The ProsenPeople

The Father I Always Knew, the Survivor I Finally Know Better

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Survivors Club coauthor Debbie Bornstein Holinstat wrote about discovering the power of Jewish books in Ottumwa, Iowa. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

If my father had his way, my last name would never have been Bornstein” It would have been Bourne or maybe Borns, he tells me, something far less obviously Jewish. Fortunately, like in all good Jewish marriages, my mom has final veto power. My surname didn’t change until the day I walked down the aisle and said, “I do.”

You might think it’s crazythat a man who survived the Auschwitz death camp as a four-year-old prisoner of war would decide as an adult in the safety of America, to hide his religion. Far from life in the Polish ghetto where he was born, my father insisted that my brother turn his soccer jersey inside-out for all “travel” games so that his telltale Jewish name did not draw attention. It was easy for my siblings and me to judge. “Dad! You’re absurd! No one cares if we’re Jewish! Be proud!”

I don’t want you to think my father isn’t proud of his religion. He values Judaism with his entire heart and finds immense comfort in lighting the Hanukkah candles or leading the Passover seder. But it has taken me 42 years and the process of writing a book alongside my father to really understand why he worried about the things he did and protected us with such ferocity.

To be honest, I’m embarrassed. I didn’t know half of what my father endured until we sat down to co-write Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz. Some of it, even he didn’t know. But it was all there to be found—in relatives’ audiotaped interviews, in exhumed museum documents, and in the questions the family never asked. I didn’t need to write a book to learn my father’s history and sometimes, I’m ashamed that that is what it took.

Had I known the ruthless bullying and unspeakable assault my father endured in Germany after the war, I wouldn’t have resented his helicopter parenting. If I knew he shared one helping of cold, smelly soup each day, among dozens of starving children who lapped from a bowl like kittens, I wouldn’t have laughed at his need to clear every last morsel off a restaurant plate. I know I would never have pointed an accusing finger when he stockpiled free hotel-size shampoo bottles in a cabinet, just in case supplies ran low.

Despite the five-character tattoo inked on his forearm, my dad was the stereotypical hardworking, homework-helping, soccer-coaching father to four happy kids in suburban Indianapolis. We never thought less of him for his Holocaust-inspired idiosyncrasies. But I’m sure we would have understood him more had we pushed to hear his story sooner rather than accepting “I really don’t like to talk about it” as an answer.

My siblings and I have learned a lot during the book writing process. We learned that our grandfather, my father’s father, bribed a Nazi guard (takes chutzpah, right?!) to make living conditions more bearable in the ghetto where he served as Judenrat president. We learned that a precisely-timed illness helped my father avoid the Death March at Auschwitz. We learned that of the 3,400 Jews who lived in my dad’s hometown of Zarki before the war, only about 27 returned home. Most of those survivors were my relatives.

Yet maybe the most important lesson we learned along the way is that “I don’t want to talk about it,” isn’t always a final answer. Sometimes, it’s worth asking again. I am hardly the only child of a survivor walking around today, and the Holocaust is just one of many history lessons that can’t be forgotten. If I could have a do-over, I would have dug for the true story of my father’s survival years ago. I didn’t need to write a book, and neither does anyone else. If you want your family’s history to be remembered, just ask. Ask again.

It turns out my father is glad we did. Encouraged by new findings at a museum and new fears about Holocaust deniers, at the age of 76 he is speaking openly at schools, synagogues, churches, and charity functions. He is touring the country, traveling to D.C., Illinois, Minnesota, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Indianapolis, and Iowa to speak about Survivors Club, and standing up at a time when antisemitism is on the rise and discrimination seems newly tolerated. With the name “Bornstein” printed across the spine of our book, he is adding his story to the record. And with a new understanding of where he’s been and how far he’s come, I stand with my siblings and my mother in saying, there is closure, relief, and pride in the journey.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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Time. Space. Create.

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julia Dahl wrote about her early exposure to the American justice system. With the release of her new crime novel, Conviction, Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In early 2011, I applied for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but didn’t get in.

I’d been working on a novel for more than three years, while I worked five days a week at the New York Post, then The Crime Report, cobbling together a living with occasional fellowships and a couple big magazine features I’m really proud of. I’d written and shopped another novel about seven years earlier and gotten lots of polite declines. One agent took the time to chat with me on the phone. She told me the writing was “very strong” but that she didn’t “know how to sell it.”

This new novel, though—I had a feeling I could sell it. But first I had to finish, and I simply wasn’t getting it done with a few hours here and there. I needed a chunk of time. I needed, I decided, a residency.

So, I wasn’t going to Vermont. Maybe I could go somewhere else. One night, sitting on my couch, probably watching Bravo, I Googled “writers residency east coast.” A few results down I saw a link to the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency. I filled out the application that night, cut and pasted 10 pages from my novel-in-progress, and paid the $10 fee.

