacious Jewish kids from Minneapolis shlepping their first film around to festivals in order to find a distributor.

“Blood Simple” put the brothers on the map (Ethan quit his job as a statistical typist at Macy’s), and the Coens went on to write, produce and direct a series of off-center, ironic, unsettling fables peopled with vividly drawn cartoon characters.

Though Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, their work is so enmeshed that even the actors can’t say who does what. It’s been said that a typical exchange after a take involves Ethan saying, “Joel,” to which his brother replies, “Yeah, Ethan, I know. I’ll tell them.”

Their odd, distanced, outsiders’ view apparently comes from growing up Jewish, with Orthodox grandparents, in the icy American heartland, which is depicted in the Oscar-winning “Fargo” as a flat, frozen wasteland, occasionally broken by a tacky pancake house or a motel.

Everything about life in the suburbs outside Minneapolis was banal, they insist; the brothers, whose parents were university professors, amused themselves by making Super-8 films or watching kitschy programs on TV. While their sister went off to become a physician in Israel, they escaped to New York, where they worked odd jobs, bummed money from friends and scraped together the funds to complete “Blood Simple.”

The irreverent Coens are notorious among journalists for refusing to answer questions, but they perked up during a Journal interview when asked about the preponderance of unusual Jewish characters in their films. There is Bernie (John Turturro), the gay Jewish con man from “Miller’s Crossing”; the Clifford Odets-like playwright (also Turturro) afflicted with writer’s block in “Barton Fink”; and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran of “The Big Lebowski,” who insists he cannot do this or that because he is shomer Shabbes.

Joel says the idea for Sobchak began as he was thinking about his Orthodox maternal grandparents and about an observant actress who once asked him if she would find work in the theater if she could not perform on Friday nights. “We wanted to explore the idea of someone in modern society who cleaves to all those rules,” Joel says. “The whole idea of this loose-cannon, gasbag Vietnam vet” proclaiming himself religious was rather funny and ironic, Ethan suggests.

As for “Barton Fink,” the brothers began the script as an antidote to their own writer’s block. While penning “Miller’s Crossing” in 1990, they could not finish the script. Instead, they paced, chain-smoked, telephoned friends, but nothing seemed to help. So they simply started another screenplay. “[It] washed out our brain, and we were able to go back and finish ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ ” Joel told The New York Times.

Adrift in a World in Which God is Hidden


It is remarkable how many great Jewish American writers first came to the public’s attention through a volume of short stories.

Philip Roth’s first book was “Goodbye, Columbus.” Allegra Goodman’s was “Total Immersion.” Earlier this year, Nathan Englander published “For the Relief for Unbearable Urges,” an inventive series of stories set against Jewish history and Orthodox life, and the book rocketed onto the New York Times best-seller list.

The best new book of Jewish short stories — better than each of the above books — was published last year, received glowing reviews in papers such as The New York Times (“intense, often searing…the writing soars”), the Chicago Tribune (“splendid…extraordinary stories”) and the Houston Chronicle (“stories that absolutely shine”), and then sank out of sight.

Ehud Havazelet’s “Like Never Before” (Anchor Books, $12.95; Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $23.00) is being republished next month in paperback. It is an occasion for the rediscovery of a remarkable volume of interrelated stories that portray the members of a Jewish family over a 30-year period. Adrift in a post-Holocaust world, untethered by the traditions that previously sustained them, they struggle to find themselves and each other, missing more times than they connect.

The first story — “Six Days” — begins with an idyllic scene of almost Edenic serenity. Shabbat eve; after services and a family meal, Max Birnbaum, a Polish-born Jew whose father (like his father before him) is a rabbi, walks through Queens with his young son, David. It is the early 1960s.

They walk by stores, by local landmarks, through nearby neighborhoods, talking to each other quietly, greeting the people they pass by, sometimes not returning home until after midnight.

Their favorite spot is an overpass from which they can see highways going east, west, north and south. Together they watch the stream of red taillights heading away. “From here,” Max Birnbaum tells his son, “you could go anywhere, anywhere on earth.”

It is a scene of infinite possibilities, a future unlimited, a portrait of closeness between parent and child — a Shabbat that redeems the prior six days.

But like a camera expanding to a wider angle, Havazelet also provides a glimpse of David’s view of this scene — and it is a picture of resentment at the weight of the past and the prison of the present. As they walk through the Italian section of Queens, David “kept his eyes averted, aware of their Shabbos clothing.” He is embarrassed by his father good-naturedly distributing “Good evenings, how are yous, as if he knew these men.” He is stung by the “amused smiles all around, at him stuck with his father.”

