How good is good enough?
Embarrassing confession: I am addicted to inspirational teacher movies. You know what I’m talking about. Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers,” Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love.”
Those teachers are my superheroes. I have no interest in the guys in tights and capes. Show me a frazzled wreck with bad hair, circles under her eyes and a splotch of coffee on her sweater, and I’m there with my popcorn. Sure, the first 30 minutes or so are a hell storm of failure, but the valiant teacher does not give up. Selflessly, relentlessly, the teacher fights on — sometimes with a pause for some in-class dancing — never resting until lives are changed, and then, even as the credits roll, still not resting.
Damn, I wanted to be that superhero. It’s not just that I wanted to change lives; I wanted to live a life that really mattered from the moment I woke up in the morning until I dropped into bed at night. I think that every religion has at its core the idea of transcendence, a transcendence of ego and selfish desires in order to experience a higher truth, and that idea, impossible as it sounds, has always enchanted me. Back before I was a high-school teacher, when I was a writer, I often worried that I was a fairly silly person. I loved nothing more than to write material so ridiculous that I would sit at my own desk laughing like an idiot at my own jokes. In fact, I once laughed so hard while writing at a cafe that tears started rolling down my cheeks, causing a waitress to come over and discreetly ask me if I was all right. But I worried that my work, fun as it sometimes was, didn’t really matter. In the end, who really cared whether I wrote a moderately amusing script or an entertaining story?
And so I quit writing and taught for five years in a very high-poverty community. Every single day, every single second I was definitely, indisputably, doing work that mattered. I loved my students, but during a time when the California public school system was being eviscerated by annual funding cuts, although I can say that there were many, many times when my work was as meaningful and sometimes as joyous as anything I’ve ever experienced, sometimes even transcendently profound, I also have to say that I became so wrung out that I was also cranky, depleted and numbed out emotionally. I dreaded dinner parties, because if somebody mentioned the public school system, I would be so appalled by how little anybody understood about what was really going on that I would lecture for a half hour on economic inequality. The fact that people became visibly bored only made me even more frustrated, causing me to lecture more vociferously.
I was, in short, intolerable.
When I finally left teaching, I resumed being a relatively silly person. I no longer work to the point of exhaustion. I still work with young people in high-poverty communities, but in smaller groups at nonprofits, often one on one, and with much more manageable hours. In addition, in my current business as a life coach, I get to have long conversations with creative people, which I often find as spiritual as anything I’ve done professionally. I’ve also loved having time to enjoy sunshine, family, friends and longish bouts of delicious solitude.
I have let go of the idea that I will ever be a superhero. I so deeply admire people who give their lives to fighting economic injustice, truly selfless people who can give their whole being to a larger cause. Crazy as it sounds, it has been surprisingly hard for me to let go of the hope that I might be a good person — not an ordinary person with moments of goodness, but a person whose defining quality is goodness, whose daily life speaks to a transcendence of self. These people do exist. Watch Malala Yousafzai for one minute, and you will see that inner radiance. My husband works with a nun at Covenant House, a chatty and delightful Irish woman who fights tirelessly for young people living on the streets; she also has that radiance.
But I am not one of them. And yet I’m inspired by the talmudic quote: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” How much do we each need to give? With so much injustice in this country, with so much inequality, what is each person’s obligation? If I have 16 waking hours each day, how many should be devoted to making the world at least a little bit better? I don’t know the answer. But I’ve come to believe that, paradoxically, I may actually make more of a difference if I live life joyously as my actual, relatively silly self than I would if I spent my life grimly trying to live up to my own ideal of goodness. Maybe all we can do is be fully, bravely, ridiculously ourselves. Maybe that, in the end, is the real superhero movie.
Scientific proof that writing will change your life
I am generally skeptical of scientific studies that measure qualities once regarded as ineffable, like happiness, but I was actually very excited to see the other day that recent studies have proved what writers have long known in that most unscientific part of ourselves, our kishkas: Writing every day is good for you. And not just any writing; not grim, dutiful five-paragraph essays, but personal narrative writing, also known as “self-expressive writing.”
A recent article in The New York Times reported that studies at Stanford and Duke universities, as well as the University of Texas, have shown that “writing about oneself and personal experiences can “>among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even
Daughter finds the write words from dad
My father rarely wrote anything down. Take birthday cards, for example: While my mother would embellish the printed message with sweet, loving passages and hand-drawn hearts, my father’s heavy script only appeared at the bottom, where he signed his name. It seemed strange for a man who told me, when I began writing fiction in grade school, that he once wanted to be an author.
As I got older, I realized his reticence stemmed from something deeper — it was hard for him to express emotions, either verbally or on the page. He rarely spent quality time with me, and never seemed interested in my personal life. Sure, he would praise a high test score at the dinner table or, on rare occasions, help me with a math problem or science project, but conversation never flowed naturally between us. Our brief exchanges usually petered out when he turned back to the TV or the newspaper, detached.
I grew envious of my friends’ relationships with their fathers. They had dads who remembered the names of their friends, who shared inside jokes, who lent a patient ear during times of teen angst. I couldn’t imagine confiding in my father about a crush or any kind of school drama. He only seemed to care whether I kept enough gas in the car. There was a moat between us, and eventually, neither of us remembered how to cross it.
Just before I left for college, we seemed to find common ground. He was perpetually immersed with books about geopolitics, and I was hungry to expand my worldview. He began to treat me as an intellectual partner, if not an emotional one. We talked stocks, commodities markets, global finances. I felt privileged that he was finally lavishing me with attention.
One day, in a moment of boldness, I suggested, “Why don’t you write me a book?” It would give him a chance to become the author he wanted to be, and it would also fulfill a selfish desire of mine: I craved more communication from him; I was starved for his words. But he never picked up a pen.
When Alzheimer’s disease began to set in six years ago, my father’s writing, ironically, was our first clue. My mother and I began to find notes around their house — email addresses taped to the computer screen, phone numbers scrawled on the desk and on filing cabinets. Once, we found a short paragraph he had written, describing the nature of his Army service in the 1950s. Its only purpose that we could fathom was to preserve the memory. I held onto it — even a few sentences in his choppy hand were better than nothing.
The years of distance between us have taken their toll. Now that my father stays in a nursing home, I don’t visit him as often as I could. There is even less to say than before, when he still remembered what I do, where I live, my husband and cats — when he could easily recall my name.
But a few months ago, my father’s second cousin in Israel called with a bombshell: My dad had written him letters over the years. Lots of them.
Letters? When he could barely sign a greeting card?
Not only that, but my father’s relative had dutifully preserved them. He scanned a few so I could see them, and I caught my breath as the images popped up on my computer screen.
October 2000: Rachel has one more year in high school, so we are starting to look for a university she could attend. She is mostly interested in art, literature and creative writing.
March 2002: Rachel will be starting her university education in late August. She will be 200 miles away and we will miss her.
I felt gobsmacked. So there was life on the other side of the moat, after all. And caring. And pride. Had I missed something?
As my father’s illness progresses, the channels between us are opening in other surprising ways: He’s starting to say all of the things he never could when he was well. When he sees me walk into the room now, his knitted brow relaxes and the corners of his mouth turn upward. On walks, he asks to hold my hand. He kisses my fingers and tells me, “You’re beautiful.”
When I was sitting next to him on the couch recently, he suddenly turned to me, clutched my hand and announced, “My darling girl.” I was stunned. Had I been his darling girl this whole time? Why didn’t he say so?
Yet maybe, in his own way, he did. I printed the letters and showed his heartfelt sentiments to my mother.
“Shocking, right?” I asked her.
“Not shocking,” she countered. “You don’t remember everything.”
“What don’t I remember?”
“How much he cared for you.”
So maybe there’s another side to the narrative. Maybe I, too, am guilty of forgetting — of focusing only on my resentment and the ways I felt cheated over the years, of holding fast to my grudge. Thinking back, maybe I closed my ears to my dad and ignored the quiet hum of how he felt. Just because he didn’t say kind words out loud doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
After seeing his thoughts written down — uttered, it turns out, to someone else — I’m starting to re-evaluate his constant inquiries about the gas in my car, about whether I lock my doors at night. That might have been the closest he could come to saying, “You’re important to me.”
I can’t ask my father for closure now; there’s no point in replaying memories he can no longer recall. Maybe memory only has so much value, anyway. Maybe there is healing in letting go.
From Tehran to Tel Aviv
So there we were, two Israelis, an Iranian Jew and an Iranian Muslim, all writers, sitting on a stage at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building. The occasion for the gathering was the publication of two anthologies of short stories, “Tehran Noir” and “Tel Aviv Noir,” featuring contemporary writers from each city. That’s “noir” as in “film noir” or “noir fiction” — “a genre,” Wikipedia tells us, “characterized by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity.” But, of course, there was more to this event than what was announced on the library’s flier. You could sense it — the awareness of the symbolism of this moment, how it felt so easy and natural, something that could — should — be unremarkable because it’s so common, but that was, in fact, so unusual.
“Can we not go there right away?” Etgar Keret, one of the Israelis who edited “Tel Aviv Noir,” had asked the moderator minutes before we began the conversation. “Can we not make it political from the start?” Never mind that all writing is political; Keret wanted to talk about the art and craft of it instead of what it all meant. The moderator, Rick Moody, was eager to oblige. Yet, somehow, the first question he asked was about the role of censorship in the Tehran stories.
“Tehran Noir” is the love child of author Salar Abdoh, an Iranian-born New Yorker who spends part of each year in Tehran. He handpicked the contributors and translated the works from the original Persian with uncanny precision into English. It starts with an introduction by Abdoh and ends in Los Angeles, with my story “The Gravedigger’s Kaddish.”
“Back in the day,” Abdoh writes in the opening lines of his introduction to the anthology, “so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys — the lutis — the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore.” (“Tehran Noir,” p.15)
Abdoh was born to Muslim parents, but he knows more Hebrew than I can muster. He lost more to the revolution than most of us can fathom, but he’s managed to make his peace with the past, maintain a connection with the place and harbor the faith that, no matter how hopeless the current circumstances may seem, this, too, shall pass.
An unemployed young man on Tehran’s Mowlavi Street decides to go into the drug trade because he’s “tired of watching everyone get ahead except me.” An Afghan refugee working in a mansion in Tehran’s Shahrak-eh Gharb is visited by a ghost from his past as a “corpse thief.” A serial killer pays an undertaker to wash and prepare his victims’ bodies for a proper Muslim burial. At their best, these stories capture the lowest common denominator in the patchwork of humanity that populates the city’s landscape; bring together the high-and-mighty and the down-and-out; begin, in the words of James Ellroy, as a “sure thing” and “inevitably go wrong.”
That’s a very Iranian quality — this presupposition that, no matter how sure the “undertaking,” it’s going to end badly. So is the fatalism that is born of faith in destiny and in the uselessness of fighting it. So, too, is the understanding that morality is often in the mind of the beholder. Noir may be a literary genre to Wikipedia, but to many Iranians, it’s a usual state of mind. It’s born of having lived long enough — say, 2,000-plus years — to know that every star will someday fade and every empire will eventually fall. It doesn’t mean we don’t try. God knows we’re as good as any nation in aspiring to rebuild the old empire. You have to have a capacity for denial, or hope, to last as long as we have.
Almost, but not quite, like, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
“Tel Aviv Noir” was edited by Israeli writers Assaf Gavron and Keret, and translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan. They reveal, in Keret’s introduction, “the concealed, scarred face of this city that we love so much.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Keret begins, “Tel Aviv is a lovely, safe city. Most of the time, for most of its inhabitants.” Yet despite “its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide.”
A defense attorney-turned-pimp on the Beach Hotels Strip falls in love with one of his own prostitutes. A novice private detective from Dizengoff Center is called on to find a missing executive in a startup tech firm. A childless couple adopts a dog to love only to discover that it has a tendency to kill humans.
If you want to know a country, I’ve always thought, read its stories. Not the ones invented for the history books by every mad dictator or megalomaniacal president with a political agenda; there’s too much fiction and too little reality in those. The only truth they divulge is that power corrupts and time degrades. But those other tales, whether new or inherited, spun from everyday existence or uncommon fantasy but that reveal, almost as subtext, a people’s psyche — those are the most accurate renderings of a nation and a time.