A California native, I knew nothing about Martha’s Vineyard (did the Kennedy’s live there?) and I think I initially confused it with Cape Cod. But it didn’t matter. It was $200 a week (you bought your own food)—far less than what Vermont charged. I could afford it, I had a flexible job situation, and I was childfree.

A week or so later I got an email: I was in.

Getting there was a bit of a crucible. I boarded a bus in the bowels of Port Authority and four hours later transferred to another bus in Providence. An hour after that I transferred to another bus in a city called Byrne, Massachusetts, then finally pulled my rollerboard suitcase up the ramp of the ferry to the island, trading a cramped bus for the wild Atlantic salt wind whipping my hair into tangles I’d have to shower and condition out.

I showed up to the Point Way Inn late at night, so the other writers were already in bed. I crept up a staircase to Room 6, and turned on the light. Imagine the best B&B you’ve ever been to: cheery, spare, immaculate. I had a four-poster bed, a bathtub, and a little wicker desk that sat at a window overlooking the courtyard. For two weeks, this place was home.

I went with a clear goal: 60 pages. It was, at the time, ambitious—I’d worked almost three years to get 100 pages—but if all I had was time and I was losing money, essentially, by being there, I had to make it worthwhile. And guess what? I did it. Easily. I woke when I wanted (usually late). I ate when I wanted (usually alone, although sometimes with the other residents). I walked the streets and imagined the lives of the people who owned the stunning, but somehow not entirely ostentatious clapboard houses. I biked to the beach and sat with a notebook, scribbling dialogue and scene ideas and character notes, then sat at the bar by the Edgartown docks, slurping oysters from the same beach I’d just left.

I didn’t finish the book there, but I got close. That December, I bailed on Christmas with my in-laws and finished it alone over the New Year. I got an agent in July and sold it in a two-book deal the next February.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times. I started my second and third novels there. I encountered all kinds of people on the island: I humored a white-haired part-time resident who complained over martinis that “those people” at Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be protesting the banks, they should be protesting Obama; I embarrassed a bartender by recognizing her from a painfully lowbrow reality show; I drank with Twyla Tharp’s sister, and I was constantly asked if I was related to Arlene Dahl, a beloved resident of the island. (I’m not.)

Over the years, the residency morphed into the Noepe Center for the Arts, and hosted artists of all kinds, including Junot Diaz, Charles Blow, and Billy Collins. It was a community center. A culinary center. An incubator and a sanctuary.

What was so wonderful about the Martha’s Vineyard residency was that it was utterly unscheduled. Justen Ahren, the local poet who created the program, held fast to the motto of the residency: Time. Space. Create. There were no command performances. He and his charming, generous wife and children came to the inn for occasional dinners and informal readings, but if you were on a roll in your room, no one felt slighted if you stayed holed up. A father and landscape architect, Justen knows intimately how precious writing time is. All he wanted was for you to be productive in whatever way you measured productivity.

For me, the goal was always pages, but some people explored the island, using the time to clear their heads. Some people got drunk every night. Some people dove into the community, creating connections that led to jobs and even permanent homes. One woman stayed in her room so entirely I didn’t even meet her until more than a week into my stay. (I imagined a whole narrative about her being murdered and no one knowing until she started to smell. What do you want from me, I’m a mystery novelist!)

I started my latest novel, Conviction, in Room 6 less than a month after finding out I was pregnant. It was a strange few weeks. I knew my life was going to change, but I didn’t know how. I also knew that it would likely be a very long time before I could come back to the Point Way Inn. Mothers of babies don’t just take two weeks off. I didn’t produce quite as many pages this time, and each walk I took, each time I sat on the dock and watched the little ferry scoot to Chappaqua, was tinged with sadness.

In November 2015, I gave birth to a beautiful, rambunctious little boy. Those first six months were so all-consuming I couldn’t imagine ever being able to extricate myself for another residency, but this February, when my boy turned 15 months, my husband and I decided we could each handle single parenthood for a week: I got a week on the Vineyard and he got a 7-day motorcycle trip.

I emailed Justen and set it up. It felt like a weight lifted. I’d written significant portions of all three of my books in Edgartown and I felt like I needed Room 6. Knowing that I’d have it, even six months away, steadied me.

And then, about two weeks later, I got an email from Justen telling me that the woman who owned the inn where the residency was housed had sold the property, and the whole decade-long experiment was over.

I’m not going to lie: I’m still in denial. I can’t imagine never biking to Katama again. I can’t imagine not sitting around the inn’s big dining table with my fellow authors (too many to name, and many you’ve heard of), drinking wine and eating local mussels and chatting about the writing life and its thrills and miseries.

