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Interview: Brian Morton

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Florence Gordon, Brian Morton’s fifth novel, engages with the terrain of the other—New York Jewish intellectuals. The heroine is a professor who is embarking on writing her memoirs, after writing a number of seminal books of essays. Her time is limited and she does not suffer fools gladly—whether blood relatives or not—and lets them know her opinions.

Beth Kissileff: You write of a person as the “center of a world” in this novel. Is that why you wrote a novel about an eponymous character?

Brian Morton: I'd say it's why most of my novels try to explore different characters' points of view. The idea that each person is the center of his or her own world is always on my mind when I'm working on a novel. Emily [Florence’s granddaughter] is really the secret heroine of the book, and the moral center of the book, because she's living that idea, by trying to understand other people on their own terms. There's a moment late in the book where Florence greets Emily with even more coldness than usual, and at first Emily thinks Florence is mad at her, but then intuits that what Florence is going through has nothing to do with her at all. That moment, when Emily transcends her­self by entering into Florence's point of view, is meant to be a sort of quiet moment of climax in the novel.

Iris Murdoch, in an essay called “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” said that we judge novelists “by the quality of their awareness of others.” I think this could be a motto for fiction writers to put next to the keyboard.

BK: One of the many things you do well as a writer are the titles of your characters’ books and essays, both Florence’s and those of Leonard Schiller, the main character in Starting out in the Evening. Can you say something about that and whether she is a female version of Schiller?

BM: Thank you. I like to give the reader just a hint of what the characters have written, and I try to do that partly by mention­ing the titles of their work. Often there's no context at all—so that when someone in the book thinks of an old essay that Florence wrote called "Notes on What Just Happened," we don't know if the essay referred to the election of Ronald Reagan or to 9/11 or to the Rodney King video or to none of the above. We have no idea what it referred to. I want the reader to do some of the work of imagining her career through scattered bits of evidence, including the titles of her work. (The title of one of her essays, “Opportunities for Heroism in Everyday Life,” was the working title of the novel for a while, until I settled on Florence Gordon.)

I don’t think of Florence as a female counterpart of Schiller. They're both writers of a certain age, but she's much more energetic and more engaged with the life around her. His novels were a sort of monument to private life; she wants her books to change the world.

BK: There have been recent studies about reading fiction increasing empathy. What’s your take?

BM: I hope it does, but I'm skeptical. Don't we all know people who are both very well read and awful? I feel like it's not uncommon to meet people who've read a ton but who are as vain about it as other people are about their possessions.

BK: In all of your other books, you have a character from a previous book reappear. Why didn’t you do that this time?

BM: I thought about doing it. Florence's son and his family are subletting an apartment in the book, and for a while I thought of saying it was Leonard Schil­ler's old apartment—the writer from Starting Out in the Evening—which his daughter had held onto after his death. But finally I thought it would be better to have one book that doesn't explicitly refer to any of the others. I guess I just decided to give it a rest.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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At the Heart of It

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing Even in Darkness fulfilled three important aspirations in my author life. It’s a love letter to a woman who influenced me more than she ever knew. It’s the fulfillment of the top item on my bucket list, which was to write a novel. And perhaps most interestingly, it represented the opportunity to write my way into an understanding of the impact my family’s Holocaust experiences had on me as a second-generation survivor.

The character Kläre Kohler in Even in Darkness is based on my great aunt, who was born in 1895, and lived her 100 years in Germany through two world wars and the Holocaust. I first met her when I was six years old during her first visit to America, an event which I dimly remember in the haze of rapid-fire German conversation, long meals, bottles of wine, and fragrant cigar smoke that characterized a lot of the time I spent at my grandparents’ home. I loved Kläre from the moment I met her, and her life in Germany seemed like a mystery. Why did she stay there after surviving the war and the concentration camp, when the rest of her family was in the U.S., Belgium and England? Why was she living with a Catholic priest?

