The ProsenPeople

Can Peace Really Be Achieved Through a Shared Cuisine?

Monday, November 02, 2015 | Permalink

Yael Raviv is the author of Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A word about food and politics in Israel:

When I started writing about food and nation in Israel in the late 1990s, I rather naively thought that I could avoid writing about the political situation. Isn’t food an instrument of commensality, after all? But food is intimately linked to identity (personal, communal, national), impacted by economics, religion and culture; it is impossible to talk about food products and dishes in the context of Israeli nationalism without talking about politics.

Food is often held up as a key to peace and greater understanding: if we could all just share a meal together we can bridge our differences. But, in fact, food seems to be more affective at articulating differences (i.e. we do not eat pork, but they do). The current political situation in the Middle East, with recurring eruptions of violence in the region and particularly the boycott of joint Israeli-Palestinian projects as promoting a “normalization” of the current situation, offers a constant reminder of the complexities inherent in this struggle. It is a rather impossible task to tease out true ownership of foodstuffs and dishes that are a result of commerce, exchange and travel. Deciding who created the first falafel or whose hummus is better is a thankless, unattainable task, but understanding the processes that brought these products to the position they hold today reflects a complex and complicated journey. This is not to say that food cannot serve as an instrument of peace, but rather that it occurs not through finding superficial similarities or staking a claim of ownership but in serving as a tool for posing more complex questions, opening a door to greater mutual understanding and respect.

Certain food products become as familiar, layered with meanings and associations as any flag, and as such, become powerful symbols that can be appropriated by artists and reshaped. Their appearance in a work of art alludes to a wealth of meanings and enables both direct and ironic messages with a simple, recognizable object. Many Israeli and Palestinian artists use food products like oranges, olive trees, hummus and falafel, to comment on the absurd reality through manipulating these everyday products. Ran Morin’s Orange Suspendu (1993), hanging in the center of Jaffa, detached from the earth, or Larissa Sansour’s Olive Tree (2011), a photograph showing an olive tree incongruously growing out of a high-rise building’s concrete floor, are but two examples of artists who use food products and their accumulated layers of meanings to present the absurdity of the present state of affairs in the Middle East. Their work reminds us that food—and art—can be effective tools for posing difficult questions and for highlighting the complexity and, therefore, the real tragedy of the current situation.

Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. Her book, Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, is out from the University of Nebraska Press.

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New Book Reviews October 30, 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Imagining Buddy & Holly

Friday, October 30, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: True Stories author Joseph Skibell original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople. You can read the full version of the essay here.

I was living at home with my parents, feeling kind of lost. Fresh out of college, I had no idea how to start a literary career. There were no want ads in the newspaper for Young Aspiring Novelists, of course. Somehow, a friend of our family, Maury Kalisky, a doctor who had grown up in Lubbock, like me, but now lived in glamorous San Francisco, got me an assignment with Rolling Stone magazine.

Yes, my first job was with Rolling Stone. The rest of my career has been basically downhill from there.

In any case, Rolling Stone wanted a story about how Lubbock remembered Buddy Holly, its most famous and— at that time, at least—most famously neglected son.

During the research phase of my article, I spoke to Holly’s father and to his brother Travis, and to Don Caldwell, a local record producer, but no interview was more memorable than the one I conducted with Bill Griggs, the founder and (I suppose self-appointed) president of the Buddy Holly Memorial Society. Wanting to be closer to Holly Ground Zero, he had moved to Lubbock from Hartford, Connecticut, only six months before.

Griggs welcomed me graciously into his small house. He was, as I recall, in his late 30s, a round-face man with long sideburns and a DA, wearing a striped t-shirt and a leather jacket. As he snapped his chewing gum, he looked like a stranded time-traveler from the 1950s, waiting for the Flux Capacitor to arrive and carry him back home, where he could return to his former life as a juvenile delinquent. Though a family man, Griggs had turned his life over to a similar quest, and at one point, his two small children, a boy and a girl, charged into the room, demanding his attention.

“This is Buddy,” he said, introducing them to me, “and my daughter Holly.”

Buddy and Holly began bouncing on the sofa.

“Here, let’s go into this room,” Griggs said, abandoning the kids to their mother. “It’ll be quieter in there.”