But mostly, I can’t imagine never sitting at that wicker desk again, with a mug of coffee, a half-eaten plate of fruit and cheese, maybe a beer, my mind entirely on my work for as long as I want. Justen has said he will try to find another space for the residency, but for now, I’m grieving, and searching for another way to find that time and space to create.

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia writes about crime and criminal justice for

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Discovering the Power of Jewish Books in Ottumwa, Iowa

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the co-author of Survivors Club, an account of her father’s early childhood at Auschwitz. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

You know you’ve moved to a town where you’re in the minority when even the handful of Jewish people you meet are surprised you’re Jewish—after you’ve introduced yourself with the last name Bornstein. In Ottumwa, Iowa, there aren’t even enough Jews for anyone to recognize patterns in last names. I lived in that small Iowa hamlet for one year of my life, reporting for the local ABC affiliate; my first job out of college. I was there to hone my journalism chops, but I ended up learning just as much about Judaism and the need for connection as I did about information gathering and linear edits.

The biggest lesson came on Yom Kippur, in a moment that left me horrified and saddened, but it also woke me up.

A soft-voiced, aged Rabbi welcomed about ten congregants and me. I had hoped to return home for the holiday but my work schedule didn’t jive with the flight schedule so here I was, entering Ottumwa’s modest synagogue for the first time. “We see you on TV every morning! You’re Jewish? Really?” I signed off every news report with my name, first and last. I was floored no one guessed that a “Debbie Bornstein” was Jewish. The group was mostly seniors, their children all grown, and I was touched that they invited me to a break-fast dinner at one congregant’s home later that evening.

The morning service was longer than I’m accustomed to, but lovely. When it ended everyone filed out to their cars in the desolate parking lot. I noticed that one woman stayed back. She was sitting alone in a bench and seemed to be settling in with a book. “Do you need a ride?” I asked. She told me she stayed until mincha, the afternoon service. “That’s silly!” I said. “I’ll bring you home and pick you back up for mincha. There’s no reason to sit here all day.”

The woman, whose name I can’t remember but whose story I’ll never forget, told me that every year, on the High Holidays, her husband drops her off at the synagogue very early. Then he picks her up after sundown. He didn’t want anyone to know that she was Jewish. It embarrassed him. Even this woman’s own children didn’t know she was Jewish—or that they are Jewish, too.

I thought about opening my mouth. I thought about telling her to march proudly out of the synagogue in broad daylight, to tell her husband she’s never going to hide her religion, to call her kids and tell them they are among God’s “Chosen People”. Oh, I had plenty of thoughts running through my meddlesome mind. But I didn’t say a word. My face might have spoken for me, but my lips were zipped. At the age of 22, I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere in a person’s private family dynamic. I just sat with her a while instead. After some time, it was clear she was enjoying her book and her silence so I shuffled home, stomach growling, mind swirling.

I’d like to tell you that the woman I left behind at synagogue that fall of 1996 was reading Midrash or Talmudic analysis or even Judaism for Dummies. I think it might have been a Danielle Steele novel. My takeaway remains the same though. There are people living right here in this diverse country who still have obstacles connecting to Jewish life. Few things can change that in a town where there are more eggs in a carton, than there are Jews at High Holiday services.

But Jewish books can fix that. If someone never has the opportunity to learn how to prepare a proper Passover Seder, she can learn about it in books. If an elderly man fears that no one in his community will know to arrange shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, when he passes, he can learn more about the significance of shiva and share it with friends—through books. Jewish philosophy on life and love, parenting and passing are all available these days with a swipe of a button on mobile phones or a quick stop at the bookstore, and if someone has never had the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust from a living survivor, they can still read their stories.

I am immensely proud to know that someone in Ottumwa, Iowa, or a town like it, may now be able to pick up Survivors Club andlearn about the atrocities of Auschwitz from my dad’s story, and about the faith that endured from Auschwitz to America. There is infinite value in Jewish connection, and if we have written a book that adds one more link, then I am a happy former Ottumwa resident.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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How Does the "Justice System" Work for You?

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've never been arrested. It probably won't even surprise you to learn that for the first two decades of my life I'd never known anyone who'd been arrested, either. Likely, you can same the same thing. But not having to personally contend with the justice system doesn't mean I've been an angel. It just means I've been lucky—or, maybe more accurately, privileged.

In high school, I had friends who sold drugs. One guy I hung out with carried a wooden box with mushrooms and pot and coke in it almost everywhere he went—including school— in a duffle bag. And during my senior year, I got caught smoking pot with some friends in a hotel room in Bakersfield while we were in town for a debate tournament (no, I’m not kidding). We got suspended, but, as far as I know, no one even considered calling the police.