In later years Kläre visited several more times for significant family events and I met and became devoted to the priest who is the basis for the character Ansel in Even in Darkness. I began to travel to Europe, often with my grandparents, and rarely did so without stopping to visit Kläre and Ansel in Germany or arrange for them to join us. Over those many visits I learned both Kläre’s and Ansel’s stories of childhood, war, loss and survival. They listened to my stories as well, and I found that across years, cultures, and language, each of them offered wise and astute counsel.

Only in the writing this novel about Kläre, however, did it become clear that in telling her story, I would reach an understanding of my own relationship to my family’s history in Germany and to the Holocaust. My parents had left privileged lives in Germany to escape the Nazis, coming to this country as teenagers. They had met at a German refugee group’s dance, and along with all four of my grandparents, returned to Germany shortly after the war to visit, take care of business matters and even vacation. My grandfather was an attorney who did restitution work, securing pensions and payments for Jews who had lost property, education, health and businesses.

My parents and grandparents were all practicing Jews dedicated to their temples and synagogues here, and were ever grateful to have become American citizens. However, there was no hatred of Germany or German people in our households. The adults around me frequently spoke German to each other and had many German friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My grandfather was always proud of his service in the German army in World War I and the Iron Cross First Class that was bestowed upon him. Different members of my family couldn’t agree whether we were escapees or survivors of the Holocaust. None of this went down well with some of my friends’ families, who rejected anything and anyone having to do with Germany. Navigating these different responses within and outside my family became a subtle skillset I had to learn.

Kläre helped me. All my life, I’d heard my grandparents describe her as “lucky,” even though her life in Germany was circumscribed by two world wars, time in a concentration camp, and enormous loss. Until I had to write her through all that, and reveal how she emerged as a vibrant, loving person, I didn’t understand that her “luck” was her remarkable capacity to reinvent herself in a way that honored the past, forgot nothing, but forgave much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I learned to embrace her example and acceptance of those whose experiences led them to very different places and perspectives as survivors. I treasure those lessons.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Internal Dialogue: What's With All the Social Justice Seders?

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have little patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the holiday to the letter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and subsist on a standard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the variable vegetable and odd protein for the entire week, and I not only endure but participate in both seders with my family as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nishtana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Partly, I just don’t do well with structure. As both a product and proponent of alternative education, I struggle with the hours of prescribed “order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so different a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid second grade day school classroom than a meal, let alone a celebratory feast. And, much like that same second grade classroom, the strictly regimented agenda doesn’t yield proportionate efficiency—in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Mainly, though, it’s the repetition that gets to me: the required regurgitation of the same story year after year. It’s gone from boring to insufferable and at some moments even oppressive—and that’s just the impatience, before the late hour or physical hunger sets in—but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unquestionably essential to Judaism and Jewish identity—for, as we know all too well, in every generation one must see oneself as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jewish community who have chosen to interpret that imperative as a summons to reflect on the events and ills of our lifetime and more recent history: college chaplains organize “freedom seders” joining Jewish and black students on campus; women convene on feminist seders and family members clash over current Israeli policies; rabbis at the pulpit bring up the uncomfortable realities of slavery in our time—on that note, if you read one other essay today, make it this one (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fertile millennial arena for the social justice bender Jews in their twenties and thirties are on with renewed fervency at the approach of every holiday. This year more than any other (yet), social media housed countless queries and responses for social justice haggadot and supplements—Jewschool.com, for example, assembles their top ten picks of new social justice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a wonderful thing. But even with the obvious parallelable narratives of freedom and oppression, there’s something curious about an entire generation insisting on telling a multitude of other peoples’ stories on a night we’re supposed to focus entirely on our own one. Is the Exodus somehow less meaningful, less critical to Jewish history or the modern experience, if it isn’t directly relatable to the world around us and its victims? Why on this night do we continue to layer stories on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Reading The Lost Book of Mormon (it’s a Jewish book—very Jewish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social justice seder phenomenon in terms of a book—more accurately, in terms of a book series, or any narrative-driven franchise. In relating new stories and new struggles to the Passover narrative, these supplements create a sequel to the Exodus. Seder participants take one of our most glorious tales and stretch it across centuries so as to continue to enjoy the original by connecting with not only to the story but the storytelling itself. As Avi Steinberg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our tendency to make sequels is somehow embedded in how we think. Just as we want and need a story to end, we also want and need a story to never end. We make sequels as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of story, a pale likeness—as its critics have long charged—but even if it’s silly or tragic or nobly deluded or tainted by a shameless profit motive, or, more likely, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumination on the sequel began with watching new episodes of The Simpsons at his laundromat and realizing that in two decades since the show premiered, nothing in the animated world of Springfield had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eternal Groundhog Day:

Sequels don’t necessarily believe in progress, but they do insist on the passing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By contrast, a serial like The Simpsons can remain in a state of animated paralysis for eternity.

Critic Terry Castle has described sequels as tragic because they are motivated by a desperate human need to reproduce the original sensation of some pleasurable experience, an impulse, a “mad hope,” she says, that is fated to miserable disappointment. But when I saw Bart still throwing spitballs at Springfield Elementary over twenty years later, that to me seemed like the tragedy of repetition: Sisyphus on a skateboard.

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to reproduce the original sensation of one of the greatest miracles ever witnessed by our ancestors: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, by the hand of God. But the haggadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years circling the same patch of desert. We know that experience all too well—and how it can lead to communal loss of faith, rebellion, kvetching, and even idol worship [see: Golden Calf].

In finding a sequel to the Passover story—in the histories and current issues of Civil Rights, feminism, and modern social justice movements—perhaps we restore our faith by breaking out of that cycle, just enough to bring it closer to life. It reifies that the story didn’t end—that the story of the Jewish people didn’t end—with Exodus, that it is an evolving legacy rather than an outgrown or outgrowable childhood tale. We want to relive the experience of leaving Egypt without despairing of it, without growing bored, without losing appreciation for this among the narrative pillars of Jewish history.

The power of the sequel, Avi Steinberg discovered, “meant that the old biblical saga wouldn’t simply replay forever but somehow, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way forward. It boldly reentered the original and steered it in a different direction. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of repetition: it’s a solution to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.

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Returning to Where It All Began

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum gave us a little flashback to Miami Beach, 1972 and how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Nearly twenty years ago I published my first book, a novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible. It followed, in postmodern fashion, Adam Posner, a child of Holocaust survivors, who appeared throughout the book in different guises and geographic locations; even his age and occupations varied with each chapter. The story was not told in chronological order; the inversion of time and space, the fracturing of reality and imagination, were among the many contradictions that appeared with nearly every turn of page. The names of his parents were different with each story, too. The only constant was that, in each tale, they were soon to die, or were already dead.

The book received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Best Book of Jewish Fiction. Three other novels would follow. But I never got Adam Posner out of my head. For one thing, his story felt incomplete. There were other Adam Posner tales I wanted to tell; the nine chapters of Elijah Visible, a deliberate half of chai, was not enough. And since the chapters rolled out without logical coherence, the novel ended when Adam Posner was in kindergarten in Washington Heights, during a blizzard. The earlier chapters that depicted his manhood didn’t set up the story for such a stormy conclusion.

Two of the chapters stood out from the rest, however. In one, Adam Posner is a boy growing up in Miami Beach; in the other he is looking back on his childhood in Miami Beach. In both chapters the story was less about him than the more colorful and charismatic figures to whom he was exposed, and who cause him to rethink some of the assumptions he has made about his parents, their past, and the future that lay in store for the entire Posner family—provided they have the audacity to imagine a future at all.

Some of the reviews that the book received singled out these two Miami Beach tales—not just because of their scenic locale, but because the island city had a magical hold upon the Posner family. Miami Beach presented itself like a picture postcard, but behind the sunshine lurked cloud cover that revealed truths about the Posners that they were only haltingly willing to receive.