By this measure, Tehran and Tel Aviv have a great deal in common. They’re both new old cities: Modern Tehran encompasses and has absorbed the ancient city of Rey; Tel Aviv was founded on the site of the ancient port city of Jaffa. They’re both magnets for people of every race and background. They were once friendly and may be again, someday. Where they differ is in their inhabitants’ existential idea of what the future will look like.
Early in the conversation at the library, Moody asked Keret and Gavron what, exactly, they thought was so “noir” in their anthology, as nothing especially bad happens to any of the characters.
“What could possibly be dark about our sunny city,” Keret says in his book’s introduction, “a city nicknamed ‘The Bubble’ due to its complete separation from the violent, conflicted country in which it is situated? Compared to Jerusalem — torn apart, exploding with nationalism, xenophobia, and religious zeal — Tel Aviv has always been an island of sanity and serenity.”
By contrast, the Tehran of the anthology is a city already in the process of devouring itself and its own: “There is something of both the absolutely spectacular and positively disgraceful about Tehran … a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart,” Abdoh writes in his book’s introduction.
There’s an almost universal hopelessness in Tehran, a nearly palpable air of entrapment, a sense that everything that could have been tried has been tried — and failed — that the Tel Aviv stories lack. Then again, we’re nothing, we Iranians, if not willing to soldier on.
Moody’s last question for Abdoh was whether he is at all optimistic about the future for Iran’s artists.
“I have hope,” Abdoh said on stage. He followed that up with an email the next day, addressed to Moody, the Israeli writers and me: “Hopefully,” he wrote, “[we can do this again], some day, in Tel Aviv and Tehran.”
Gina Nahai’s latest novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”
Why we write
On Monday, I gave a talk to visiting young Israelis on a subject near and dear to my heart: Just what is the Jewish Journal?
These Israelis were next-generation leaders, here in Los Angeles as part of the KOLOT program, which exposes secular Israelis to Jewish tradition, something Jews in the Holy Land can manage to miss learning about in their country’s public schools.
I met them at the newly refurbished Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Jewish newspapers, I explained, are the least-appreciated, least-understood and often most-despised institution in Jewish life. To be a Jewish journalist — bearer of bad news, muckraker, gadfly, thorn and nudge — is often to be a minority within a minority, a Jew among Jews.
But Jewish papers have been integral to successful Jewish communities. The first modern one, the Gazeta de Amsterdam, launched in 1675, just 70 years after the first newspaper of any kind. There were Jewish papers in all 13 American colonies and a national Jewish paper, called The Jew, beginning in 1823. L.A.’s first Jewish paper, the German-language Süd-Californische Post, was founded in 1874, when there were only 300 Jews among the city’s 5,500 residents.
Why? Because as Jews disperse, they need an institution that gathers their stories, that keeps them informed and, when necessary, sets a communal agenda.
And in a free country, there’s another important role. As waves of Jewish immigrants came to America at the turn of the century, the great Jewish Daily Forward taught a generation of Jews to be Americans — how to find work and fit in. Today, the role of the Jewish paper has flipped. One of its larger purposes is to teach Americans to be Jews: to connect them to a larger community, to provide a window into Jewish life and learning in a very secular world.
You would think, in a modern world, the demand for Jewish media would decline. The opposite is happening. The Jewish Journal’s print circulation is up, and jewishjournal.com now reaches close to 1.5 million people around the world each month through its Web site and mobile apps. Old Jewish media outlets like The Forward and JTA — formerly the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — have been revitalized; new ones, from The Times of Israel to tabletmag.org to eJewishPhilanthropy.com, are popping up constantly. One reason is that the issues and ideas Jews care about have become the issues and ideas the world cares about: Terrorism. Fundamentalism. The Middle East. The role of religion in politics. How to meld tradition with modernity.
But even more important, in an uncertain world, people yearn for connection, tradition and community. And the first place they look for it — as with anything these days — is the Web.
But, the young tech-savvy Israelis wondered, if Jews can connect on Facebook or Instagram, isn’t that enough? It’s not, any more than WhatsApp can replace The New York Times. There still has to be somebody out there gathering stories, reporting them to the highest-possible standards, providing the most thoughtful and well-edited opinions, and reaching out to as broad an audience as possible, with no greater motive than to connect, inform and inspire.
What the Web offers is a way for Jewish media to reach — for the first time — not just every Jew, but everyone. This is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, when we have the freedom, power and ability to present Jewish life and learning to an unlimited audience. Nothing, I believe, will have a greater impact on the next phase of Jewish history than how we use that potential.
That’s the challenge I left to the young Israelis, one that the (mostly) young staff at the Jewish Journal has already taken on.
As for me, you will not see my column in this space for the next four months. After 19 years at the Jewish Journal, including 12 years as editor-in-chief and two years as publisher, as well, I am taking a four-month sabbatical. I’ll be working on a writing project that needs a bit more focus than I can squeeze in around the long hours that we all put in to make the Journal what it is.
If I can be allowed one parting request, it is this: Support the Jewish Journal. As I told the visiting Israelis, no other Los Angeles Jewish institution reaches as many Jews on a daily and weekly basis. No other institution tells and records our communal story. No other institution reaches as many Jews otherwise uninvolved in community life. For that matter, because we distribute free and on the streets and over the Web, no other L.A. Jewish institution reaches as many non-Jews each and every week.
For all that outreach, the Journal is the rare Jewish nonprofit institution that earns 90 percent of its revenue on its own, through the hard work of our advertising and subscription staff. But that extra 10 percent provides the crucial funds we need to invest in bringing the Jewish world to you, to grow and change along with our community and with the new resources of technology. For that, we very much need you to make a tax-deductible contribution, annually and generously, at jewishjournal.com.
This last part isn’t what I talked about with the Israelis — I’m just asking you. But as I did say to them, shalom v’lhitraot — goodbye, and see you later.
Writing can diagnose Parkinson’s
A new Israeli study comparing the handwriting of healthy people to those with Parkinson’s disease holds out the promise of providing a simple diagnostic tool at the earliest stages of the progressive disorder caused by the death of nerve cells in the brain’s muscle-movement control areas.
As many as 10 million people worldwide suffer the tremors, impaired balance and rigidity associated with Parkinson’s, which has no cure. In the United States, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
The handwriting study is the latest of many Israeli investigations into Parkinson’s. Unfortunately, physicians can diagnose the disease definitively only by observing clinical symptoms that appear at a relatively advanced stage, or by administering a test called SPECT, which uses radioactive material to image the brain.
But researchers at the University of Haifa and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa believe their study shows how the disease can be detected sooner, noninvasively and without radiation.
“Identifying the changes in handwriting could lead to an early diagnosis of the illness and neurological intervention at a critical moment,” explained Sara Rosenblum of the university’s department of occupational therapy.
She said that publication of results in the journal of the European Neurological Society aroused great interest at the International Congress of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders held last summer in Sydney, Australia.
Rosenblum initiated the study, which compared handwriting samples from 40 subjects, some of whom had Parkinson’s and some of whom were disease-free. She was building on previous research that has shown unique and distinctive differences between the handwriting of Parkinson’s patients and that of healthy people. However, most of those studies focused on motor skills (drawing spirals, for instance) and not on writing that involves cognitive abilities, such as signing a check or copying addresses.
According to Rosenblum, Parkinson’s patients notice a change in their cognitive abilities even before they experience a change in their motor abilities.
Her handwriting research was conducted in cooperation with Dr. Ilana Schlesinger, head of the Center for Movement Disorders and Parkinson’s Disease at Rambam, and occupational therapists at the hospital.
Half of the 40 participants were known to be in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, before obvious motor signs are visible. The subjects were instructed to write their names and to copy addresses — two everyday tasks that require cognitive abilities.
The writing was done on a regular piece of paper placed on an electronic tablet, using a special pen with pressure-sensitive sensors. A computerized analysis of the results compared writing form (length, width and height of the letters), time required and the pressure exerted on the surface while performing the assignment.
There were significant differences between the Parkinson’s patients and the healthy group, and all subjects, except one, had their status correctly diagnosed (97.5 percent accuracy).
The Parkinson’s disease patients wrote their letters smaller, exerted less pressure on the writing surface and took more time to complete the task. Rosenblum said the most striking difference was the length of time the pen was in the air between the writing of each letter and each word.
“This finding is particularly important because while the patient holds the pen in the air, his mind is planning his next action in the writing process, and the need for more time reflects the subject’s reduced cognitive ability,” she said. “Changes in handwriting can occur years before a clinical diagnosis and therefore can be an early signal of the approaching disease.”
Validating these findings in a broader study could pave the way for this method to be used for a preliminary diagnosis of the disease in a safe and non-invasive fashion.
“This study is a breakthrough toward an objective diagnosis of the disease,” said Schlesinger, noting that this method would reduce the load on the health system because the test can be performed by a professional other than a doctor.
The researchers are currently applying the same method in a new experiment, using handwriting analysis to evaluate the degree of functional improvement in Parkinson’s patients who have received brain-implanted pacemakers.
On Jewish writing
I’m noticing a trend among my coreligionists-who-write: arguing against being “labeled” as Jewish writers — especially when they are simultaneously speaking in Jewish-sponsored lecture/reading series, blogging for the Jewish Book Council, and/or benefiting from awards given specifically for works deemed to have Jewish significance. These writers protest too much as they engage in a variation of that proverbial activity: biting a hand that feeds them.
Before proceeding, let’s distinguish “Jewish writers” from “Jewish writing.” Being a “Jewish writer,” by circumstance of birth or conversion, does not automatically make the writing that one produces “Jewish.” Moreover, non-Jewish writers are perfectly capable of producing “Jewish” writing worth reading.
I’m not the only one to discern these distinctions. Commenting last spring in “Moment” magazine, Allegra Goodman said: “I define Jewish fiction as fiction about Jewish people or ideas. I don’t define Jewish fiction by the author. Therefore, one of my favorite works of Jewish fiction is George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.” In the same feature, Marge Piercy elaborated: “Not all fiction written by Jewish writers should be called Jewish fiction. I myself write novels, such as the one I just finished, in which there are no Jewish characters or people identified as such. The novels that I would consider Jewish fiction are those that have Jewish content—novels that deal with the lives of Jews as Jews, whether cultural or religious, and matters that pertain to that, or that have themes that pertain to the Jewish religion….”
But some writers associated with “Jewish” material rebel against the identification. Nathan Englander, for one, has made no secret of unhappiness. One recent protest appeared courtesy of “The Chicago Tribune” while the author was in the Windy City as the inaugural Crown Speaker Series lecturer at Northwestern University’s Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies.
“Judaism is not my subject at all,” Englander said in that interview. “When I write a story like ‘Sister Hills’ [in his collection ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’], that’s not a story about Jews. It’s about the ideas of ownership of property and ancient contracts and what it means to live by the word of the Bible. ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ is a story about history and borders and vengeance. Who cares if the characters are Jewish?”
I care. It matters that the characters in “Sister Hills” are Jewish settlers in Samaria and that they bring their contract dispute before the beit din. It matters that ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ is set in Israel and that the tale recounted within the story harks back to the Holocaust. Moreover, I suspect that the Jewishness of the book’s characters and content influenced my editor at The Jewish Journal when he assigned the book to me for review. It likely also informed similar assigning decisions by many other editors in the Jewish press (print and virtual).
In the same Chicago interview, Englander explained: “I grew up in a world where there were only Jews, and only religious Jews. For adventure, I went to Jerusalem, which has no shortage of Jews, and then to New York, where we’ve got a kind of a Jewish town going here. For me, if a man walks into a room, Jewish is the way to be, the universal way to be. That’s my world.”
Let’s leave aside, momentarily, the idea that most readers may have experienced quite a different world. Elsewhere in the interview, Englander noted that all of his grandparents and even some of his great-grandparents were born in this country. In other words, Englander possesses “good long American roots,” and focusing on his work through the prism of Jewish identity is somehow “not the idea of this country.”
He’s free to believe this, of course. But readers, including those of us whose great-grandparents (and grandparents) were not born in this country, and fled their homes because of a Czar or a Führer, are equally free not to buy in quite so readily to these universalist ideals. Some of us may have grown up in neighborhoods quite unlike Englander’s, where ours may have been the only house on the block without Christmas decorations. We may have been excluded from “restricted” country clubs. Our life experiences may have led us to find the metaphor of the “salad bowl” far more resonant than that of the “melting pot.”