We moved into a room filled with the kind of wooden bins you’d see back then in a record store. These were stuffed with plastic-sheathed albums, each, Griggs told me, played only once—played, it seemed to me, reluctantly once—so the data could be transferred to tape and the vinyl left as pristine as possible. He played me a few rare things, while we talked about his life and how he’d become so interested in Buddy Holly.

Later, we sat on the couch in his living room. He turned on the television set, and we watched old kinescopes of Holly and the Crickets’ two performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Griggs pointed out how Holly, in the seven weeks between these two appearances, seemed to have transformed himself, Clark Kent-to-Superman-like, from a gawky West Texas teen into a sexy adult rocker, his curly hair straight now, his 4-H Club farm-boy eyeglasses replaced by the suave Mexican Faiosas. Even his slender frame seemed to have filled out, and the music was less sweet, more aggressive, louder—so loud in fact, Griggs told me, that Holly and Sullivan had argued over the volume.

Unable to prevail upon Holly to turn things down, Sullivan ordered his stagehands to set the sound levels low without informing Holly. If you listen closely, Griggs pointed out, you can hear Sullivan introducing the act as “Buddy Holler and the Crickets,” and if you watch closely, he said, you can see Holly’s spidery fingers, between strums, vainly trying to turn the volume knob of his Stratocaster up.

The piece-de-resistance, though, was a photograph Griggs took from a folder and unwrapped from its protective wrapping. “There are only two copies of this photograph in the entire world,” Griggs said, handing it to me. “This one, right here in Lubbock, Texas, and the other one in London, England.” Griggs didn’t mention the name Paul McCartney, but it seemed to hover in the air. “Take a close look at that,” he said. “You see what that is?”

I looked at the black-and-white photo. Though I saw it only once and more than 30 years ago, I can still conjure up the image in my mind: at its center, an unusually swarthy Elvis Presley is standing in one-eyed profile in a leather sports coat—half trapped quarry, half visiting royalty, he is the very picture of stillness—while a flock of teenagers mobs him from all sides. Among this gaggle of star-struck adolescents, pushing in from the back, his face barely making it into the picture frame, is a gangly teenage Buddy Holly.

“That’s the only photograph of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly ever together taken,” Griggs told me, “and it was taken right here in Lubbock, Texas, right outside the Fair Park Coliseum.”

My article never ran. Though I’d subscribed to Rolling Stone my entire adolescence, I was reading too much John McPhee at the time, and I wrote the piece as though it were meant not for Rolling Stone but for the New Yorker. I received a small “kill fee” from my editor and never heard from the magazine again.

Over the years, I’ve told this story many times, but when I sat down recently to put it on paper, I couldn’t actually remember Bill Griggs’s name. I found it easily enough, via the Internet. Though I spent only a single afternoon in his company over 30 years ago, Griggs, in the picture I found online, looked exactly as I remembered him, though older, of course, and grey. I found a copy of the supposedly rare-as-the-Holy-Grail photo of Buddy and Elvis at the Fair Park Coliseum. Griggs or maybe the unnamed Englishman must’ve relaxed his grip on this treasure. Though I’d moved some of the figures around in it, my memory of the photograph was fairly accurate. My memory of the Crickets’ two performances on the Ed Sullivan Show, which I watched on YouTube, was scarily accurate. At 26 seconds in, you can see Buddy still fiddling with his volume knob.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, andA Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God

Thursday, October 29, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Fourteen years after its original publication in English translation, Etgar Keret's seminal collection of short stories was reissued earlier this month—with a brilliant book cover:

The works collected in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories were some of my earliest encounters with Keret's incomparable craft, and I'm thrilled to see them revisited—and for some readers discovered anew! Don't miss The Bus.

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'Slice It Thin' by Sylvia Leland and Other Imaginary Books

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of Joseph Skibell’s original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople, exploring the realm of the imaginary. You can read the full version of the essay here.

Throughout the ages—and we can pat ourselves on the back as a species for this—we’ve done a fairly good job of building real libraries for real books (although, let’s be honest, from Alexandria to Sarajevo, we’ve also done a pretty good job of burning them to the ground). Nobody, however, has given much thought about where to house all the imaginary books, and perhaps it’s time we did, because the world is full of imaginary books.