It was where the young Adam, the first man, observed the world in which he was born, and determined that despite all that had been lost, Miami Beach was a place where Jackie Gleason was right to proclaim, How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

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Interview: Eric Lichtblau

Thursday, April 02, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Nazis Next Door by Eric Lichtblau is a compelling reminder of how quickly man’s inhumanity to man has been forgotten. Many in the FBI, CIA, the space program, and other agencies of the U.S. government teamed up with war-criminal Nazis to combat the Soviets. As World War II came to an end there were those in the government who were more concerned about the next great conflict—the threat of Communism—and saw the Nazis as yesterday’s enemy. The book delves into two issues. The first chapter in the book examines an important topic, the myth of the concentration camp liberation. The second narrative is the story of the people who worked so hard for decades to find war criminals given safe haven by the FBI, CIA, and military. Elise Cooper interviewed author Eric Lichtblau for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: In the first chapter of The Nazis Next Door you expose "the myth of liberation." Can you explain?

Eric Lichtblau: When I started, that didn’t even occur to me as something I was going to examine, but I came to realize slowly that was an important part of the story. Not just how easily Nazis and Nazi collaborators had gotten into America, but how much difficulty the survivors had in getting out of the concentration camps. History has forgotten what happened to the survivors. There is an image that they were embraced by the Allied forces as they flooded out from the camps, given warm showers, beds, and plentiful food. It was really not like that at all. Jewish groups complained to President Truman, who did not ignore them. After an investigation there was a blistering and condemning report, lost to history, by the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Earl Harrison. This report to Truman stated, “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” Even though conditions did improve, some survivors were kept in the DP camps for as long as five years. They were still confined behind barbed wire, under armed guard.

EC: Who was mainly behind these conditions?

EL: The blame has to go to U.S. Army General George Patton, who was in charge of the displaced persons camps. He had sort of an odd fondness almost for the Nazi prisoners, believe it or not. He believed that they were the ones in the best position to efficiently run the camps, and he gave them supervisory approval to basically lord over the Jews and the other survivors. I hope the book makes people aware of the horrific conditions of the camps and Patton’s overt anti-Semitism.

EC: Why were the Jews not allowed into the U.S. after the war?

EL: In the early months, and the first few years after the war, beginning in mid-1945, there were only a very limited number of immigration visas to get into the United States. Of all the survivors in the camps, only a few thousand came in the first year or so. A visa was a precious commodity, and there were immigration policymakers in Washington who were on record saying that they didn't think the Jews should be let in because they were "lazy people" or "entitled people" and they didn't want them in. But there were many, many thousands of Nazi collaborators who got visas to the U.S. while the survivors did not, even though they had been, for instance, the head of a Nazi concentration camp, the warden at a camp, or the secret police chief in Lithuania who signed the death warrants for people. The Displaced Person’s Act opened up visas to Jews but only four or five years after the war ended.

EC: What do you think was the main factor in allowing the Nazis into the U.S.?

EL: There was this blind spot of the benefit of having them help in the Cold War effort. Remember the Dulles quote, paraphrasing, ‘I would deal with the devil himself if it would help national security.’

EC: Who do you think was the person most responsible for the Nazis coming to America?

EL: The head of the CIA from 1952 to 1961, Allen Dulles. He had the mindset that the known Nazis could be used as intelligence assets and scientists helpful in the U.S. missile program. I do not think he was overtly anti-Semitic. I think it was mostly the Cold War mindset, which led to going morally astray. Unfortunately, the gains in intelligence were not the same as with the scientists. As I wrote about in the book, most gave information that was garbage or they turned out to be double agents. After it became clear these assets were not helpful, the information was still kept under wraps to avoid the public relations embarrassment. The CIA knowingly helped Nazi figures, intervened on their behalf, and obstructed investigations as late as 1995.

EC: What would you want readers to get out of the book?