Then there’s the value of fiction’s power to illuminate varieties of human experience. Take one recent example: Ayana Mathis’s debut novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” was on my to-read list even before Oprah Winfrey endorsed it; my interest was heightened, rather than discouraged, by Winfrey’s comment: “My grandmother’s name was Hattie Mae Lee … and so I picked [this novel] up because of the title, and opened to the first page. I saw Philadelphia and Jubilee. You know that’s some black people … So, I thought, let me get in here, see if I know these people, and in five pages, I did.” Notably, Winfrey added: “Obviously, it’s a story about black folks, but if you are living in a world where you want to know what other people’s lives are like, and what they experience, it’s a way of seeing that, and showing that, in a manner that I haven’t encountered in quite some time in a novel.”
Even if many readers flock to his writing in part for its Jewish content, Englander can’t complain that the work hasn’t been acknowledged beyond a Jewish readership. There’s something odd about a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy in Berlin, the New York Public Library—and the winner, most recently, of the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award—so persistently denying the Jewish nature of his work. Especially when he does so during a trip undertaken to deliver a Jewish-studies lecture. (Or to attend a Jewish Book Festival. In an interview published a few weeks earlier, in conjunction with his visit to St. Louis, where his book was the selected title for the local festival’s “Big Jewish Community Read,” Englander expressed similar sentiments.)
Englander may be one of the most well-known writers to be taking these positions, but he isn’t alone. Nor is he unique in using Jewish “pulpits” to argue his case.
It is dispiriting to find in so many magazines, websites, and panels ostensibly dedicated to advancing Jewish ideas and culture so many disavowals. Last spring, writing as the “Visiting Scribe” for the Jewish Book Council’s blog (which is republished on MyJewishLearning.com and on The Forward’s Arty Semite blog; this particular post was later adapted for “CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism”), Joshua Henkin suggested that “these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible. No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer. No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.” (Henkin, by the way, has since announced that his latest book has won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, which “is presented annually to an American writer whose published creative work of fiction is considered to have significance for the American Jew.” Henkin’s new novel was also a finalist for the most recent National Jewish Book Award in fiction.)
Then, there’s Tablet, the Web site, which launched a new fiction series this fall. I’m not sure which troubled me more—the suggestion that, in its lack of identifiably Jewish content, much of the fiction that this self-described “magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture” has been publishing is “representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic,” or the distancing remark attributed to one of the youthful writers whose work Tablet has featured in explaining why he resists the “Jewish” label (a remark that once again conflates writer and writing): “’Jewish writer’ sounds like ‘sci-fi writer’ or ‘Y.A. novelist’—like it’s a niche commercial genre.” But if the niche fits….
Maybe some of my preoccupation with these issues is due to the personal reality that my “good American roots” don’t run as deep as Englander’s. Three of my four grandparents, and all of my great-grandparents, were born elsewhere; I remain keenly interested in contemporary Jewish-American writing that updates a canon depicting immigrant and refugee experience, whether the home countries in question are European, Russian/ex-Soviet, or Middle Eastern.
Maybe some if it stems from the fact that I’ve spent more time in environments where, far from New York or Jerusalem, Jews are an exception rather than a rule. More than once, I’ve been told that I’m the first Jewish person someone has met or welcomed to a home. And, just maybe, despite the fact that I don’t often immerse myself in the quarrels and quandaries that surround the circumstances of women in contemporary writing and publishing, I follow them sufficiently to realize that ours is not an idealized, universalist literary culture, that categories and labels exist.
Whatever the reason, I can’t understand why some writers seem so intent on distancing their work from being identified as “Jewish.” That they do so while simultaneously benefiting from the “label” and showing no evidence of suffering from any career-stultifying “ghettoization” only adds salt to the wound.
Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio), an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature). Web: www.erikadreifus.com
Gina Nahai: Leonard’s story
Years ago, I created a class, “Writer’s Marketplace,” dedicated to the business side of writing. It was inspired by all the I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now moments in my own career, the realization that good writers often are clueless about how to sell their work, and that writing schools are often remiss in communicating the practical aspects of the profession to their students. I’m not talking about every third rich housewife who’s bored with her charities and aged out of volunteering at her kids’ schools, who pays a vanity press or an online publisher a few hundred dollars and produces what a friend of mine calls “a booklike object” she can sell to her charity and school friends. My concern is the truly talented writer who takes out a $100,000 loan, spends three years in graduate school writing a novel or a screenplay, then drops out of the race because he’s too broke and in debt and disheartened.
So I teach the class every semester, start and end it with a firm the-only-rule-is-that-there-are-no-rules announcement, then spend 13 weeks belaboring the rules. One of these, as you might imagine, is, “Whatever you do, don’t quit your day job.” Not when you’re in graduate school, not while you’re finishing the work, not even after you’ve got a contract and cashed your first check. Unless you have a $2 million deal and no mortgage, children or dogs: Don’t quit your day job.
There are many reasons for this, not all of them financial. I was busy enumerating these for my new class at the start of last semester when a student interrupted me.
“So what would you say,” he asked, “to a person who’s quit a steady job with a pension and gone into debt and moved across the state just to come here and write?”
For a minute, I was truly at a loss. Nothing good; especially if you’re older, as you seem to be.
“Is that you?” I asked, and he nodded.
“Do you have a rich wife?” And is she willing to support you for the rest of your life, if need be?
He shook his head.
“A lot of savings?”
He shook his head again.
I weighed the benefits of telling an enthusiastic new student that he had done a crazy thing he couldn’t easily undo against the temptation to admire his reckless disregard for reality in favor of pursuing a dream.
“I’d say you’d better write a great book and make sure it’s published.”
That was in January. By August, Leonard had written 100 pages of a novel, a few short stories and a screenplay. He was 51 years old, a former river-rafting guide and public school teacher who had give up a steady income with summers off and health insurance to be a full-time writer. He wasn’t going to waste a minute. Right before school started this fall, he wrote to say he wanted to mail to me his novel so we could work on it as his thesis project. Two days later, he died.
Just like that. He had been walking four miles a day and doing hot yoga two out of every three days. He was gifted, exuberant, charming and optimistic. He was writing a big book, full of intrigue and adventure and beautiful young people who didn’t think twice before risking life and limb in defense of a noble idea. Then he developed a cough, went to see his doctor.
The first thought that occurred to me after the initial blow of the news itself was that I had yet to receive the novel he had mailed. I had read enough of it in the previous semester to know the plot and the characters; now, I was taken by the thought that they were all floating out there on paper and on line, orphaned and disconnected from their creator, yes, but existing nevertheless. Leonard’s life was over, but these other characters continued to exist. They wouldn’t disappear because he did, but nor would they grow up or old. They’d be frozen in time, so many Dorian Grays who would outlast both the painter and the canvas upon which he drew them.
Then I thought about the conversation we had that first day in the Marketplace class. What if he hadn’t quit his job when he did, waited through a few more of what he once called “soul-crushing years,” saved his money, planned for retirement?
At the memorial service we held for Leonard at USC, one side of the chapel was occupied entirely by men and women in loud Hawaiian shirts. These were Leonard’s writing buddies who honored him by dressing in his favorite get-up. The opposite side of the room was lined with prim and proper women in pearls and sweater sets — Leonard’s relatives, one of whom, it turned out, had met him only once. In the middle was as eclectic a group as you’ll find in any memorial: fraternity buddies, fellow white-water rafting guides, middle-school teachers, a guy who ran the cigar bar where Leonard played chess for three hours every Saturday afternoon, members of our own faculty. You could tell, just by scanning the room, that Leonard had had a few, rather divergent, lives. But you had to hear people speak about him to realize that the single constant narrative thread throughout those lives had been his dream of being a writer.
“I warned him against leaving his life and coming down here to write,” every person who stood up to talk confessed. “I said it’s a bad idea. I’m so glad he didn’t listen.”
I, too, am glad he didn’t listen — to them or to me or to any voice other than his own impatient heart.
What would I say, these days, to any reasonably sane person about to trash his income, job title and daily agenda in favor of chasing a fantasy? I hope no one asks, because if they do, I’ll have to tell them Leonard’s story, how good sense and planning, hard work and patience may not be such a good idea after all.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.
Spiegelman among National Jewish Book Awards winners
Author and illustrator Art Spiegelman and Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld are among the winners of the 2011 National Jewish Book Awards.
The awards, which were announced Wednesday, are given out annually by the Jewish Book Council to honor outstanding books of Jewish interest.
Spiegelman’s new book, “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” took the prize in the Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir category. The judges describe it “as brilliant and paradigm-shattering as…Maus… a work of genius.”
Appelfeld won his third National Jewish Book Award in fiction for “Until the Dawn’s Light.” Ned Beauman, the 26-year-old author of “Boxer, Beetle,” won in the Outstanding Debut Fiction category.
Simon Sebag Montefiore was honored with the Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award for his epic history, “Jerusalem: The Biography.”
This year, the Jewish Book Council will recognize the contributions of board member Myra H. Kraft, who died in July. The Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award in Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice, endowed by her husband, Robert Kraft, and her family, has been established for her dedication to the world of Jewish literature. It will be presented to Rabbi David A. Teutsch for his book “A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living.”
Other winners include Hirsch Goodman in the History category for “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival;” Julie Chibbaro in the Children’s and Young Adult Literature category for “Deadly,” and Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky in the Women’s Studies category for “The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth.”
The awards will be presented March 14 in New York. A complete list of the winners can be seen here. The Jewish Book Council has been giving out the National Jewish Book Awards since 1948.
Good writing counts
Each autumn, the Milken Family Foundation throws one of the best luncheons of the year, and it’s not the fine kosher fare at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard hotel that draws us in. This is when Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE (Builders of Jewish Education) and Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken foundation, get to present awards to a handful of Jewish educators.
Think about it — we all love kids, teachers, awards — what could be more inspired, teary and happy?
So each year the Jewish world shows up to celebrate some truly inspiring leaders in the field of education. This year’s winners were Marnie Greenwald, a first-grade teacher at Temple Emanuel Academy Day School (think of piles of adorable kids cheering in the video); Lisa Feldman, head of school at Weizmann Day School in Pasadena (same kind of imagery); Hava Mirovski, Judaic studies and Hebrew teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy (ditto); and Juli Shanblatt, the physics and calculus teacher at Bais Yaakov School for Girls (a more demure, grown-up set of enthusiastic students, but same idea). The teachers all spoke at the lunch, and if they are any indication of what’s going on in our schools, I have one word to say: Bravo.
But I was more focused on another part of the program, which is in only its second year, and which, while honored, sort of flew by in a flash. And that was the Student Essay Contest.
Two categories have been established for this new prize, one for middle-schoolers, the other for high-school students, all of whom must be enrolled at BJE-affiliated schools to enter. This year, both groups were asked to “describe an unforgettable Jewish Los Angeles moment that you experienced.” I was among the jury for the younger group, while my colleague Julie Gruenbaum Fax was one of those judging the high-school students. The winner in the latter category was Emma Maier, a 10th-grade student at Milken Community High School, who ” title=”Nathan Bentolila’s essay” target=”_blank”>Nathan Bentolila’s essay. Titled “Making a Difference,” it begins like this:
“‘Nathan, you’ve got a letter!’ I had eaten my breakfast, brushed my teeth and was about ready to leave for school when my mother became excited. I sprang from my chair and raced to the living room.”
As usual, it started out with questions.
“Where do you work? What do you do? Have you been on any trips lately?”
I was all for talking about myself, what I do, where I’ve been, where I’m going. But then it got personal.
“Are you renting? How much do you pay per month?”
Real estate is a touchy subject. But it’s one that anyone in any major city discusses. I used to feel guilty about renting a place, what with everyone and their mother owning property, but now with the subprime mortgage rates and the housing market crash, I feel smugly superior that I didn’t fall prey to the greed. Yes, I rent! Isn’t that great?
And then it got really personal.
“And are you still single?”
It was that one word that really got to me. Still Single. Still. As if I hadn’t accomplished anything in the last year. As if I hadn’t published articles, essays — been on NPR, for God’s sake! — influenced people with my writing. As if I hadn’t started teaching at a university, traveled around the world, lost 10 pounds, learned how to surf, counseled countless friends and family members through countless crises. It all had been erased to nothing — nothing! — with that one question: “Are you still single?”
OK, so what if it was my accountant who was doing the asking?