Was it because it was 1994? Was it because most of us were good kids otherwise? Was it because we were white? Some combination? I won’t ever know. What I do know is that I was—we were—very lucky. But I barely felt lucky. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the justice system. Obviously, the police were to be avoided when smoking pot, but otherwise they were your friends. The courts, the prisons—they were distant entities, but generally, if you had asked back then, I would have said they kept the “bad guys” away.

And the “bad guys” I had knowledge of were undoubtedly bad. My freshman year in high school, a wealthy local family was murdered in their home. Mom, dad, sister all shot to death over Easter weekend. Turns out, the college-age son, Dana Ewell, hired a classmate to murder them, apparently, for the family’s $8 million fortune.

It took police a while to flip the gunman, as I remember, and before the son was arrested he came to see my dad, who was a local estate attorney, to inquire about representation. My dad and his firm didn’t take him on, and a few years later, when the Ewell murders came up in conversation, my dad got quiet. Without revealing anything about what was said, he told us that when Dana Ewell came to see him, he immediately became frightened.

“It was like cold walked into the room,” said my dad. “He had shark eyes—dead and black.”

With Dana Ewell, “the system” had done its job and justice, as far as that goes, was served. I figured pretty much everyone in prison was probably like Dana: dangerous and unfit to live among us. At the very least they were guilty.

It didn’t occur to me that “the system” might not work as well for everyone until I met Tyeisha Martin in 2004. Tyeisha was 19 years old and had lived her whole life in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. When the hurricane came she lost her home and was separated from her child. I met her at a church in Henry County, Georgia, where I was living at the time. She and several hundred “refugees” had been bused there and were awaiting federal assistance to get in touch with family and find new places to live.

Long story short, my editor at Seventeen magazine knew I was in the South and asked me to find a teenager who’d survived the hurricane to profile for the next issue. I found Tyeisha. After a couple days together, I dropped her off at the bus station in Atlanta in August, and the next March her sister, Quiana, called to tell me Tyeisha had been murdered. Shot and left in a ditch in Fort Bend County. Her daughter, Quiana said, might have seen it.

Twelve years later, there is no justice for Tyeisha and her family, and the only real attention the case got was because of my Seventeen article. Quiana and I communicate occasionally. She sends me pictures of Daniesha before a school dance, or at birthdays; I sent her a picture when I gave birth to my son.

Tyeisha’s death invited me to look under the hood of the justice system, and what I found there was often disquieting. Suddenly I learned things like the fact that if you are murdered in this country there is good chance that whoever killed you will never see the inside of a prison cell. One-third of homicide cases are never cleared—and even “clearance” doesn’t mean someone gets convicted and incarcerated. Clearance means an arrest, or the suspect is identified but unable to be arrested for some reason.

And it’s not just homicide. Look too close at the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted (or, more often, not investigated or prosecuted) and you’ll see a system that too often intimidates and traumatizes victims while letting evidence languish and perpetrators reoffend. Look at who gets convicted of low-level drug crimes, and at how youthful mistakes can burden certain segments of our society and leave others (like mine) unscathed.

All this was in my head when I started writing my latest novel, Conviction. Every few weeks, it seemed, I was reading about (mostly) black men being exonerated after serving decades in prison for crimes we now know they did not commit. Can you even imagine? What more egregious miscarriage of justice than you imprison the wrong person for a murder? And what sort of machinations could create such a circumstance? I decided I needed to try to imagine it.

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for

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New Reviews March 26, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content

When Gershom Scholem Discovered Zionism
By the time he was 20 years old, Gerhard Scholem had decided that Jewish history in Europe was finished. Biographer George Prochnik explores the “lofty, blurry agenda” of Scholem’s youthful Zionism.

Why I Wrote You Say to Brick
In writing a biography of Louis Kahn, Wendy Lesser seeks “to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing.”

When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabballah
“There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?
No one in Louis Kahn's immigrant family knew whether his first name was supposed to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie". So everyone just called him Lou.

The Continuous Transformations of Judaism
Almost as soon as Gershom Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken.

Could Zionism Be Our Jewish Practice in the Modern Age?
“The problem of how to live a resonant, secular Jewish life, we thought, might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began. In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem.”

The Biographer and the Architect
Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?

For the Love of the Land
What if the deep mystical notion of Tikkun Olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For the Love of the Land

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism and claiming Zionism as Jewish spiritual practice. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

After leaving Jerusalem it was nearly ten years before I returned. Memories of the life I’d tried to build there were too raw and painful. But when I finally did make the journey, just to see friends, and take a few walks through my old haunts I had no real expectations. Perhaps because I had so harshly suppressed all thoughts of Jerusalem in the intervening years, the place struck me with a profound, sensual force when I returned. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the physical nature of the place was. This recognition was immediate, and didn’t at first change my thinking about the city. But for years afterward I went back and back, trying in effect to understand what it was that kept pulling me to return. I spoke with people in young progressive political movements and arts groups, Israeli and Palestinian. I visited libraries—at the Dome of the Rock as well as in West Jerusalem. I went to religious neighborhoods and services. All of it was interesting, but none of it got to the heart of my response to the place.