Yesterday, the author copies of my new book, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things, arrived. Thanks to an agreement my agent made with my publisher, whenever I publish a book, I receive twenty copies in the mail. This should be a thrilling moment, opening the box and finding 20 spanking brand-new copies of your book there, and it actually is. It is a thrilling moment—in bulk, en masse, 20-strong, the book, imaginary up until that point, now insists upon its reality. But the truth is, after that first thrilling moment, as the book transitions from its glorious imaginary state into a flawed realness, there’s a kind of let down. It’s just a book, you realize, like any other book, like all the other books in the world, so many of which you don’t even notice or know about or which you might walk past in a bookshop or pick up and put down, never to think about again.

Is it any wonder I prefer imaginary books?

My mother had such a book, and in truth, that’s the real reason I’d like to build this library. My mother died when she was only 58. This year, I’ll be twice as old as I was when she died, which means that, so far, I’ve spent half my life as her son and half of it as her orphan. My mother’s book had a title, and she’d even constructed a pseudonym for herself. Her maiden name was Shirlene Lezan and the book, written by Sylvia Leland, was called Slice It Thin.

I’ve never read it, of course—I have no idea where to find a copy—but I recall my mother explaining its title to me. When you go into a butcher shop, she said, you ask the man behind the counter to “slice it thin,” to give you the thinnest possible cut so that you don’t have to chew through the fat. It was a metaphor, she said, for a life lived lean, for a life with no fat, no gristle, with nothing left over.

Children, I’m told, often unconsciously live out the unlived lives of their parents, the fat or the gristle their parents, in Sylvia Leland’s resonant metaphor, have pushed to the side of their plate. I sometimes wonder if Sylvia Leland had actually published Slice it Thin, whether my books, real to a fault, might not have wound up in the Library of Imaginary Books instead.

In any case, most afternoons, that’s where you’ll find me, in the Library of Imaginary Books (built with the generous contributions of readers like you). Stroll past the theology section, past the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Raziel in its lighted display case, past the Waldo Salt Archive of Imaginary Screenplays. Walk into the fiction section. I’ll be near the Ls, reading Slice it Thin by Sylvia Leland. I’ve read the book so many times now I practically know it by heart. In fact, I usually just open it at random and read for thirty minutes or so, enjoying my mother’s dry wit, her acerbic observations, her sly turns of phrase. Marveling at the comedic brilliance of its scenes, I can almost hear her deep masculine-sounding voice in my inner ear as I read. I wish more people knew about Slice It Thin, but—please don’t tell anyone—when I’m done, I always hide the library’s one and only copy behind a stack of other books, so I know it’s always there.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

Read the full version of this essay here.

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In Praise of Imaginary Things

Monday, October 26, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: True Stories author Joseph Skibell's original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople. Read the full essay here.

In the wake of my father’s death, I became a little obsessed with guitars; and in the summer of 2009 I took my daughter Samantha, newly graduated from high school, on a road trip across North America, visiting master guitar-makers. It’s too long a story to tell here—and you can read about it in in the title story of my new book, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things—but suffice it to say: I was searching for my father’s imaginary guitar. I was 49 and, for the first time in my life, I’d begun to feel old.

“Good luck being a guitar-hunting Don Quixote!” a student of mine wrote me after I’d told him of our plans, and because of that, I brought along a copy of Don Quixote on the trip. It’s a book I’ve never quite been able to finish, although I’ve started it maybe half a dozen times since I was a teenager. The novel, it turns out, proved more apt than I remembered: I’d forgotten that Alonso Quejana was also 49 when he goes mad and hits the road, assuming the identity of the knight errant Don Quixote. And like Senor Quejana’s friends and family, my friends and family were also concerned about me. Was it madness to believe I might find my father’s imaginary guitar somewhere out there on the road?

Just how porous is the membrane between the real and the imaginary, I wondered?

I thought about my father—and this is another story you can read in my new book. (Sorry for the shameless and/or shameful self-promotion!) Hallucinating in his hospital bed as Hurricane Katrina made its way towards the coast of Louisiana, Dad was worried that if we couldn’t live on the land and we couldn’t live in the air and we couldn’t live in the sea, we’d all have to live in Hyperspace, space with more than three dimensions.