For the last six years I’ve been doing my taxes with this seemingly sweet older lady. She is tall, white-haired and stooped over, with blue eyes that might be described as kindly if you’ve never sat down with her for a tax interview. If you had, you might say her eyes were steely blue and her demeanor hawkish. The woman, God help her, will ferret out any and every possible deduction known to mankind. Especially if you’re an artist, which many of her clients are. Why, then every activity you do, from reading newspapers to traveling, to meeting with people to anything that might have a direct influence on your art is fair game.
(But, Mr. I.R.S., if you’re reading this, she and her firm are totally and completely legal. Case in point, many of my seemingly “social” interactions are part of my writing. Most of them are, since I write about myself.)
But deductions are not the point. The point is that when she asks me if I’m still single — she has to ask me, it’s part of her job — it chafes. It brings up a lot of issues for me. Am I still single? Am I in the same job as last year? The same house? The very same life? What have I done with the last 12 months of my life that we can tell the I.R.S.?
I imagine my accountant saying, “They’re going to audit you because everything in your life sounds suspiciously similar to last year and beyond!”
Mind you, she asks, “Are you still single?” in the same tone she asks, “Are you still driving a Volkswagen?” and “Are you still subscribing to The New York Times? And The New York Review of Books? (I let the latter lapse because it was just too dense, and there’s no one in L.A. bars to discuss it with.)
But as I answer, “Yes, still single. Same job. Same car, same house,” in my mind I picture others who file with her from year to year, making dozens of changes and updates to their files: Change of name (married), change of residence (bought a house), change of mortgage (paid in full), sale of stocks (to pay for house), number of dependents (one, two, three).
Look, it’s not necessarily any cheaper to file as a married person than as a single person.
But we’re not talking about money here (Mr. I.R.S., I definitely am talking about lots of money from you!). We’re talking more than financial accountability. We’re talking life accountability.
I know in Judaism we review our year on Rosh Hashanah, and we tally up our good deeds and bad deeds before Yom Kippur. For our superficial — or more worldly — deeds, we use the Gregorian New Year to make resolutions. On our birthdays, we take stock, using the number of years as a measuring stick.
But on all those occasions it’s possible to fudge a bit. To make things look better than they are (“OK, so I wasn’t such a bad Jew this year — even though this is my first time in synagogue, I did give tzedakah to every homeless person who asked …”). In the run-up to April 15, though, it’s hard to lie. (Actually, it’s criminal.) It’s all laid out there in front of you in stacks of paper that you’ve finally separated, organized, catalogued and filed.
Still writing. Still renting. Still driving a VW. And yes, still, ahem, single.
It’s all naked and exposed before my accountant. But that’s what frustrates me so. There is so much beyond those cut-and-dried numbers. There’s poetry behind the columns. “Romeo and Juliet” can’t be summed up as, “Both Capulet and Montague family have one less dependent this year.”
And neither can my life. I may not be married yet, but I’ve met dozens of wonderful people — men and women — this year. I’ve deepened my relationships to dozens I’ve already known, been to fabulous places and, most importantly, learned so many new life lessons: on how to love, how to be loved, whom to love, whom to leave and to whom to give a second chance.
And these things can’t be measured on paper. No matter who — my accountant, my parents, my relatives, my so-called friends — is asking.
As she remembers it
Do you write from memory? Someone always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncertain, scrambling for the words, the ways to make believable what I know will sound bizarre — a too-complicated response where all that is required is a simple “Yes” or “No” or “Sometimes; the rest is research.”
I lived in Iran for only 13 years. I remember very little — a handful of places, a couple of dozen friends and relatives. Yet, I’ve spent my entire career writing about the country and its people, and I’ve written it all — this is the part that’s difficult to explain — from memory.
“There were always two of us,” I want to say when someone asks me where my novels come from — “Back then, in Iran, in that place where all the stories began, where all the men and women, the ghosts and legends and bitter, half-invented truths that made up our daily reality lived and died in grand, spectacular, forever tragic ways.”
There I was, the child who engaged and enjoyed, who accepted, as the innocent would, without questioning, without doubt or judgment, the stranger-than-fictional world she was born into, who passed through those years unscathed and unscarred, bearing few memories and even fewer attachments, crossing easily, effortlessly, over to a life in the West. And then there was that other me, that silent, invisible, forever-present part of me that watched and remembered. That other one, the one who’s silent except when I write, saw the things I could not bear to see, felt the emotions with a force that I, as a child, could not withstand. It is she who remembers and who tells, who tries to bring together the scattered pieces of time, the shattered bits of lives, glue them into a canvas and, in the retelling, make them whole.
I remember our house, its grand, almost theatrical beauty — high brick walls and hand-painted, gold-leafed ceilings, freshwater pools with statues of mermaids and dolphins rising in the shade of hundred-year-old trees — in the midst of a city that had grown too fast, become too unwieldy too soon. I remember my grandparents — the men angry and disappointed, the women quietly resigned. My parents — young, beautiful, determined to break out of the life of tradition and obedience they had been born into. My two sisters — green-eyed, golden-haired, quiet as angels and equally helpless.
She remembers the rest — the friends and strangers, neighbors and long-lost cousins, desperate salesmen on one last call for the day, wiry old tax collectors bearing suitcases that were empty when they arrived, filled with cash and other valuables before they left — the tales they told or that were told about them, the grudges they bore, the triumphs they boasted of.
I remember what was — our little elementary school with the green painted gates and the play areas that were reserved for boys, the principal who walked around the yard wearing stilettos and carrying a horse whip, two feet of snow in the winter, sweltering sidewalks in summer.
She remembers what wasn’t — the kindness we didn’t see from our teachers, tolerance from our elders, gentleness from a landscape, a climate that, although breathtakingly beautiful, showed no mercy to the weak.
I remember what I wished for — good grades; my parents’ approval; the white pleated skirts and gleaming sharp colored pencils and scented erasers that my friends brought back from America every summer.
She remembers what I feared — to fail in school and therefore be barred from going to university; to fail my parents and therefore become, like all those other girls whose stories I heard as a child and that I would write about in my novels, a source of shame and infamy to my own children and theirs; to fail among my peers and therefore become, like the runaway aunts my mother told me about who, try as they might, could not conform to the mores of the day and had to leave or be driven out of their hometown, never to be allowed to return.
I do write from memory — yes — I want to say to those who ask, but my memories are few and uncomplicated. It’s the shadow in the back of the room where I sit to write, the voice I hear only when I see the letters appear on the blank screen, the child who refuses to grow up lest she forget to bear witness — it is she whose memories I write from.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). This month’s column previously appeared in Jewish Book World.
Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’
The Substance of Feeling
The poet writes the history of his own body.
— Henry David Thoreau
For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.
This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:
Get ready to bug out
With few exceptions, I sincerely hate bugs … a lot. I hate the way they look. I can't stand it when they bite. And most of all, I feel violated each time I catch one crawling up my leg. Yeeech!
While my hatred of bugs may seem a tad extreme (but definitely warranted), it may be that we're intruding on their lives rather than the other way around. That's the way Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer see it, and their new book, “A Field Guide to Household Bugs: It's a Jungle in Here” (Plume, $12), explains that our well-protected homes may be more of a feeding ground for bugs than we think.
Turning “the idea of home as a sanctuary on its head,” Abarbanel and Swimmer say, their book — which has the potential to bring out the Jewish neurosis in anyone — offers a comedic yet factual look at the bugs currently living around, on or even in you.
They enter your home by hitching a ride on family pets or simply taking advantage of open doors, pet doors, open windows, tears in window screens, vents, pipes and cracks. After reading the field guide, I inspected my shared apartment and bathed … and then bathed again.
There's much more to the book than the mere gross-out feature. Abarbanel and Swimmer say their book works because “the characters are so compelling and bizarre; their behaviors are so weird and unusual.”
In the chapter Demodex Folliculorum, Abarbanel and Swimmer delve into the bugs more commonly known as eyelash mites. The guide explains that at any given time, you could have 20 to 30 of these critters wrapped around the base of your well-groomed lashes.
The two agree that the most Jewish-sounding name for a bug would probably be the silverfish (Lepisma saccharina), and that the earwigs (Forficula auricularia) get mad Jewish props for their love of books.
As we celebrate Sukkot, Abarbanel and Swimmer have some good news for you. The two say your sukkah is likely less infested with bugs than your home, which should make the mitzvah of sleeping in our biblical huts a little easier to carry out.
Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer will sign “A Field Guide to Household Bugs” on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m. at Dutton's Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles.
New books chronicle new exodus — Ethiopians’ journey and its aftermath
“Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” by Howard M. Lenhoff (Gefen; $24.95).
“The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” by Len Lyons (Jewish Lights; $34.99).
Roughly 20 years ago, Sudan, whose western Darfur region has been engulfed in genocide for four years, watched another other tragedy unfold — the deaths of thousands of Ethiopian Jews trying to escape to Israel via Operation Moses.
Nearly one-fifth of the fleeing Falashas perished on their journey due to murder, famine, drought and various illnesses. But tens of thousands reached the Holy Land; and the ancient Jewish community (known to themselves as Beta Yisrael), which had an almost invisible presence in Israel until the late 1970s, now numbers more than 100,000 people.
Two new books explore the Ethiopian Jews, one from the perspective of an advocate who helped forge a consensus behind the mass aliyah in the 1970s and 1980s, and the other from an admittedly apolitical jazz aficionado who has dedicated two and a half years of his life to interviewing an array of Ethiopian Jews some 20 years after the exodus.
Former activist Howard Lenhoff, author of “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” might not consider himself one of his book’s eponymous heroes. He never traveled to Ethiopia, never risked his life, never engaged in the kind of swashbuckling derring-do of some of his colleagues.
Yet he played a critical role as president of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) in negotiating with and, in some cases, applying pressure to the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to change policy on Ethiopian Jews.
Typical of the response of the Jewish establishment in the 1970s was this remark by one American Jewish woman: “These blacks are not Jews.” Nor were the Israelis immune to demeaning characterizations of the Beta Yisrael.
Lenhoff quotes a letter from professor Aryeh Tartakower, another leading activist at the time, that spells out the one-time Israeli attitude toward the Ethiopian Jews: “They were to be considered as ‘Aliens’ like other people of this category, to be admitted as tourists only for a short period of time….
Things went so far, that certain overzealous Israeli officials threatened to deport those Falashas who would be tempted to come over illegally.”
As much as this letter may remind us of the present debate over illegal immigration in the United States, the Israelis ultimately did rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Not only that, they provided them with food, shelter and education at absorption centers throughout the country.
How much of that was due to the advocacy of groups like Lenhoff’s is hard to know, but Lenhoff and other AAEJ officials met on many occasions with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, obtained more than 50,000 signatures on behalf of the Ethiopians, mobilized protests, distributed literature, got the Jewish press to report on the plight of the Falashas and even commanded a few rescues themselves.
Lenhoff first became conscious of race as a young boy growing up in North Adams, Mass. Most of the blacks in his hometown worked as “janitors and garbage people. It sort of bothered me,” he said from his home in Oxford, Miss. “Naturally, I became friends with them.”
He later served on the faculty at Howard University and participated in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, but his interest in the Falashas did not blossom until he visited Israel just after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973 and early 1974. It was then that he read a Jerusalem Post article by famed newsman Louis Rapoport about the Ethiopian Jews who were being denied the right to the Law of Return. Shortly thereafter, Lenhoff, through Rapoport, got in contact with some members of the Beta Yisrael and even provided one, Rahamim, with $1,000, which enabled him to bring his older brother to Israel.
Over the phone, Lenhoff, a former UC Irvine biology professor, said he was concerned about the rescue missions, thinking at the time, “We’re amateurs. What if somebody gets killed. I’ll be responsible.”
He has also been responsible for his daughter, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder known as Williams-Beuren syndrome. Last fall, he came out with “The Strangest Song,” a book about his daughter, who displays rare musical gifts despite her condition.
The same compassion he shows for his daughter comes through in “Black Jews.” He speaks glowingly of some of the Ethiopian men he has met, like Hezi, the first one he encountered, a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, whom he describes as “a towering figure, over 6 feet tall, with a trademark long, black handlebar mustache.”
The book could do without its many subheads, like “Meeting Rahamim — The Professor Hooked.” Likewise, it could do without definitions of such obvious terms as the Mossad and kibbutzim. Any reader will know that the former is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA and the latter the plural form of kibbutz.
Despite these stylistic flaws, the book offers a primer on grass-roots activism and documents a modern-day Exodus, a story that makes for compelling reading on Passover.