As the story progresses, the gulf between Max and David’s worlds becomes even clearer. Max teaches at an Orthodox yeshiva, living in an ocean of books, translating manuscripts, lecturing to serious young men who are future rabbis. David, playing with his baseball cards, watches his father at work and disdains the students, who do not seem American to him. Trying to enter the world of his son, Max takes David to a Yankees game — David excited by each nearby foul ball, his father unable to understand the game.

The story concludes, at the end of Shabbat, with the men coming out from shul “to praise God’s world and ask his blessing for a few more days of good fortune and peace.” But it is a world that includes only the older generation, not the new one. David and his friends have left the service in the middle, running to play outside before it is over. They are present but absent at the same time.

The title of the story has become ironic. At the beginning, it refers — obviously — to the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. By the end, it has become a metaphor for an immense separation between a father and son, between two generations — one living in the religious traditions and rituals of the past, and the other in the new, secular American world — the other six days.

In “Lyon,” Havazelet flashes back to 1943, to Vichy France, when Max Birnbaum (then “Maxim Birnboym”) is a teen-ager, sent to France with his brother, Rachmil, on an undercover mission to collect money to smuggle Jews out of Poland. The mission’s sudden ending, and Maxim’s two-sentence report to his mother — “It’s me, Mother, Maxim. Rachmil is gone” — captures the horror of the Holocaust in a single incident.

The story also provides a contrast with David’s later rebellious, self-absorbed youth, spent in an alliance with Arnold Leibowitz (“acknowledged titleholder of biggest troublemaker in the history of the Mid-Queens Hebrew Day School”) and neighborhood baseball games that David seeks to win at all costs (he “didn’t like to play fair unless he was winning and could make a show of it”). David grows his hair “as long as he could without inciting outright war” with his father, and, by age 17, is absorbed in drugs and drinking.

“The Street That You Live On” shows David several years later, seen through the eyes of his wife, Maura, in a marriage that at first seems ideal. They “had read the same books in college, liked and were now embarrassed by the same bands.” Maura is comforted by David’s self-assurance and his assurance to her that “nothing would ever happen to them.” But their marriage is changed irrevocably by a seemingly unconnected event.

“Pillar of Fire” picks up after David’s divorce from Maura, at the lowest point in his life. Literally and metaphysically lost, he meets two young girls who are replicas of his younger self. They need a ride, and he sets out with them in his car. The trip that follows ends with an epiphany that is all the more remarkable because Havazelet, through an astonishing literary device, makes it happen simultaneously to both David and the reader.

In the succeeding stories, life contracts rather than expands; misunderstandings accumulate; distances grow. David remains caught up in anger and resentment, the tension with his father increases, and his mother is powerless to bridge the gap. In a heartbreaking story devoted to her (“Ruth”), she concludes that “despite everyone’s good intentions, in her own experience, love hurts more than it heals.”

But from these family portraits, taken at various points in the characters’ lives, a fuller picture eventually emerges. David and Rachel’s tentative attempts, near the end of the book, to reconnect to each other, to redeem what remains of their family relationship, are juxtaposed to a picture of the Eden they surrendered — an old family photograph David finds after his father’s death. It is a picture taken long ago at a vacation resort — Max, Ruth, Rachel and David, together in a boat that wouldn’t stop rocking, as they try to balance themselves, laughing and afraid at the same time, caught by the camera just as they reach out to put their arms around each other.

God appears in this book mostly through silence. Max, reflecting late in his life that “any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child,” turns to God in his prayers and “requested guidance, solace…[and] asked, politely, for miracles.” They do not come. Ruth, lying terminally ill, concludes that prayers “for our loved ones, for the poor, the unprotected, the helpless about to be harmed…are for ourselves, finally, always have been, for our hurt, our fear, our constant aloneness.” For David and Rachel, God does not enter the picture at all.

Havazelet has written that, challenged by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” he wanted to write a book that was different from the American literature on which he was reared, with its portrayal of the open road, of grace under pressure, of heroic conquests and myths. Instead, he wanted to portray characters “whose failures, as often as successes…marked them as human and worthy, heroic in their own right.” Writing stories of people who had no moment of glory in their lives but who were heroic nonetheless, Havazelet has continued, and added to, a literary tradition that includes Chekhov and Malamud.

His book is an important contribution to Jewish American literat
ure. For the paperback publisher, publishing a book that in hardcover sold only a modest number of copies, it is an act of faith — a belief that the reading public, if given a second opportunity, will respond to a remarkable work of art. This is our chance.


Rick Richman is a member of Sinai Temple in Westwood.