Though, thanks to the dimension of time, it occurred to me on the plane, we’re all living in Hyperspace already. And, it further occurred to me, while material things exist in four dimensions (three of space and one of time), imaginary things exist only in time.

We often say that something is only imaginary, as though it weren’t quite real, but it’s funny how real imaginary things can be. The most important things in our lives are imaginary: love, knowledge, wisdom, health, kindness, beauty, desire, our wants, our fears. These things all exist without a physical presence, as do stories, songs, memories, our childhoods, our futures, all our relationships and our notions about ourselves and each other. Our very identities—who we are, what we’ve done, what we hope for—are imaginary. Taking up no physical space, these things exist only in the dimension of time.

And of course, time itself is probably the most imaginary thing of all. I mean, when you think about it, there’s nothing more imaginary than a day. The Earth spins in space, half of it, at any given moment, facing the sun, half of it facing away. We call this alternating pattern of light and darkness a day, but really, there is no day. There’s only the sun, somehow poised in the middle of nothingness, and the earth, spinning within the sphere of its illuminated space, and yet this daily spin, this daily journeying from darkness into light through the three dimensions of space somehow produces the fourth dimension of time.

It makes no rational sense. It makes no sense at all. It’s as if, as a child, you could make yourself grow up faster by opening and closing your eyes while spinning in a circle. And yet, despite the utter imaginariness of time, we age: we grow up, we grow old, and we die.

My father died in the evening of January 5, 2008, in Dallas, Texas. My sister and I went to visit him in the hospital that morning, but we got lost along the way. His eyes had lit up in greeting when Susan and I came in, but almost immediately afterwards, he lost consciousness and, except for a brief moment or two, never really woke up again. His heart stopped later that night; the official cause of death was pneumonia.

After the arrangements had been made and the rest of the family went home, I sat with his body. Twice, I pulled back the sheet covering my father and looked at his face. That’s my father, I thought. On the third time, though, something had changed and he was no longer there. He’d become imaginary, existing now only in time.

Returning from my trip, I’ll board with a new guitar, name Fig (for Father’s Imaginary Guitar),onto the airplane and into the overhead compartment without any trouble, and that night at home I’ll sit up late at my kitchen table, playing Fig softly, so as not to awaken my wife, Barbara, singing those old great songs from the 1920s and the 1930s, songs my father loved, while the Earth spins beneath me, spinning beneath the threshold of my senses, and though the darkness of the night presses in against the windows, I’ll know there’s nothing out there, really, but light.

Read the full version of this essay here.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

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Interview: Michael Oren

Friday, October 23, 2015 | Permalink

by Yossi Klein Halevi

Michael Oren is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including his latest book, Ally: My Journey Across the America-Israeli Divide, an account of his four years as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Oren was interviewed by Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers, which won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year.

YHK: In publishing Ally, an intimate portrayal of American-Israeli rela­tions, you’ve been accused of violating the discretion of a diplomat. Why did you write this book?

MO: I felt an urgent need to set the record straight and to tell Israel’s side of the story—especially during the time leading up to the Iran deal—and to remind readers about why the American-Israeli alliance matters. With all due respect to diplomatic niceties, this isn’t a time for Jews to be silent, even former diplomats. I wrote this book because I perceive a life-and-death threat to my country.

By the way, Hillary Clinton and former secretaries of defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates all came out with memoirs shortly after concluding their terms, and those books also included strong criticism of Obama.

YHK: How do you feel about the way the book has been received?

MO: I learned what it means to go up against the Washington foreign policy establishment. Most of the critical reviews were written by peo­ple who are prominently portrayed in the book—a violation of journal­istic ethics. A campaign was launched, complete with talking points, to undermine my most basic credibility. I was accused of writing the book to make money, of describing meetings where I wasn’t present, and of “spinning” for the Israeli government. Seven Israeli agencies—including the IDF and the Mossad—vetted every line of the book. Not one of my critics took on its central arguments.