Len Lyons, who has previously written books about jazz and computers, first came into contact with the Beta Yisrael through the Boston-Haifa sister city exchange program, when he and his wife hosted two Ethiopians at their home.
Although he said over the phone from Boston that he did not grow up in a politically active home, he could always “relate to the idea of not fitting in completely with my own world.”
In his new book, “The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” he interviewed the top stratum of Ethiopian Israeli society. Almost no one is unemployed. Not one interviewee seems to live in a broken home, even though there is a high prevalence of divorce among Ethiopian Jews. No one suffers from any of the other pathologies of the community — spousal abuse, depression and alcoholism.
Lyons admits at the outset that he has not presented a random sample or a true cross-section of Beta Yisrael. He tried to interview some inmates in a prison, but they, like other “people on the margins … failing to engage constructively in society, don’t really want to talk about themselves” because of the stigma and shame of being imprisoned, homeless or even unemployed.
New Pesach ‘traditions’ might be purr-fect for your family
“Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own” (Schocken Books, $22.95).
When author Marge Piercy was a little girl, her grandmother set a special place at the Passover seder for Blackie, her grandmother’s cat.
He was a very dignified cat, Piercy recalled in an interview. “Blackie sat quietly in his chair while we went through the entire maggid,” the re-telling of the Passover story.
Piercy’s grandmother insisted that Blackie ate with a knife and fork — but only if nobody was looking. So every Pesach, the young girl would wait to see if this night would be different from all other nights and the finicky feline would join the family and cut up his piece of pot roast.
Whether it was the warm memory of that cat or of watching her grandmother create the annual seder in her modest Cleveland apartment — setting out her Passover-only dishes, ironing her spotless tablecloth saved for special occasions, polishing the fine silver candlesticks she had brought from Lithuania and, especially, preparing the traditional meal, Pesach remains the prolific poet and novelist’s favorite holiday.
Piercy has just published “Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own,” which is filled with insightful writings and illustrative poetry from the personal haggadah she’s created for her own seders, as well as her recipes. On April 2, the first night of Passover, Piercy will honor her grandmother, Hannah Levi Bunnin, by cooking her Gedempte Flaisch Mit Abricotten (Pot Roast With Apricots) for guests at the seder she has presided over for the last 25 years.
“If I weren’t honoring the memory of my bubelah, I would probably serve lamb, because of its association with Pesach,” she wrote in the book. Although she loves recreating her grandmother’s Ashkenazi menu, lately she’s added Sephardic Chicken Soup (from Jews originally from Spain) and Mizrachi Charoset, (made by Jews of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran), because of her fascination with the different food traditions.
For this year’s seder, she has created a special egg salad to eat during the part of the service that calls for dipping a sprig of parsley and a hard-boiled egg into saltwater to symbolize spring and the cycle of life, but also to make visceral the tears of the Jewish slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
Instead of the traditional basket of eggs passed around the table, Piercy serves eggs mixed with parsley, salt, cucumber, fennel, olive oil and lemon juice during the first part of the reading of the haggadah. Piercy says it’s a time for lively discussion, but as the service is also long, people get hungry, especially the children, who just want to eat. So Piercy serves the salad right after the Hillel sandwich. Eating the eggs, parsley and salt in a salad fulfills the requirement; it’s also an admirable start for the meal, she says.
A fish dish is traditionally served after the egg is eaten, and many matriarchs spend the better part of a day making fresh gefilte, a family favorite. But for the rest of us who have neither the time nor the inclination, Piercy offers an easy, appealing recipe for chopped herring.
Every year, Piercy says, she tries to make Passover more relevant to her life and to what is happening in the world. She has created her own, personal haggadah.
“It’s 65 percent poetry — it’s been a ‘work in progress’ for more than two decades,” she said.
Piercy dedicated “Pesach for the Rest of Us” to her grandmother, who in some sense presided over the seders of the writer’s youth, though her grandmother’s role was most of all about making sure everything was ready for the seder, because since she was Orthodox, her son presided over the service. Piercy says, however, that over the years, in writing her haggadah, she kept in mind, the importance of making tradition accessible to young people — of touching each child and creating a feeling of belonging so they will turn toward, and not away, from their religion.
In the book, Piercy writes about how women over the past century have demanded that Judaism speak to them, that it serve and acknowledge their experiences, their needs and their humanity. She adds an orange on the seder plate and Miriam’s cup to complement Elijah’s.
“Pesach for the Rest of Us” offers visceral ways of experiencing our ancestor’s journey, such as taking off our shoes and plunging our feet into cold water, reminiscent of the Sea of Reeds or walking outside and gazing at the moon to remind us the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles.
But best of all, she shares with us recipes that make sense today and no doubt would have appealed to the gentlemanly Blackie. Enough so, certainly, to make him pick up his knife and fork to cut up his herring.
Mizrachi Charoset 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice 1 cup apples, peeled, cored and quartered 1 cinnamon stick 3 cardamom pods 1/2 cup almonds and pistachios 1/2 cup pitted dates 1/2 cup white figs 1/4 cup dried cherries 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds Black pepper to taste 1/4 cup cherry or orange brandy, sweet wine or grape juice Honey or brown sugar to taste (optional)
Sprinkle lemon juice over the apples. Set aside. In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. When they have consistency of a powder, add nuts and then the apples and dried fruit. Keep a light hand on the pulse button. Consistency should have a bite to it.
Remove ingredients to a large bowl. Fold in pomegranate seeds, brandy, wine or grape juice and, if desired, sugar or honey.
Taste charoset to see if it is just the right blend of sweet and tart. Add honey or sugar for sweetness, lemon juice to make it more tart. Mix to combine. Serve in glass bowl.
Makes 3 1/2 cups.
My December visit with ‘lady’
“Agha isn’t here,” Khanum says as soon as I walk in through the door. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
Agha is her husband — dead for 35 years and buried in Iran — but she speaks about him as if he were just out running an errand.
“No point waiting around for him,” she tells me with characteristic bluntness. “Go home and do something useful.”
We’re in her room on the third floor of the Ocean Towers Convalescent Home in Santa Monica. Khanum has lived here for nearly 10 years, ever since she broke her hip and had to have it replaced by a young Iranian doctor who called all his female patients “Khanum” (Lady), because they were old, and he meant to show respect — and because this way, he didn’t have to remember their names.
Depending on whom you ask, Khanum is somewhere between 97 and 104 years old. She has bad eyes and trouble walking — what with the hip replacement and all — and she gets tired easily, but she’s otherwise in fine health.
She needs constant care, which she resents wholeheartedly and refuses often. Her mind is in good shape most of the time, but lately her short-term memory has been lapsing for hours at a time. When this happens, she can tell you about all the people she knew and places she had been to in her 20s and 30s, but she won’t recall when she last ate, or what day it is, or what the person she’s been talking to has just said.
She becomes young again, a new bride in her husband’s house, unwavering in her love and her loyalty to him.
“I’m not here to see Agha,” I tell her. “I’ve come to see you.”
I realize she has confused me with one of the many callers who used to knock at her door day or night in Tehran in the years before her husband died. They never called ahead of time, or asked permission to visit, because they knew they would not be welcome: they were either selling something, asking for money, collecting a bribe or hoping to enlist her husband’s support in some decades’ old feud with a family member.
I kiss her on both cheeks and ask how she’s doing.
“Why do you want to know?” she responds, still suspicious.
To my embarrassment, I feel relieved that Khanum hasn’t recognized me yet, that she doesn’t remember how long it has been since my last visit. So we sit — Khanum in her wheelchair, I on the edge of her hospital bed — for a while without speaking. The small television that hangs from the ceiling is tuned to one of the many Farsi-language satellite stations based in Los Angeles. Persian music blares from someone’s radio next door.
It’s only 6 p.m., but the December sky has been dark for nearly an hour.
“No self-respecting woman would be out on the street so late at night,” Khanum chides me.
Ocean Towers is one of many establishments of its kind in Santa Monica — a gray, seven-story box of a building with cement walls and a flat roof, situated, for practical reasons, within a 10-block radius of St. John’s Hospital.
We’re only 12 blocks away from Third Street Promenade with its trendy shops and overly aggressive street performers, but we might as well be in Tehran: There are three Iranian restaurants within walking distance of this building, three grocery stores, an Iranian kosher butcher shop. There is an Iranian bakery around the corner, two hair salons and an electronics store that promises — in big, bold letters painted on the windows — to crush any competitor’s price anywhere.
On the third floor, all the residents are Iranian. So are some of the doctors and nurses, the nutrition experts and physical therapists. The arrangement seems to be as much by design as by coincidence, but it suits everyone just fine. Most of the residents here know each other from the years in Iran — before the revolution forced them out of the country and sent them to a place where youth and beauty are revered above wisdom and tradition; where children are allowed to disobey their parents, or dishonor them by marrying out of their faith, or divorcing their spouses or entrust the care of their elders to strangers in bright purple uniforms who come and go every eight hours.
The visitors, too, know most of the patients. They come often, and bring Iranian food and magazines and candy. They arrive early and leave late, sometimes staying all day with a spouse or a parent because they can’t bear the guilt of what they have done to their loved ones, because they remember what it was like back in Iran, how the elderly were cared for at home, how they used to look down on people in the West — the way they tossed their parents away when they were of no more use, locked them up in nursing homes and forgot where they had put the key.
Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., and after that the latest hold-outs go home. The nurses’ shift changes, and dusk settles onto the bare hallways and narrow beds with plastic mattresses. Then the ghosts come out.
“Do you miss Agha?” I ask Khanum.
When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people’s lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.
Almost all the stories, however, were about my own family: we were — still are — unusually open, among Iranian Jews, about our past. Others are more guarded, more aware of the consequences of revealing themselves in a society built as much on appearances as on facts, a society where truth will, far from setting you free, most likely close a thousand doors and come back to haunt you for good.
Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold
“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .
“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.
Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.
Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.
“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.
He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)
“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.
Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.
“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”
So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)
To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)
Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.
— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.
“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”
— Menasha Skulnik?
“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”
— Joseph Seltzer?
“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”
— Abraham Kalish?
“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.
— While he mocked them?
“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”
— Sounds like what Borat does!
“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”
— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…
“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”
— He used a thick Jewish accent?
“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.
— Who played him?
“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”
Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.
Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.
Why I Write Jewish
On Jan. 25, 1997, my oldest son, Zachary, became a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that inaugurated him into the Jewish community as a responsible young adult. It also catapulted me into the world of Jewish journalism as a family columnist.
Call it writing therapy. Call it black humor. Dealing with the bar mitzvah preparations — from the trivial to the transcendent — sent me scrambling for books explaining the ritual’s history and meaning. I found myself jotting down notes and thoughts, wondering why we so warmly and lavishly welcomed these hormonally challenged teenagers into our community instead of sending them on extended solo vision quests like our Native American brethren. And why — just because the bar mitzvah fell on Super Bowl weekend — we needed to have two-foot-high glitter-covered plasterboard football players as centerpieces.
On the one hand, I was awed by the knowledge that when Zack read from the Book of Exodus (Parshat Beshalach) about Pharaoh’s soldiers pursuing the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt, every congregation in the Jewish world would be reading that same passage. Zack, standing on the cusp of Jewish adulthood, would become spiritually connected to them, to his grandparents and great-grandparents and to his 5,000-year heritage.
On the other hand, I was overwhelmed by the myriad mundane details — who do I invite, who do I have to invite, where do I seat them, what do I wear and how many maracas and blow-up saxophones must I purchase? And I was almost paralyzed by the major issues: Why are we doing this? Do we have the strength and the finances to repeat this three more times for Zack’s younger brothers?
I began my research. I learned that Moses, who had a speech impediment, never had to embarrass himself in front of his adolescent pals. I also learned — and felt validated by the fact — that the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law, actually commands the father to host a festive meal in honor of his son. Most important, I learned that I could combine the history of the bar mitzvah with my own angst and amazement, some comments by my sons and husband, description of family activities, humor and — voila –a column was born.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international Jewish news service headquartered in New York, accepted the story, launching my career as a personal chronicler of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. Like some Jewish alchemist, I could magically convert the chaos and confusion of my life as the seemingly deranged mother of four sons into edited copy that captured those few transcendent moments and made our family life look organized, purposeful and, yes, Jewish.