EL: For those who lived in dire conditions in the DP camps it seemed no one cared about the survivors. I hope readers weigh the philosophical dilemma of the clear national security gains with the Nazis’ immoral background. The book was written as a reminder of why we have to be aware of genocide. I wrote it as an American Jew, but also because I thought it is an important part of history that needed to be told.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Flashback: Miami Beach, 1972

Wednesday, April 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum wrote about how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The time and place of How Sweet It Is! was a novel just waiting to happen. It was during that year, 1972, when Miami Beach, such an otherwise small city, might as well have been the center of the world.

Yes, Miami Beach was only seven miles long with a mere 50,000 citizens in it—many of them senior. And the city was largely fading from the glory it once possessed like a stage actor with creaky knees from having taken too many curtain calls. The hotels had grown shabby; the swingers wore toupees, the divorcees appeared more desperate than dangerous.


Flip Schulke's photograph of a "member of the South Beach Retirement Community
enjoy[ing] the sun and sea air" in the early 1970s

South Beach was there, but without the fashion models and power forwards sipping cocktails on Ocean Drive well into the moonlit night. The Heat was measured in Fahrenheit, not NBA championships, and ladies depended on Social Security. None worked for Victoria Secret.

And yet the city that was sun-baked, unworldly and generally dull was also a bastion of colorful characters fixated on tanning their faces a singular shade of vigorous brown.

And all were waiting for a second chance.

The Jewish Mafia, led by kingpin Meyer Lansky, treated Miami Beach like an assisted living facility for wise guys. The better days of his crew had long past, too—the casinos in Havana were now nationalized by Fidel Castro, a man who idealized Vladimir Lenin, not Lucky Luciano. These men with their crooked noses went to synagogue on Saturdays and prayed that Miami Beach would legalize casino gambling and save the state from the trivial jackpots and general boredom of pari-mutuel betting.

The summer of 1972 featured the presidential nominating conventions for both the Republican and Democratic parties—the first time one city had hosted delegates from the right and left, the elephants and donkeys, the Dixiecrats and the northeastern aristocrats.


Democrats and Republicans in Convention in 1972

This was all set to take place just a few weeks after the Watergate break-in. Miami Beach was incomprehensibly designated as the city that was being asked to manage all this political infighting and social upheaval—the very same turmoil that resulted in rioting in Chicago four years earlier.

Anti-war fervor was as thick as the humid summer nights. Like centipedes wearing mood rings and chanting folk songs, the counterculture trekked down to Flamingo Park for their rowdy appointment with the American ruling class. There they would camp out, tune out, and utter words such as “far out” and “fuck off” to anyone over the age of 30 who they neither trusted nor ever wanted to become. Wearing nothing but love beads they made love in the outfield of Flamingo Park, nakedly invaded its swimming pool and then spent the day in fist-pumping public protest, demanding the end of the Vietnam War.

Jackie Gleason was the city’s favorite son, a fat man known the world over as the Great One. He maintained his princely stature on Miami Beach even though his Saturday night variety show, broadcast from a theater on Washington Avenue bearing his name, had already been cancelled. His Rat Pack friends, especially Frank Sinatra, still visited Miami Beach for the booze, the weather and Gleason’s munificent hospitality, even though by that time he spent as much time at Mount Sinai Hospital as he did on the racy Collins Avenue strip.


Jackie Gleason

Miami Beach was undergoing the early stages of desegregation while Muhammad Ali sparred on 5th Street at Angelo Dundee’s gym. Isaac Bashevis Singer scribbled on notepaper in Surfside, observing the mannerisms and mating rituals of these snowbird Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Cubans, many of whom were Jews, cursed Castro and, in retaliation, decided to turn Miami into a gleaming metropolis.