On the other hand, the positive response has been overwhelm­ing. None of my previous books seem to have touched readers the way this one has. This is my most personal book, and it’s the book I’m most proud of. I wrote 400 pages in 11 months. Parts of it were written during sleepless nights during last year’s Gaza War. There are five pages that deal with the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. Those pages took me over a month to write. They came from a place of deep caring and anguish. My hope was and remains that that section would initiate an honest discussion about how to restore a shared sense of peoplehood.

YHK: What’s your sense about the current relationship between Israe­lis and American Jews?

MO: The majority of Israelis and of American Jews have moved so far apart politically in recent years that the Israeli center is perceived as right-wing in America. I wrote an emphatically centrist book that talked about the need for a two-state solution, limiting settlements, affirming Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people that embraces Reform and Conservative Judaism. I talk about the need to reinforce bi-partisan­ship in American support for Israel and for Israel to reach out to diverse communities, which is what defined my term as ambassador. I reached out to the LGBT community, to Hispanics, to African Americans. I was the first Israeli ambassador to host Muslim American leaders for the Iftar, the break-fast meal during Ramadan.

It was deeply disturbing to me that the fateful issues I raised—the gulf between American and Israeli Jews, the transformation of America’s policies toward Israel, the existential threat of the Iranian deal—were largely ignored or derided by critics as a neo-con screed. That in itself says a great deal about the current state of discourse on Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

YHK: You’re a historian by training. What tools of the historian did to you bring to this book?

MO: My methodology for this book was the same as for my previous books. I created an extensive database which included timelines of U.S.-Israel, U.S.-Middle East, and American and Israeli politics, and as­sembled files of portraits of key individuals and analyses of the central issues. The narrative is multi-layered. A discussion of the peace process, for example, would refer to other events occurring at the same time, like a blizzard in Washington or the death of Michael Jackson. That concern for narrative is how I write history. When I wrote about the Six-Day War, I also wrote about what was happening at the same time in Vietnam and the ’60s revolution in America.

I also used the same methodology in analyzing individuals. For example, I ask: What was the impact of Netanyahu’s historian father on his son’s worldview? To my dismay, that same methodology, when applied to Obama, was condemned as inappropriate. But raising those questions is as essential for writing history as it is for diplomacy.

YHK: Did you keep a diary?

MO: Along with my classified notes, I kept a non-classified diary of impressions, and that’s what I drew on for Ally. I strove to preserve con­fidences and to spare people embarrassment. Needless to say, there’s a great deal that I could have written that I chose not to.

YHK: The Michael Oren of Ally tells a very different story about American-Israeli relations during the Obama era than the story told by Michael Oren the ambassador. How did you function with that dis­sonance?

MO: It exacted an immense emotional and even physical price. As I say in the book, paraphrasing a seventeenth-century English writer, the role of a diplomat is to lie for two countries. It came as a great relief to be able to tell at least part of the truth as I experienced it. The full story will only be told by future historians.

YHK: What’s next for you as a writer?

MO: The historian in me wants to write a three-volume book about the creation of Israel. The novelist in me has other projects in mind. But at the moment I’m engaged in legislation, as a member of Knesset, deal­ing with issues ranging from improved conditions for lone IDF soldiers to maintaining the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land and Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, winner of 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews October 23, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Morning of Yitzhak Rabin's Assassination: A Prologue

Thursday, October 22, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron.

Yitzhak Rabin woke up before seven the morning of November 4, 1995, with an eye infection. He had plans to play tennis, hold several work meetings at his north Tel Aviv apartment, and then attend a peace rally that night at Kings of Israel Square. But the infection, which made his eye swollen and bloodshot, gave him a chance to reassess. Rabin felt ambivalent about the rally; it seemed to him like the kind of event some Bolshevik regime might organize, busing in paid apparatchiks and having them wave banners approved by the Party. He agreed to it mostly because his political opponents, with a few large and rowdy protests, had managed to create the impression that most of the country opposed his now second peace deal with Yasser Arafat. The demonstrators had held up doctored images showing Rabin draped in a kaffiyeh—the checkered black-and-white scarf worn by Arafat—and worse, Rabin in a Nazi uniform. But the prime minister feared that few people would show up at the square. Instead of refuting the perception of his political weakness, the rally could end up reinforcing it. Rabin himself wasn’t exactly sure whether it was just a perception or the hard reality now.