For almost a decade, writing for The Jewish Journal as well as JTA, I have circled and re-circled the Jewish calendar, from Rosh Hashanah to Tisha B’Av, writing about the history, rituals and personal experiences of the Jewish holidays. I have passed through multiple life-cycle events, from birth to bar mitzvah to burial. I have also taken a look at some secular holidays, such as Mother’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and some secular issues, such as vegetarianism, gun control and family dinners. Always, I have looked at these subjects through Jewish eyes or, more precisely, through many pairs of Jewish eyes since consensus among Jews is rare — a boon for a journalist since, for even the quirkiest story, there’s invariably a venerated resource to quote.
Writing has always been important to me. It’s given me a means to record and try to comprehend the world around me. I don’t videotape. I don’t scrapbook, but I have boxes of journals stashed away and file cabinets filled with fiction and nonfiction in various stages of completion — and quality.
Writing as a Jewish columnist originally provided me with a “hook” for my articles, and the concomitant research served as a pleasant way to compensate for my less-than- adequate 1950s Reform religious school education. But quickly I realized it wasn’t the article that was hooked; it was I who was hooked as a strongly identified Jew, as someone rooted in and morally guided by Judaism’s multimillennial way of viewing, participating in and repairing the world.
Over the years, I have survived not one but four bar mitzvahs and moved on to high school and even college graduations. I still continue to write occasional columns, despite the protestations of my sons, now 22, 19, 17 and 15, who claim, “I’m too old to be quoted in your articles.” But I have also moved on to more reportorial articles in which I hope to now and again make a difference or affect a discussion. And where I can continue to write about the Jewish issues and Jewish subjects that I deeply value. l
Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.
Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness
Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.
In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.
Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.
Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?
Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.
No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.
Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.
What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?
Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.
Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.
They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.
Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.
After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.
He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.
Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”
Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.
David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”
Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.
“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.
Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.
Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.
The Look of a King, the View of a Geisha
“It’s cozy out here,” says Arthur Golden, author of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Out here is in the Japanese garden in the back of Elixir, a teahouse in West Hollywood.
Golden, in town for the recent film premiere of “Geisha,” is dressed in a dark turtleneck and sits relaxed on a bench, one leg crossed over the other, yet with perfect posture. Maybe it’s the preppiness of his attire or the comfort with which he sits, but Arthur Golden reminds me of King Arthur — not the one from legend, but Graham Chapman’s Arthur from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Partly, it’s the way he repeats how “cozy” it is out here, in a garden nook with the sound of water gurgling from fountains, a setting familiar to those from Chapman’s Oxbridge circle. Partly, it’s the way he says, when it is suggested that he is related to the Sulzbergers, that “I am a Sulzberger.”
He says it much like the way Chapman announces “I am Arthur.”
Golden is a patrician Jew if there ever was one, hailing from a fabled German Jewish family, owners for over a century of The New York Times, one of the members of “Our Crowd,” who dine at the Harmonie Club and marry within the crowd. Yet Golden is not from New York City like the better-known Sulzbergers. His mother, Ruth S. Holmberg, is a sister of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times. Golden’s mother was a longtime publisher of one of the family’s other papers, the Chattanooga Times.
Despite Golden’s Chattanooga background, his accent is hard to place. He doesn’t speak in a drawl or even with a tinge of the Upper East Side. His words come out softly, gently. This is a man in touch with his feminine side, which is a real strength for a male writer trying to write from the point of view of a woman, let alone a geisha, in the first person.
The movie version, which was released by Sony Pictures in early December in limited markets before expanding more recently, has received mixed reviews, although critics seem united in praising the performance of Ziyi Zhang, who plays the apprentice geisha Sayuri, the protagonist of the story.
While Golden succeeded in capturing the voice of a geisha, he recognizes that when a movie is made of a book, “The narrative voice cannot be translated as if you’re being pulled by someone’s hand and walked through.”
The voice, he says, “is a feature that will absolutely be lost.”
While the filmmakers, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord, use occasional voice-over in the movie, Golden is correct that Sayuri’s unique voice, like the unique voice of any first-person narrator in any novel, can not be replicated.
But this is particularly true of “Geisha” because Golden’s novel begins with a translator’s note from a fictional NYU professor, a conceit that was perhaps most famously used by Vladimir Nabokov, who had a character named John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., write a foreword to “Lolita.”
This multilayered level of artifice functions in the case of “Geisha” as a “Western-receiving consciousness,” Golden says.
It is not culture alone that Golden has transcended, but also religion and sex.
He mentions that his great-great-grandfather was Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Reform Judaism. He gets slightly agitated, pumping his arms a bit up and down as if to contain his anger, when he notes the recent comments by Iran’s new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust is a “myth” and that Israel should be moved to Europe or destroyed.
But he doesn’t seem overly upset. He adds with a bit too much gentility “we feel a certain way because we are human beings, not because we are Jews.”
He points out that his newspaper kin, like Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who published The New York Times during World War II, had to maintain objectivity as newspapermen, rather than promote the cause of any one ethnic or religious group. Many critics have denounced such “objectivity” as an excuse for towing the line of the Roosevelt administration during the Holocaust. Yet, historically, German Jews have always attempted to straddle two worlds, the world of the non-Jewish establishment and the world of the Jews, just as Golden has straddled the world of an American male and a geisha in writing his book, which was a bestseller when it was published in 1998.
Golden admits he struggled with writing from the point of view of a woman.
He spent a great deal of time interviewing a famous geisha, who later sued him for revealing her name in his acknowledgments. That suit was settled out of court. But the access he had to her gave him great insight into that hidden world.
Golden began by writing in the third person, for the same reason most writers do, to achieve a kind of distance from his subject. In fact, he wrote the book twice in the third person until he realized that he had “spent six years writing something that was boring.” He says that his book made the rounds and that he could not find a publisher.
“I was very scared to impersonate a woman,” Golden says.
But Golden realized that he was writing about “one woman at one moment at one time. I’m not writing about all women. It’s not like walking a tight rope but rather like being in a canoe and keeping it between banks.”
He smiles a bit sheepishly when asked if he consulted his wife. It’s as if his secret has been discovered, yet he says that his wife’s responses showed “exactly how Trudy would feel, but not how Sayuri would feel.”
He adds, “I am not here to teach you a writing lesson, but the two enemies of fiction are stasis and generality.”
In pronouncing such obvious principles of writing as if he had invented them, Golden speaks less like a seasoned practitioner of the craft than someone who himself may have only just learned these very basic points.
Still, there is no question that he avoided stasis and generality in “Geisha.” There is a great deal of movement in the book and movie, some of the literal kind, such as the young girl’s abrupt departure from her fishing village to Kyoto; some of the more internal variety, her evolution from Chiyo, the daughter of a fisherman and maid at a geisha house, to Sayuri, the most prized apprentice geisha in the town.
The movie’s appeal may rest largely on the beauty of its images and the beauty of its actors, notably Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri, Michelle Yeoh as her “sister” or fairy godmother and Gong Li as a spidery Madame Merle named Hatsumomo. But the book goes beyond the beauty of the geisha and reveals Golden’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture.
Golden, who studied Japanese art history at Harvard, Japanese history at Columbia and has lived in both China and Japan, clearly did yeoman work in researching the subject of geisha. He not only conjures up the world of superstitions and curses that mark these artists, but also more specific details, like how Granny, the elder of the okiya, had skin that looked like an “uncooked chicken’s” because of a type of makeup that is no longer used, but that contained lead and formed a dye when combined with chemicals from hot springs. Golden also layers in other historical facts, such as how a geisha’s fees were once calculated; they were based on the number of incense sticks burned while she was at a teahouse.
When one has a conversation in Japan, Golden says, “You can’t say anything without making an explicit statement about the social relationships.” He points out that when Japanese men go out alone, “the hierarchy of the office will prevail.” He adds that “obsequiousness and gruffness are character traits” based on that stratified structure.
The geisha, he says, “break down that hierarchy, make all the guys relax, make everything pleasurable.” But geisha have been “supplanted by bar hostesses,” bringing an end to a certain era.
The interview, too, has come to a close.
Golden announces that he has to leave, and he strolls away through the “cozy” garden, a modern-day Arthur.
Why a Novel?
“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).
I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.
Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.
But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.
But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.
In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.
The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.
On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.
On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.
An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.
Beware of Formerly Observant Writers
“Beware of God” by Shalom Auslander (Simon & Schuster, $19.95)
God is a chicken.
God is a stalker.
God is a tougher advertising client than Proctor & Gamble.
God is just the bureaucrat of the “production nightmare” that is all of creation. And God just hates all the “micromanaging bull—-.”
In Shalom Auslander’s recent collection of short stories, “Beware of God,” God appears as many, many things, except for the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omniscient powerful Being He has traditionally been for the last however many-thousand years (depending on which religion you ask).
Like other novelists who have been raised in the Modern Orthodox world — Nathan Englander, most recently — Auslander takes his yeshiva upbringing, his knowledge of Jewish history and familiarity with the back and forth dialectic of Talmudic argument and turns it all on its head.
It’s all a big joke to you, Auslander,” one can picture his rebbes telling him in high school.
And it is a big joke, for the most part. Like some of Woody Allen’s shorts, Auslander manages to take what he knows, combine it with what the world knows, and turn it into an absurdist commentary on Orthodoxy — and on piety itself.
In “The Metamorphosis,” the character Motty awakes one morning “to find himself transformed into a very large goy.” Instead of bug eyes and wings, as in Kafka’s original tale of species transformation, this protagonist has to deal suddenly with a hairy chest and muscled biceps. And he’s “overcome with desire to build something with hammers and wood.”
That’s the danger of a Modern Orthodox education — one that’s equally strident in Judaic and English studies. In a modern religious life, which reaches for footing in both the secular and religious worlds, sometimes the balance and the tension cannot hold. (Which might explain why the Modern Orthodox world has moved further to the right since Auslander went to school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Auslander, like Englander, is a rabbi’s worst nightmare: Like the Wicked Son of Passover, he has all the knowledge and not much of the belief.
In “Prophet’s Dilemma,” God is just like a stalker. He tells Schwartzman to build an ark. But Schwartzman has already built a temple in his backyard, (with the help of the Home Depot man), has slaughtered a goat, has alienated his neighbors and his wife (“She made it very clear she didn’t want God around when the baby arrived”), so by the time the ark request intrudes — while he’s watching Jay Leno on TV — Schwartzman decides to get rid of God.
Schwartzman’s psychiatrist, who specialized in stalkers, advises his patient to ignore this voyeuristic, sadistic lonely member of society.
“Every time you respond, you’re positively reinforcing his behavior,” Dr. Herschberg tells Schwartzman, adding that the stalker will find a new person to bother after he doesn’t get what he wants.
It proves to be questionable advice for dealing with God — who, after all, has countermeasures in his arsenal. Like Job, Schwartzman and his wife lose everything — but unlike the distraught prophet, the couple “had never been happier.” Finally, this mean, vindictive, sulking God leaves the nonreligious couple alone and finds someone else to bother. The story ends on this one word: “Schmuck.”
No, these are not tales for the true believers. Nor are these stories for those who cannot laugh at themselves. Although how can you not laugh at Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League calling an emergency meeting of the Jewish Defense League to disprove “The Book of Stan” — tablets that claimed the Old Testament was fictional? (“If there were no real tribe, then there were no real Jews, and if there were no real Jews there could be no real anti-Semitism, and if there were no anti-Semitism, then Abe and his staff were s— out of a job.”)
The 14 short stories in this thin book are, for the most part, irreverent, cynical apostasy that is not particularly high on character development but heavy on humor and spoof. The exception is the comic-tragic, storyless story, “Holocaust Tips for Kids,” which would be handy when Holocaust educators want to scare the hell out of middle-schoolers.
The humor has a deeper point, of course. God may not be dead, but He’s sure “tired of the whole damn business.”
In one of the strongest stories, “Somebody Up There Likes You,” God is distraught — cursing and smoking cigarettes, actually — over His inability to kill Bloom. It proves true, in fact, that it’s hard to kill someone who drives a Volvo. He, the devil and Lucifer go down to Manhattan to find Bloom “but even for archangels, crosstown traffic on a Friday afternoon was treacherously slow going.” It unfolds that Bloom has outfoxed them once again and has gone — where else? To a synagogue to repent: “He was where they all went when they wanted to make His job more difficult than it had to be.”
Like other pious characters in Auslander’s world, it’s only when Bloom finishes his repentance, prayer and charity to remove the evil of the decree” that God, Lucifer and the devil finally manage to run him down in the middle of the street.