On each of these trips back to the land, it became my habit to take a walk in one of the parks or nature reserves around Jerusalem with an old friend who is both a naturalist and a person of the theater, a director, puppet maker, and clown. We would talk a little about the abiding problems in the country, but mostly about the land itself that we were walking through: the plants we saw, the animals, the deeper geology and visible landscape, the smells, the sounds. Gradually the recognition began to draw on me that this in fact more than anything else was what had made living in Jerusalem so powerful: the pressing imminence of an extraordinary natural world from which different religions and even historical movements had taken inspiration. Ironically, the inspiration taken from the nature of Jerusalem invariably ended up turning Jerusalem itself first into a kind of stage-set background, then into a theological or ideological abstraction. But what would it mean to take what had been background and switch that into the forefront of thinking about the city? What would it mean to take hints from Gershom Scholem’s own writing that the poetry of Walt Whitman (an unexpected, deep passion of Scholem’s), with his naturalistic pantheism, might hold clues both to a new lexicon of kabbalistic symbolism and a fresh political approach to the Land? What if the endless invocations of the Land by the mystics were taken out of the metaphorical realm and read as a guide to treating the physical place as a sacred charge? What if the deep mystical notion of tikkun olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—not for the sake of making the land yield a livelihood, but for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For decades we’ve been hearing that the last moment for the two-state solution may have come and gone. At this point, it could be that this option has truly expired, and no state can survive any length of time in this place that does not fully enfranchise all its inhabitants. Perhaps the only hope at a moment when the effects of climate change have already begun playing out aggressively in the region—and the two peoples are already coexisting and sometimes even “co-resisting” in the land, if in a crazy, inequitable patchwork—is to re-frame the political debate so that the focus turns to the land as a common trust.

Scholem always maintained that Judaism has no fixed essence—that it consists of whatever Jews say it is. If Zionism was the next phase of Kabbalah, perhaps an ecological pluralism rising out of Jerusalem must became the next chapter of Zionism.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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The Biographer and the Architect

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about Louis Kahn’s Jewish identity why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Early on in my interviewing for the book that would become You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, I talked to a Philadelphia architect, David Slovic, who had been both a student and an employee of Kahn's. “Here’s what I want to know,” Slovic mused toward the end of our conversation. “We all went to the same schools. We all had the same training. Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?"”

“That's what I'm hoping to answer in my book,” I said.

But when you write a biography of an artist—any artist—the effort to find the sources of their inspiration or the key to their work is only part of what you are doing. You are also trying to understand a human being as a fellow human, though in ways that are utterly different from what you might apply to the people around you. I know both more and less about “Lou” than I will ever know about my best friend, my husband, or my own child. I never met Kahn, but I would recognize his voice, his handwriting, perhaps even his style of sketching or his way of putting words together. I probably know more about his fears and dreams and desires than I know about my own; I certainly know more about his death (which was, in its own way, quite mysterious) than I will ever know of my own. And though some of the information I painstakingly gathered helped me to understand his buildings, a great deal of it was just interesting for what it told me about him as a person.

I think now of three key moments in the research process, moments that made me feel I was drawing especially close to the man behind the architect. One was a four-page letter written to Lou in 1945 by his younger brother, Oscar Kahn, when they were both in their early forties. (I learned about the letter from Nathaniel Kahn, who told me to look it up in the Architectural Archives at Penn.) I won’t reproduce the letter here—it appears in full in my book—but suffice to say it gives the clearest, most incisive analysis of Lou's personality I have yet come across.

The second item was a series of test results that came out of a study run at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s, a “creativity study” in which Kahn was one of the participating architects. No restrictions were ever put on this material, so the kindly people at the Institute for Personality and Social Research—the inheritor of this research—gave me Lou's Rorschach results, his Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, his Thematic Apperception Test, his psychological interview transcripts, and a whole host of other materials he never imagined would see the light of day. Some of it was uninterpretable garbage, but amid the rubbish were a number of deep and incisive revelations, including key observations about his childhood, his parents, and his relationship to his own work.

And then there was the dream Lou scribbled on the back of his BOAC boarding pass during one of his final visits to Bangladesh in January of 1973. His older daughter, Sue Ann Kahn, handed it to me with a bunch of family papers she had accumulated but not necessarily read. It was written in microscopic handwriting I had to decipher with the aid of a magnifying glass. Again, I can't really go into the dream and its meaning in this brief space, but what I remember is the uncanny sensation I had when first reading it—almost as if I were touching Kahn's mind with my hand.