That city, during that memorable year, always had the makings of a novel. The silhouettes from that magic city just needed a little color and a splash of imagination to become real, once again.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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Interview: George Lerner

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

As a television producer across the globe for CNN, PBS, and other media outlets, George Lerner has to keep to thirty frames per second (the standard frame rate for video) so that the images can be comfortably viewed by human eyes. But there was a limit to the stories he could tell as a journalist. He explained to Jewish Book Council in a Skype interview from his Brooklyn home that “the questions that appealed to me most centrally I couldn't answer in journalism.” He made the analogy of a deep-sea diver, that to see the “corals and the deep sea fish in their habitat” he had to dive deep down and that he was “getting closer to the characters than if I were writing a history.” 

His first novel, The Ambassadors, is about the Shoah, centrally, and about how an understanding of what it means in today’s world can lead Jews to help victims of genocide in Africa. There is humor and delight too, in The Ambassadors, a work anchored by three central characters with professional connections to Africa. The father, an arms and refugee smuggler, goes into his line of work after being stationed near Buchenwald after World War II; he goes to Goma, Zaire in fall 1996 to give arms to a beleaguered people decimated by genocide. The mother, a professor, arrived alone at age six in the U.S. as a child from Lodz; she has spent her whole career researching the roots of human language but is unable to participate in a dig in Ethiopia that yields a find similar to the “Lucy” skeleton because of risks her husband has posed to the anthropological project with his interests in persuading the reigning regime to let Jews out. The son, who grows and deals pot, when not high, manages a band he has renamed the “African Refugee Mega Stars” from the less catchy “Africa Rumba Express” and finds a purpose in getting Cuban-inspired African music out to the world. 

The cast of minor characters is similarly delightfully quirky and varied, with a beautiful African doctor conflicted about her responsibilities; a young Russian-Israeli who has tattooed his war exploits on his arm and is happy to use his stories to illustrate anything that will win points with his audience; a procurer in Brooklyn able to arrange anything – from the home number of Manhattan’s best oncologist to Hasidische home care nurses – with a phone call. And one can’t forget the inanimate characters: the mother’s Brooklyn brownstone where much of the U.S. action of the novel is set, and, at its heart, the Steinway piano that no one in the family plays but that sits in the center of the living room—Jacob’s proudest acquisition from his time in Germany. The book eventually brings all of these elements together when the son’s musicians play an “Africanized version of a klezmer classic” at a party for the mother’s culminating conference on the origins of language. The musician Delacroix, whose day job is translating testimonies from war crimes victims, tells the mother, “To celebrate tonight, we have learned to interpret the ballads traditional to your people.”

This is the loveliness of The Ambassadors, that the interpretation of how Jewish values and morals from the past can exist in the modern world, where Africa is as much a way this family connects as the Shoah is. Below you'l find excerpts from an interview with the talented debut novelist and native New Yorker, George Lerner.

Beth Kissileff: How did you get the idea to have Jewish ideas apply to contemporary events like the African genocides in the Congo?

George Lerner: I wrote a novel that dealt in themes of the Shoah, seventy years after my two great grandmothers were murdered in the Shoah; for me, I needed to tell a story in a different way. A story that both showed the essential core and teachings of the Shoah and reexamined them at the same time.

The questions, the moral questions, are not my idea in the sense that others had come up with this analogy.

BK: You have a variety of characters, from all over the spectrum. Can you talk about that?

GL: My Jewish world has a great diversity of Jewish experience, belief, practice. And sensibility. I see those as all integrated, and that is what I tried to show in the novel.

I was seeking a kind of cultural, esthetic, and moral engagement, and discussion among my characters. It was very important to me to have that going on. There are those who survived the Shoah with absolute faith, and those with no faith. Not a clash or confrontation so much as a conversation. That conversation on all levels is what was firing me in this novel.

BK: Were there elements from your own life?

GL: My father was a U.S. Army lieutenant in World War II and I heard stories of deNazification, of his visit to Buchenwald, about Bavaria and the postwar period. We have a Steinway [imported from Germany], sitting in my parents’ house.

BK: Is the war novel a cliché?

GL: It is a cliché to write about going to war zones in Africa to learn about ourselves. I wanted to write a different novel. Jacob Furman is an actor, he is committing acts, doing things that are morally ambiguous. He thinks they are clear and they are not absolutely clear. Whether they are right or wrong is up to the readers. I am very conscious of not wanting to lead, so that a character and positions could be argued.