In “Beware of God,” prayer, repentance and following God’s will are all for suckers, because, as it says in “God Is a Big Happy Chicken,” well, God is a big, happy chicken. You get the feeling that Auslander is very much like the main character of that story, Yankel Morgenstern, who goes back to Earth to tell his nine children and pious wife of his awful discovery. In the end, “He couldn’t do it.” Morgenstern can’t bring himself to ruin his family’s belief in “the Merciful God, the God of our Forefathers.”
Auslander also doesn’t seem like he’s renounced his faith — despite his various portrayals of God as wacko, demanding, tired, moody and malevolent. Yet no matter how many jokes he cracks about God and his followers, Auslander is, in the end, much like a latter-day Nietzsche, albeit with a smirk, proclaiming: “God Is Dead. Long Live God!”
A Novel Boxer Novel
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has joined the long list of solons who have dabbled in writing. Unlike John Kennedy, she admits to collaborating with a professional writer. Also unlike Kennedy, she is not likely to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Still, her just-released novel offers an inside look at politics that few know as well as California’s 65-year-old three-term senator.
With freelance writer Mary-Rose Hayes, Boxer, who reportedly received an advance of just under $16,000 from San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books, has brought forth “A Time to Run.”
In yet another case of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?), “A Time to Run” is framed by an impending Senate vote on a conservative woman nominated for the Supreme Court. In between, the novel flashes back to the heady 1970s at Cal Berkeley, where Ellen Downey, an idealistic child rights advocate; Josh Fischer, an aspiring politician; and Greg Hunter, Fischer’s journalist roommate, meet as seniors at the fabled left-wing bastion.
All three characters are guilty of infidelities and other transgressions, but the aptly named Hunter is the one who always goes for the kill.
What defies comprehension is why Ellen ever listens to him again after he manipulates her into bed with him — when she is practically engaged to Josh.
Later on, after Hunter has co-authored a book about a right-wing actor famous for his cowboy roles (John Wayne, anyone?), after he has joined the payroll of a right-wing senator, after he has done everything possible to undermine the Senate bid of Josh (who dies in a car crash) — after all the dirty tricks, how can Ellen agree to meet him, let alone initially accept his evidence suggesting that the Supreme Court nominee is a child abuser.
Ellen, a diminutive California Senator, may seem like a barely disguised alter ego for Senator Boxer, but the fictional protagonist is cast as roughly 12 years younger, a product of the 1960s and 1970s, not the prudish Eisenhower-era ’50s. And Boxer herself, who was not available for an interview, denies any comparison. “She’s not me,” she told Associated Press. “She has no children. She’s younger…It’s a totally different life.”
“Time” is beset with anachronisms such as the verb “dis,” slang that was not common vernacular in 1974, and platitudes, such as Ellen’s observations at Josh’s funeral. (“A child wasn’t supposed to die before the parent…It was so wrong.”) However, “Time” does get better as it builds toward a climax. And Boxer provides a privileged look at the secret hideaways in the bowels of the Capitol. She also effectively reveals the insidiousness of politics. Reading about Greg Hunter is enough to leave readers feeling almost contaminated.
The release of the book at the time of Harriet Miers’ nomination appears to be coincidental since Boxer says she worked seven years on the novel. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that Boxer has nothing to say about the nominee. The senator, who voted against the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts, told the New York Times Magazine that high court nominee Miers “doesn’t bring stellar experience to the job. That’s a fact.”
Truth More Powerful Than Advocacy
With a copy of “Making the Case for Israel” under one arm and a blue solidarity bracelet on my wrist, I first entered The Media Line’s (TML) Jerusalem bureau seeking an outlet for my pro-Israel passion. I had spent the first part of the summer studying Hebrew, and was looking to round out the remaining weeks working an internship that would allow me to hone my Israel advocacy skills before returning to Los Angeles.
It was unlikely then that I would connect with TML at all, since it is distinctly not an advocacy organization. But I decided to seek an interview with them, and they decided to talk to me, a 22-year-old UCLA graduate with a communications degree.
There I was, speaking with TML founder Felice Friedson, who was challenging my devotion to Israel — at least when it comes to being a journalist. I had never stopped to consider it from Felice’s perspective before, but it made sense: “One cannot be a journalist and an advocate,” she insisted.
Felice explained convincingly that it’s not the role of a journalist to make a case, but rather to present the facts. A true advocate, she continued, must believe that objective listeners, viewers or readers — hearing all the facts — will come to a like understanding. But if you twist, spin, tweak or hold back, the discerning person wants to know what you’re hiding and why you’re hiding it. And then you’ve lost him or her.
What I learned that afternoon made sense, so much so that I agreed to return to TML — an accredited news bureau, working in radio, television, Internet (www.themedialine.org) and print. — as an intern.
From its state-of-the-art Jerusalem facility, it produces and distributes “The International News Hour,” a daily radio program carried by the USA Radio Network; its weekend radio program, “Mideast Sunday”; television content that reaches across America through more than 300 stations; and articles for newspapers and magazines. Its amazingly dedicated staff is multilingual, speaking and writing in the languages of the region.
It has become, in effect, the Jerusalem bureau for many Southern California radio and television affiliates. They say all roads lead to home: As if to illustrate the point, TML provided live, on-air reports for Doug McIntyre’s morning program on KABC radio in Los Angeles every day during my first week there.
Being on the inside, I was able to witness the importance TML attaches to telling the entire story, despite the intense pace. This news service focuses on context, background and perspective.
Within days of my arrival, I had not only met senior officials of the government of Israel, but an official of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as well. I quickly found my greatest fear melting away. Felice’s discourse had left me wondering whether all that scrutiny of Israel would chip away at my passion for the Jewish state.
Ultimately, a willingness to see the faults of Israel with open eyes made the country’s extraordinary qualities also stand out, and made Israel’s survival seem more incredible and entirely worthwhile. Meeting close up with players on both sides of this very real and very scary drama moves the conflict to a level far above the platitudes we reflexively draw upon when describing Israel and the Palestinians.
TML founders, Felice and Michael Friedson, really put their principles to the test when they saw an opportunity to bring Israeli and Palestinian journalists together — as professionals covering two sides of a single conflict. That is why they created the Mideast Press Club.
More than 60 journalists turned out for the inaugural session of the Mideast Press Club at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel last March. The kickoff featured heads of Israeli and Palestinian television leading a discussion of “Covering the Other Side of the Story.” Breakout sessions for specific disciplines followed.
At the end of June, more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian journalists returned to the American Colony for what proved to be a decisive event in the Mideast Press Club’s young history. Former Israeli Shin Bet intelligence head Ami Ayalon and Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub led the discussion on how each side could help the other in covering the Gaza pullout. A working luncheon saw Israeli and Palestinian professionals interacting as never before.
Just a few weeks ago, the Mideast Press Club brought senior writers and editors from the Israeli newspapers to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) complex in Ramallah, where they joined up with senior editors of the major Palestinian print media in a session hosted by Mahmoud Labadi, PLC’s director general. More than two hours of candid, blunt, gloves-off discussion ensued. The response from participants was overwhelming.
Because of TML’s trustworthiness, credibility and inclusivity, its articles and television content are now replacing — at least in part — newspaper inches and television minutes that have more typically featured anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. Felice recently had her first byline in Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper. For many Palestinians, these articles and television segments are the first media glimpses of nondemonized Israelis to which they’ve been exposed.
This was not the internship I had expected. I had not, as it turned out, cocooned myself in an exercise of passion for Israel. I had done something better. I learned that truth — the whole truth — and credibility are more powerful than hype and promotion.
As Felice had counseled, it’s a matter of trust.
Rona Ram, a recent communications graduate from UCLA, is an intern for The Media Line.
First Person – Documenting Hate
In late fall of 1999, I wrote a short story, “Summertime,” which I eventually included in my collection, “Assumption and Other
Stories” (Bilingual Press, 2003).
When the book reviews started coming in, most noted that particular story’s unsettling premise. But what fascinated me more was the response I received via e-mail or in person from family, friends and strangers alike. More on that later.
“Summertime” begins benignly enough. The first section of the story has the heading, “6:53 a.m.,” and we encounter a married couple having difficulty getting their young son ready for summer day camp. Claudio Ramírez and Lois Cohen obviously love their son, Jon, but as with most parents who must get to work, mornings can be a bit frustrating. Jon eventually gets dressed, fed and trundled off to Claudio’s car for the ride to camp. The next section is titled, “7:39 a.m.,” and we switch to a dusty, small hotel room where we meet a sleeping man named Clem whose “head looked like a pot roast as it lay nestled heavily on the over-bleached pillowcase.” Clem wakes to begin his day. Clem is from Oregon and has driven to Southern California on a mission.
The story moves along, switching between the Ramírez-Cohen family and Clem. We eventually learn that Clem’s “mission” is to perpetrate a hate crime. He eventually settles on the Jewish day camp that Jon attends. I paint Clem as an average person who feels belittled by the world and who hopes to have a “big day” that will put his face in every newspaper and on TV. He is no evil genius. But the evil he perpetrates is as harrowing and real as any better-planned hate crime.
To this I wrote the story after we experienced the horror of Buford Furrow’s
attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC), on Aug. 12, 1999. Furrow, a self-described white separatist, shot and wounded three children, a counselor and the receptionist at the JCC. That same day, he murdered a Philippines-born postal worker, Joseph Santos Ileto. Furrow admitted to wanting to kill Jews. He also stated that Ileto was “a good ‘target of opportunity’ to kill because he was ‘non-white and worked for the federal government,'” according to then-U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas.
For almost four hours that hot, horrible day, my wife and I didn’t know if our 9-year-old son, Benjamin, had been a victim. We huddled together with my mother-in-law outside the camp waiting for word. Unfortunately, because the police were concerned that the shooter or shooters were still in the vicinity, the children who had not been wounded had been whisked off to a safe house. A rumor ran through the crowd that a boy named Benjamin had been shot and killed. The agony ended only when, eventually, we were reunited with our son.
Frankly, I’m having difficulty writing these words because the memories are coming back, full and clear. But that’s one reason I wrote “Summertime.” I wanted to use fiction to remind others that ordinary people living in today’s world can be the target of hate crimes. And I also wanted readers to understand how easily hate-filled doctrines can be appropriated and acted upon by an “average” person.
Now back to the various responses to “Summertime.” Most readers — particularly those who know my family — knew that Clem was based on Furrow. But several other readers had never heard of Furrow’s attack on the JCC or his murder of Ileto. Those readers (most of whom do not live in California and who are not Jewish) expressed shock when I mentioned that the story was based on our own experience that day in August. And I expressed shock that they had not heard of the incident, particularly since it had received extensive (if not worldwide) news coverage. But this confirmed my conviction that writing about hate — even if fictionalized in a short story — can indeed educate the public about how easy it is for a person to become a Buford Furrow.
When I started writing fiction in 1998, I didn’t feel that I had the moral authority to write about anti-Semitism. Though I had converted to Judaism 10 years earlier, my experience with bigotry was based on my ethnic identity as a Chicano. But after Aug. 12, 1999, I earned the right to talk about one particular act of hate against Jews. I will go further: I now have the duty to remind others of what Furrow did that day. Why? Because if we forget, we help create a climate where it could happen again and the Furrows of the world will have won. And I don’t intend to be responsible for that.
7 Days in The Arts
Saturday, August 13
Spend some quality time with the kiddies before the back-to-school commotion ensues. Saturdays at the Whitefire Theatre, “Precious Piglet and Her Friends” is a musical that teaches kids about self-esteem and friendship. Writer Carrol Mendelson and musician and songwriter Ken Mazur teamed up to create something that was educational for children ages 2 and up, and entertaining for the their parents, too. It runs through December.
11 a.m. $10. 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-2324.
Sunday, August 14
This afternoon, a coalition of organizations commemorates Tisha B’Av, along with the Aug. 12, 1952, Soviet executions of Yiddish writers that closely coincides with the Jewish holiday. The program will focus on the careers of Polish bundist leaders Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, and will also feature poems and songs set to the words of Soviet poets.
2 p.m. Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.
Monday, August 15
In the tradition of “Heathers” and “Mean Girls,” comes the latest queen bee satire, “Pretty Persuasion.” Evan Rachel Wood (“Thirteen”) plays rich, sexy and cruel teen Kimberly Joyce who sets out to achieve her dream of being famous, even if it means destroying the lives of others. The film also stars Jewish actress Adi Schnall in the role of a Muslim girl, Randa.