Still, all the personal insights I’ve gained do not really explain why Louis Kahn became the great architect he did. There is always a gap between individual personality and artistic achievement, and with an architect the gap is even greater than usual, because so many factors beyond his own character (collaborators, clients, money, the site itself, various social and historical forces, the state of technological development, etc.) influence the outcome of his work. So I can't make a case that my biography will fully reveal, for David Slovic or anyone else, the true sources of Kahn’s architecture.

What I can say is that there was a moment in the process when I suddenly became aware of a felt connection between the individual man—that unusual person who carried on all those intense, unconventional love affairs—and the marvelous buildings he produced. When I visited the home of his younger daughter, Alexandra Tyng, she showed me a picture of Lou that hung on her wall, a photograph taken in 1936 of him shooting a bow and arrow at the Brookwood Labor College. As I looked at him standing there in his skimpy archery costume, with his well-muscled body and his confident stance, I thought, Yes: that is the feeling his architecture gives us, the sense that we are fully inhabiting our bodies. His buildings make us feel we are contained within a vast space, at once tenderly embraced and freed into a kind of elevated exaltation, as if the massive environment is lifting us up and making us larger even as it protectively acknowledges our merely human size.

Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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Recapitulating a Move Gershom Scholem Hypothesized Long Ago

Thursday, March 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I first traveled to Jerusalem almost by chance, knowing next to nothing about the place, and having no expectations for the trip. But the city got under my skin immediately. If I’d been asked why it affected us so strongly at the time, I think I would have stuttered out something about the intense compression of peoples, faiths and histories—combined with the dramatic built structures and landscapes. I’d come there casually; but there is nothing casual about Jerusalem. The city grabs your attention, and won’t gently release it. Jerusalem’s sheer physical presence—ancient and new, vibrant and ghost-ridden; shot through with dazzling vistas of shattered stones and twisting olive trees—is arresting.

After my wife and I returned to America, scenes from our visit kept coming back to us. We found that our former frustrations had been chafed raw by that experience of a world where everyone we met seemed consumed by ideas and arguments over ultimate questions of good, evil, life, death, and ultimate meaning. We began thinking about returning immediately and soon enrolled in a program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary that would enable us to study in Jerusalem for a year. By the time we actually got back to the city, my wife was pregnant and the experience of having a child in a place that values the idea of family before all else was powerful enough that we became enthralled by the possibility of remaining there. Jerusalem’s reputation is violent and spiritually hyperventilated, but after New York, day-to-day life there seemed almost tranquil, simpler, more pure, and physically beautiful.

Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah had been inspiring, but we weren’t interested in trying to literally enact kabbalistic exercises. Normative synagogue life held no pull for us. Without even realizing that we were recapitulating a move Scholem had hypothesized long ago, we began to wonder whether the next phase in our own fascination with Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, might be Zionism. We told ourselves that by living in Jerusalem as Jews, even if technically secular—as writers pursuing our own imaginative visions—we might be fulfilling a more meaningful role in Judaism than we could attain through any degree of ritual observance elsewhere. The problem of how to live a resonant Jewish life outside the law might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began.

In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem. Or, more accurately, I’m amazed that we assumed we could come to Israel with our existing set of liberal values and transfer them wholesale to the life we would build in this new world.

For all practical purposes we really hadn’t given any more thought to the Palestinians before arriving than Scholem had devoted to the Arabs. We felt that the Palestinians should have a state of their own and should share equally in any benefits accruing to other populations of the State. We deplored the thought of Palestinians being mistreated by the security forces and we understood that Palestinian society suffered from unjust economic disadvantages.

But these attitudes are so broad and vague that they can hardly be said to constitute a political position. It was a facile liberal perspective that accepted everything and demanded no sacrifices. Just as Scholem had no intention of equating the Zionist movement with the acquisition of political power, but became party to that evolution in purpose by virtue of being enmeshed in the historical circumstances that turned the project toward territorial sovereignty, we had no intention of supporting the more reactionary elements in the State but became implicated in their ascension by virtue of not doing more to fight against them. We effectively resigned ourselves to the Occupation by becoming so preoccupied with the exigencies of raising our own little family. Politically speaking, the Land was an abstraction to us no less than it had been to Scholem envisioning it from early twentieth century bourgeois Berlin. We were fine, theoretically, with whatever the negotiators decided about how the country got cut up to bring peace, knowing that our own home corner of West Jerusalem would never be surrendered. And meanwhile our home life, our nest in verdant, floral Rehavia in a modest but charming apartment overlooking a courtyard garden in which our growing children played idyllically with other children from the surrounding low buildings, was humanly rich and spiritually enlivening.

I went to graduate school in English and American literature at Hebrew University. Soon I was teaching there. The economics of our existence were always a struggle, but our life still continued to seem fulfilling so long as our Jerusalem world could be decontextualized from the larger dilemmas we were gradually becoming more conscious of.