The world is a complex place. The African Mega Stars can play klezmer, and be the inheritors of Jacob’s Galicianer tradition. They can learn “ kol ha olam kulo” [All the world is a narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid], as can genocidal killers in a refugee camp.

BK: How did your TV training help as a writer? What are the challenges?

GL: It is a great question. One of the things we need to think about in television is ‘how are you going to show this?’ We need to think about what scenes provide texture and nuance and help reveal characters. More than what they say, what they do, and how to show them doing it. In a sense that is a kind of novelistic training.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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On Documenting Jewish Fiction Writers & How It Inspired a New Book

Monday, March 30, 2015 | Permalink

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His newest novel, How Sweet It Is!, is out this week from Mandel Vilar Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Years ago the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman, who was working with a documentary filmmaker from Hebrew University, contacted me about a very unique and worthy project. A donor had emerged who wanted to film the world’s great Jewish fiction writers in conversation with other writers. The idea was to pair up two writers (who might also be friends), and film them in conversation, shot over two days, discussing the books and lives that were the subject of each film.

Geoffrey explained that they didn’t yet know the ultimate use for this undertaking, but at the very least Hebrew University would possess within its archives a treasure trove of literary conversations from the world’s great men and women of Jewish letters.

Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Nadine Gordimer, Imre Kertesz, and Ivan Klima were already in the can, as they say. The next subject was going to be E.L. Doctorow, and he and Geoffrey wondered whether I would agree to be the one asking Edgar (the “E” in “E.L.”) the questions on camera.

Of course, I would. Edgar and I had become friends over the years, having even spent a few Thanksgivings together. But this was not merely an act of friendship I was being called upon to perform. This project was more ambitious than two Jews talking about the weather. My job was to engage Edgar in a lively discussion of his work, and how it was informed by his life—a Jewish life, albeit one that was not readily discernible from reading his novels.

Jewish novelists from the Golden Age of American fiction—Bellow, Roth, Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, Stanley Elkins, Norman Mailer, Grace Paley, E.L. Doctorow, Chaim Potok, and various others—had much in common, but with few exceptions, most shared a predisposition to deny that there was any Jewish influences or connection to their work. In fact, most disavowed the label “Jewish-American” altogether.

In my friendships with some of these writers, I have personally heard Bellow and Ozick, and even more contemporary writers such as Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman, struggle with placing a “Jewish” tag to their literary output.

Doctorow was, to my mind, an even more extreme case. After all, unlike many of the others, he was a bestselling novelist—literary, for sure, but also widely read, and not especially popular among Jews. Moreover, unlike a Malamud, Ozick or Roth, teasing out the Jewish bona fides of his work was no simple task. He was not demonstrably Jewish in his fiction. (He also ate ham on Thanksgiving, but that’s another story altogether.)

Yet, as the reigning godfather of historical fiction, Jewish characters were not entirely absent from his work: the Isaacsons were proxies for the Rosenbergs in The Book of Daniel; Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz headlined Billy Bathgate; World’s Fair, a personal memoir of sorts, featured a family that was clearly Jewish; a Reconstructionist Rabbi occupied the moral center of City of God; and, finally, Ragtime, his best known novel, featured Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Sigmud Freud.

In re-reading Ragtime in preparation of our talk, I realized that I had finally figured out what to do with a chapter in my own life that I had wanted to fictionalize. I grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, and 1972 was a watershed year for this shining peninsula along the southern coastline of Florida. It was as colorful a time and place, and filled with as lively an assortment of historical characters as Doctorow had to draw upon in his homage to Ragtime in the early days of twentieth century New York. Like Ragtime, I had in mind a book where the main character was the time period itself, and the historical figures that populated it.

That’s how How Sweet It Is! took its first imaginary steps toward becoming a novel of its own.

Thane Rosenbaum's articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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