He moved to the den, picked up the phone, and called off his tennis match. At seventy-three, Rabin still played several sets every Saturday, walking to a country club in the neighborhood and puffing on Parliament Longs between the games. He planned to phone Shlomo Lahat next, the former mayor of Tel Aviv and the organizer of the rally that night. The two had served together in the army and overlapped as members of the general staff—the Israeli equivalent of the joint chiefs. But before he dialed, Leah, Rabin’s wife of forty-seven years, called to him from elsewhere in the apartment, saying she’d tracked down an ophthalmologist who was now on the way. For the prime minister, of course he would make a house call on the Jewish Sabbath. And unless the doctor discovered something serious, Rabin would have no excuse but to attend the rally.

Around the same time, a few miles north, Yigal Amir was getting out of bed at his parents’ home in Herzliya. A twenty-five-year-old law student, short and handsome, Amir also had plans for that Saturday. He would pray at the Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood, eat lunch with his parents and brothers and sisters—eight children in all—and head to Tel Aviv in the evening. Amir put on jeans and a dark-colored T-shirt. He lifted his 9mm Beretta from the nightstand next to his bed and tucked it in the back of his pants—he took the gun everywhere. His older brother, Hagai, with whom he shared a room, was a step behind him. Hagai palmed a velvet bag containing his tallit—the shawl with knotted fringes that religiously observant Jews wrap themselves in during prayers every day—and the two stepped out onto the pavement.

Continue Reading »

From Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Company.

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Go by the Country

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rita Lakin shared what inspired her comedy mystery novels about 80-year-olds solving crime in Florida. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Go by the Country” is the title of one of the songs written in a musical I created with my friend Doris Silverton: Saturday Night at Grossinger's.

Whatever possessed us to go down that road? Let me describe our lives at that time. It was the 1960s. I was writing scripts for television, for such shows as Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place. Doris was writing short stories for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. This was our career path and we were well on it.

Doris and I had many conversations about our childhood. Even though we now both lived in Los Angeles, I grew up in the Bronx, she in Yonkers. We had vivid memories, especially about our summers when our families made the usual exodus to the Catskill Mountains. In a world before air conditioning, summers in New York were sweltering. Our dads bravely stayed home in the heat. To keep us cool, our mothers schlepped us up to various cuch-a-lains in what was lovingly called the Borscht Belt, where we learned about communal Jewish living. While our mothers kvetched and fought the battles over who used up our sour cream in the ice box, we enjoyed our happy, outdoor country experiences, picking berries and swimming in the lake.

The cuch-a-lains were plain and simple low income bungalows; however there was an upper crust world nearby where people with money stayed. Like the fancy Flagler Hotel and the famous Grossinger’s, with its acres of attractions and ever-available food.

My friend and I would sneak into their Saturday night shows where comics both famous, and not-yet-famous tried out their comedy material and Spanish dance teams whirled about the stage. We were in awe.

Doris and I discussed writing a script about our vacation days for television. I dutifully made the rounds of producers I knew and suggested such a project. And although the producers I pitched to were Jewish, they told me in no uncertain terms that “Jewish” was not wanted on TV. I cited the famous Molly Berg show. They told me that was a “flash in the pan.”

When we did more research on the1920s and 1930s—the height of the Catskill hotels’ success—we learned, in shock, that gentile hotels in places like the Pocono’s, actually had signs up that read: “Restricted. NJA” (No Jews Allowed). And that’s why amazing women like Jennie Grossinger fought back by building hotels for her people. Doris and I finally understood why the Borscht Belt had to happen. We were determined, we had to write this story. We decided to write it as a musical.

We connected with talented people like composer Claibe Richardson, and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole, and our musical became a reality.

But there’s an ironic postscript. In 1973, I finally convinced a television producer to let me write a Jewish script based on my experiences as a teenager in those earlier bungalows. The producer loved the script, and I saw it as a Jewish victory. A Summer Without Boys aired that year. But then, with millions of others, I watched my play the night it was on television and gasped. There was absolutely nothing about being Jewish in it. It could have been any hotel, anywhere with bland characters in white America. Was it hidden antisemitism, or just plain blindness? I’ll never know.

Rita Lakin is the author of The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPoeple.

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