Tuesday, August 16
Shoop on down to Orange County, the last stop on the national tour of Broadway’s revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Actor Lenny Wolpe plays flower shop keeper Mr. Mushnik, who takes in nebbishy protagonist Seymour Krelbourn, and eventually, his man-eating plant, the Audrey II, designed for the production by the Jim Henson Workshop and Martin P. Robinson.
8 p.m. (Tues.-Fri.), 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.), 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (Sun.). Runs through Aug. 28. $21.25-$64.75. Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 556-2787.
Wednesday, August 17
Experiences of summertime, from Canada to Coney Island to Malibu, make up Forum Gallery’s new exhibition, “Summer Days.” Vancouver artist John Macdonald’s paintings of bathers offer an unexpected moodiness, while Jeffrey Gold’s surfer paintings portray his passion for surfing life, and David Levine and Ralph Goings offer varying depictions of Coney Island summers in watercolor.
Runs through Sept. 10. 8069 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-1550.
Thursday, August 18
Nicole Krauss’ debut novel was about an English professor who had amnesia. Her latest book, “The History of Love: A Novel,” is also about memory, about how a man remembers his life in his last days. She speaks about the transmission of memory through writing with “Bookworm” host, Michael Silverblatt, this afternoon on public radio station KCRW.
2:30-3 p.m. 89.9 FM. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Friday, August 19
In “Protocols of Zion,” filmmaker Marc Levin explores a frightening worldwide belief that a Jewish conspiracy was responsible for Sept. 11. The film screens as part of this week’s DocuWeek Documentary Showcase, which helps documentary makers qualify for Academy Award consideration. It screens every day, through Aug. 25, at varying times.
7 Days in The Arts
If you do a LexisNexis search for the screenwriter-director Paul Haggis and his new film, “Crash,” you’ll come up with a surprising number of hits for newspapers in Canada.
It turns out Haggis was born in London, Ontario. He came to Los Angeles in 1977, started writing for television, then in 2001 switched to movies. His screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby” won a much-deserved Oscar, and “Crash,” his directorial debut, has been an early summer sleeper hit.
“Crash” weaves together the stories of disparate Angelenos — a white district attorney and his Brentwood wife; a black detective; a black TV director and his wife; an Iranian shopkeeper; a Latino locksmith — whose lives intersect and sometimes collide in explosive moments detonated by fear, racism and crime. The language is sharp, the acting superb. As for the reality of Los Angeles that the film portrays on screen: Well, it ain’t reality.
Haggis’ Los Angeles is no more a true depiction of our city than George Lucas’ “Revenge of the Sith” truly depicts outer space.
This isn’t a knock. Movies can create a compelling alternate reality, the singular vision of a writer or director. In 1946, most Angelenos didn’t skulk around a Los Angeles filled with gin-sodden detectives muttering like Bogie about a dame who “tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” Haggis’ Los Angeles is not true to life either; it’s true to Haggis.
But that’s not how “Crash” plays in Canada, where Haggis has favorite-son, “Canadian writer,” status. In the Canadian press, and elsewhere outside of Los Angeles, “Crash” is seen as a narrative oracle. Haggis the outsider has come to tell the truth about the city of O.J. and earthquakes, movie stars and race riots.
It’s a city many prefer to imagine in stereotypes, and to some extent “Crash” feeds those misconceptions. Walking out of the theater, you half expect someone to run up and cut off your wrist for your watch. You expect to be called whatever epithet fits your mother’s ancestry, then shoved onto a violent city street and set upon by roving (though perhaps hyperarticulate) thugs.
“That was a city I didn’t recognize,” said Joe Hicks, co-director of Community Advocates, Inc. “That’s not the daily engagement most people have here. As any kind of social commentary, it just falls flat.”
The funny thing is, most residents are optimistic about Los Angeles. Our new mayor, a Latino, won the vote of almost every voting bloc except Republican whites. Reported hate crimes have gone down by almost half in four years.
A poll taken by the Public Policy Institute of California this year found that Angelenos hold “a positive overall attitude” toward the city. Sixty-one percent say things are going very well or somewhat well. The same number believe race relations are improving and will continue to improve.
On public schools, the economy, job opportunities — on all these things expectations are optimistic. People are most overtly concerned about the environment and transportation, but light rail and particulate counts don’t make for very sexy drama.
The film’s own setting drove this point home, without meaning to, during a scene in which two carjacking thugs walk in a supposedly nasty neighborhood, grousing about how the white man keeps them down.
Hey, I thought to myself, that’s my neighborhood. Haggis had shot the scene on Venice Boulevard, about two blocks from my home. It’s a neighborhood all but devoid of violent crime, where an Indian restaurant shares a building with a Mexican grocery across from a Thai cafe. Venice has its share of gangs and burglaries, but it is more “Lords of Dogtown” than “Lord of the Flies.”
The morning after I saw “Crash,” I was sipping coffee near work at Cafe Americano, a quiet little place in Koreatown with a neighborhood vibe. It serves good coffee, pastries from La Brea Bakery, and the clientele — white, black, Latino, Korean — resembles a mini-United Nations, as does much of Koreatown. At the table next to me a heavyset young man started speaking Russian to a beautiful young Korean woman at the counter. She turned to him and answered — in fluent Russian.
In last year’s action thriller, “Collateral,” actors Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise engage in all-out shootouts with various underworld thugs that seem to control these same streets.
At dinner that evening, we took the kids to Nagila in Pico-Roberston. As we got up to leave, the Latino busboy called out to us, “See you later” — in Hebrew.
It was so incongruous I could only stammer back, “Gracias.”
These are snapshots, granted, and perhaps no more reflective of the truth of Los Angeles than Haggis’ hate-mongering city, where people learn, too late, the salvation of coming together.
Haggis has told interviewers that the inspiration for “Crash” came after he and his first wife were carjacked outside a video store on Wilshire Boulevard in 1991. The film, ostensibly told from numerous points of view, most particularly feels like a tale told by a man terrorized 14 years ago.
But a parallel tale could be told about all the ways we here in Los Angeles have found to come together without crashing — to combine, to collaborate, to live well with others.
It would be sweet, upbeat and affirming — and so saccharine that it would never get made into a movie.
But it might just be more real.
One of the Girls
Class Notes: Young Mr. Wizards
Logan Stokols, a seventh-grader from Kadima Hebrew Academy, took first place in mammalian biology at the State Science Fair at Los Angeles’ California Science Center in May. His project, “Does Pupil Size Affect Peripheral Vision?” moved to the state level after he received two honors at the 55th Annual Los Angeles County Science Fair, held April 20-22. There he won the second-place medal in animal physiology and a special award for scientific excellence from the Greater Los Angeles Teachers of Science Association.
Abby Leven, a Kadima sixth-grader, won an award at the County Fair in the chemistry category, and went on to the state level.
Kadima alumni Miriam Glicksberg and her brother Jonathan Glicksberg, who now attend El Camino High School, both placed in the State Science Fair and will go on to the national level.
Kadima students have won awards at the County Science Fair for the last six years, since the West Hills day school began a new science program based on teaching the entire scientific process, from formulating a hypothesis to testing and presenting one’s findings. For the past three years, Kadima students have gone on to compete at the state level.
For information on Kadima call, (818) 346-0849, or visit www.kadimaacademy.org.
For information on the County Science Fair contact (562) 922-6896 or visit www.lacoe.edu/science.
Music to His Ears
Fourteen-year-old Jordan Goldstein, a ninth-grader at Milken Community High School, took first place in the Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) third annual TeenSong! Contest for his Psalm 96 score. Goldstein composed the music, played keyboard, electric bass, guitar and drums, and used his computer to combine them for “Sing a New Song.” BJE is planning to present Goldstein’s song for use in music curricula. The honor came with a $100 savings bond, but Goldstein decided to donate the money back to BJE to use for Jewish music education.
Second prize in TeenSong!, open to eight-12th graders, went to Molly Williams, an eighth-grader at Heschel Day School. Third place went to Yael Aranoff, an 11th-grader at Milken Community High School.
For information on the contest, call (323) 761-8635 or visit www.bjela.org.
L.A. High School Scholars Go to Washington
Los Angeles residents Shlomo Eisenberg and Ben Greenfield attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington last month as part of their participation in the Orthodox Union’s Sen. Joseph Lieberman Scholars Program.
Two of five Lieberman scholars nationwide, Eisenberg and Greenfield, both seniors at YULA, monitor issues in Congress, initiate programs of community interest, and attend educational programs and seminars. The goal of the program is to educate and cultivate leaders of the Jewish community and American society for the decades ahead.
Information and application material for the Lieberman Scholars Program can be found online at www.ncsy.org.
Grant for Day School Web Set Up
Twenty Jewish day schools will have a chance to sharpen their technological edge with a grant that hooks them up to PlanitJewish.com, a nonprofit organization committed to creating Web-based interactive calendars, personalized e-mail notifications and online access to homework assignments and other vital information. The San Francisco-based Levine-Lent Family Foundation is subsidizing the start-up cost and maintenance for a year, valued at around $2,800 per school. After the first year schools who wish to continue will be required to pay $100-$300 a month for maintenance.
PlanitJewish hooks up to the school’s existing Website, and parents can enter their child’s grade and areas of interest and receive personalized notifications. The site can also hold assignments and information for teachers, and allow for online registration for events and activities.
Grant applications are due June 15.
For information and application, contact Howard Brown at (650) 286-4303, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.planitjewish.com.
Words for the Wise
Fifth graders at Yeshivat Yavneh earned a Writing Achievement Award from Creative Communications, a national writing organization that sponsors essay and poetry contests. Eighteen essays submitted by Yavneh students were selected to be published in the 2005 anthology of student work, entitled “What is Important to Me.”
For information on Yavneh call (323) 931-5808. For information on Creative Communications go to www.poeticpower.com.
Ready, Set, Grow
Beth Hillel Day School, a 10-year-old Reform day school in Valley Village, received two grants to help the school increase enrollment and build its program.
The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education’s Challenge Grant for Day School Growth will partner Beth Hillel with an experienced consultant. Dr. Bruce Powell, head of school at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, will serve as a coach to the school, helping Beth Hillel implement new creative programs and strategies.
Beth Hillel also received a grant from the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles to expand its Hebrew-language immersion program.
For information about Temple Beth Hillel Day School, call (818) 763-9148, or e-mail email@example.com.
Judaism for Babies
Taking off on the Mozart and Einstein for Babies craze, Mercer Island residents Rob and Lisi Wolf founded OyBaby, which combines colorful imagery of Jewish objects, children, puppets and nature with familiar Hebrew music. Since its launch in November 2003, OyBaby has sold 5,000 DVDs, CDs and videos and is planning to come out with OyBaby 2 this fall.
For more information, visit www.oybaby.com.
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday, June 4
Today, galerie yoramgil launches “introductions,” a three-month endeavor to present six new artists to the public. View the diverse works of painters Zeev Ben-Dor, Yuri Katz, Nona Orbach, Paul Abbott and Mary Leipziger, and the bronze sculptures of Immi Storrs in mini solo shows throughout the large gallery.
Through Sept. .5. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.
Sunday, June 5
Storyteller and actress Vicki Juditz is used to infusing heart and humor into difficult subjects like infertility and anti-Semitism. Today she performs her highly praised monologue, “Teshuva, Return,” for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in a private Beverlywood residence.
2 p.m. $25. For more information, call (310) 836-0779.
Monday, June 6
It’s a hodgepodge of celebrities and wannabes at tonight’s annual Vista Del Mar and Family Services’ Sports Sweepstakes Dinner. Comedian Paul Rodriguez and Olympian Mitch Gaylord co-emcee the event that includes an appearance by the Playboy Bunnies but not Hef himself. Tommy Lasorda will be honored, cocktails will be drunk and thousands of dollars will be raised for troubled and at-risk youth. Drop a cool 1K to do your part.
5:30 p.m. $1,000. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-1223, ext. 225.
Tuesday, June 7
Israeli group Mashina has had a long and, sometimes, rocky past. But the band is now back together, touring to promote their 12th album. For the first time in a long time, they’re back in Los Angeles for one night only. Catch them tonight at the Avalon while you can.
8 p.m. (310) 273-2824.
Thursday, June 9 Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities. 7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140. Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove. 7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070 Friday, June 10 Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend. Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.
Thursday, June 9
Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities.
7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.
Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove.
7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070
Friday, June 10
Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend.
Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.