However, the First Intifada began not long after we arrived. And as we came to understand something of what brought this popular revolt about, and the reasons why it had stirred the passions of so large a part of the Palestinian population, the contradictions between our ideals and the political reality of the land became increasingly jarring. The relationships between Palestinians and the Jews, the injustices and mutual antipathies—which had been far in the background of our thinking about what it meant to settle in Jerusalem—were pushed toward the foreground of consciousness.

Gershom Scholem had lived through the rise and fall of the idealistic Brit Shalom movement, with its dream of a binational solution to the governance of Palestine. Between 1923 and 1933, he witnessed the rise of the right wing Revisionist Movement that threatened to dominate the whole Zionist project and bore heavy responsibility for the bloody riots of 1929, along with the ensuing Jewish-Arab violence in the 1930s. As immigration from Russia surged, Scholem saw Zionism itself transforming into a nationalistic endeavor bent on taking control of all of Greater Israel.

Between 1988, when I came to Israel, and 1996, when our own plans to leave Israel were set in motion, we saw the Intifada, the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Agreement, a huge new wave of Jewish emigration from Russia, and a surge in a new kind of religious nationalism that led to the settler protests and riots of the early 1990s—which culminated with the assassination of Rabin—and the election of the expediently demagogic, reactionary Bibi Netanyahu.

Our life in Israel began to take on a darker cast within a short time of arriving. There were many ups and downs over the ensuing years, and we felt a persistent enchantment with Jerusalem itself, but any hazy Zionist ideals we might once have harbored were destroyed by the double-blow of Rabin’s death and Netanyahu’s empowerment. We no longer knew what we were doing in Israel. And we could no longer even fantasize that we were contributing to anything positive in Jewish history by the mere fact of living in Jerusalem. If anything, the reverse was true.

We wrenched our life up and out of Jerusalem, (now with three children), and returned to New York. But our family had been born in the spirit of those ideals that first brought us to Jerusalem. As it turned out when those ideals crashed and we turned away from them, our family crumbled as well. My wife and I divorced, and for many years it was as if our whole life in Jerusalem had been a dream.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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  • Continuous Transformations

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism and when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    For all their radicalism, the Kabbalists had avoided being consigned by more traditional rabbis to the status of heretics because they continued to accept the Revelation at Sinai and to observe the letter of the law. Just as Scholem’s own resistance on these points prevented his living as an Orthodox Jew, he felt that it was impossible for anyone to become a true kabbalist without faith in the irrefutable, Divine origins of Torah. In the absence of that authority, people had become “religious anarchists,” Scholem declared.

    However, because Scholem’s view of Judaism was dynamically metamorphic, he did not see the end of formal Kabbalah shutting off the energy that had enabled Jewish mysticism to play its crucial role in Jewish history. Instead, he suggested that this same catalytic power might now be channeled into new forms of Jewish self-expression. Kabbalah could be understood as a potent, mythological dramatization of the experience of Jewish exile. But Zionism sought to achieve the physical end of exile. In this sense, one might say that Zionism sought to accomplish on the ground what Kabbalah had tried to conceptualize on the cosmic plane. Thus Zionist action might be thought of as the next iteration of the Kabbalistic strain in Jewish history. If the career of the seventeenth-century false messiah (which Scholem saw as the last substantive interlude of formal Jewish mysticism) had helped catalyze Jewish emancipation in Europe, the Zionist pioneers would free the Jews from Europe. Once the Jews got to Jerusalem, the possibilities for Judaism as such to reveal new, as yet unimaginable, modes of creative expression would be actualized.

    Almost as soon as Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken. Over the next decade, as worsening conditions in Europe brought increasing Jewish immigration to the land, and reactionary forces under the leadership of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party gained power in the political arena—contributing also to the ideology of the Labor Party program—Scholem’s Zionist idealism underwent an almost total eclipse. To his horror, Scholem saw the same kind of jingoistic, bourgeois society forming around him in Jerusalem that he’d fled Germany to escape. In the midst of intensifying friction with the Arabs, Scholem helped form a group that worked to promote a binational solution in Palestine. But by 1932 this idealistic collective, too, had collapsed. Scholem’s original utopian Zionism became largely masked in his official identity as an internationally renowned humanist scholar, even while it continued to energize that project in a manner that echoed some of his thinking about what occurred to Kabbalah itself in mainstream Jewish history. He continued to elaborate on Kabbalah, on German-Jewish relations, and on the meaning of Israel relative to the Diaspora in ambitious books and essays for the remainder of his career. Striving to identify the integral, distinguishing character of Judaism he concentrated more and more on its boundless, protean quality. “Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence,” he declared in one late essay. Moreover, he added, if Judaism couldn’t be defined in any dogmatic way, one could “not assume that it possesses any a priori qualities that are intrinsic to it or might emerge in it; indeed, as an enduring and evolving historic force, Judaism undergoes continuous transformations.” In the future, he concluded, it would be “necessary to rethink Judaism in broader terms, and in much broader terms than those of halakhic Judaism… How will a Judaism that evolves in a society of Jews work without taking refuge in traditional forms of ritual or of theology? I am not a prophet, but I welcome the struggle… because it will call forth the productive powers—whatever they are—of Jews.”

    For many years, both consciously and unconsciously, my own life followed a kind of shadow-arc of Scholem’s path into Kabbalah and Zionism. Coming of age in America in the 1970s and ‘80s, I balked at what I saw as the culture’s dominant consumerist materialism, which the bellicose nationalism and merciless free market capitalism of the Reagan years only aggravated. My father, who escaped Austria after the Anschluss, had largely abandoned his Judaism to assimilate to life in the United States, which had given him refuge. But my own experience of the American suburbs left me with a lingering sense of absence—historical and spiritual. After moving to New York City in my early twenties, I began attending synagogue, learning Hebrew and studying the canon of Jewish sacred literature in pursuit of a spiritual counterpoint to that materialist vacuum. This deepening exploration of traditional Judaism occurred in tandem with the first years of my marriage, when my wife and I were thinking about starting our own family and about the sacred responsibility of bringing children into this world. What would we tell our children about God, faith and the meaning of existence we wondered.

    We spent a number of years exploring different synagogues and different branches of Judaism; but never found in ritual observance the kind of intense, spiritual engagement we longed for. Early on in this process, I discovered the work of Gershom Scholem, whose name I’d become familiar with through reading about Walter Benjamin. Scholem’s interpretation of Kabbalah supplied exactly the jolt of intellectual excitement and sense of imaginative fecundity that had been lacking from my experiences of formal Jewish practice. Kabbalah’s boldness as an audacious, sometimes sublime reading of Jewish sacred texts and history was inspiring to me as a writer, since Jewish mysticism made the magical power of language the active vehicle of God’s own creative principle.

    Exploring Scholem’s work and maintaining a loose involvement with a synagogue in Brooklyn, my wife Anne and I felt more and more inspired by Judaism. But we were no more able than Scholem had been to accept the absolute authority of the Revelation at Sinai. Orthodox practice still seemed foreign and stultifying.

    The question of how exactly we would take our Judaism to the next level began to haunt us. We wanted more from the religion in line with the dynamic principles Scholem elaborated from kabbalistic texts, but we knew we couldn’t actually become kabbalists, so where did that leave us?

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Louis Kahn’s Jewish parents, Beila-Rebeckah Mendelowitsch and Leib Schmulowsky, were married in 1900 in Livonia, the Russian-held province that before World War I encompassed Latvia and southern Estonia. Less than year later, in February of 1901, the future American architect was born there, either on a Baltic island or on the mainland nearby, under the name Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky. According to the rabbinical record, kept in both Russian and Hebrew—as all Jews had to be registered in that time and place—he was circumcised seven days after the birth. Upon his arrival five years later in Philadelphia, he was given a new name, Louis Isadore Kahn. While the new name retained the Jewish associations of his original Eastern European name, it made him sound classier and German-Jewish.

    It is not clear whether his first name was intended to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie"; from childhood onward he was known simply as Lou, and that was what everyone called him, including his colleagues, his employees, his relatives, and his lovers.

    Lou spent a total of one day in religious school (his mother snatched him out, apparently, after the teacher smacked him) and he was never bar mitzvahed. When he grew up, he married a Jewish girl, Esther Israeli, from a highly assimilated Philadelphia family. Their wedding was conducted by a rabbi, though Esther always insisted this was done solely for Kahn’s parents, since she would have preferred a secular wedding.

    Of Kahn’s three children, one was born to Esther and one each to two separate non-Jewish women with whom he carried on long-term love affairs: the architect Anne Tyng and the landscape architect Harriet Pattison, both of whom worked with him. (All three women knew about one another, as did all three children. The fact that Kahn had three families was a widely shared secret in the small-town Philadelphia of his time.) An additional significant love affair—though one that did not result in a pregnancy—was with another architect who worked for him, Marie Kuo; she was not Jewish, either.

    Some of his male friends were Jewish (though many were not); his favorite client was Jonas Salk, who, like him, was the child of Eastern European Jews. Kahn had what many people think of as a Jewish sense of humor: self-deprecating, ironic, intimate. Despite the severe scarring of his hands and face that resulted from a childhood accident, he carried himself confidently, as if he were comfortable in his own skin, and people—especially women—found him attractive. Some of this self-confidence can perhaps be attributed to his mother (now renamed Bertha Kahn), who in typical Jewish-mother fashion lavished a great deal of attention on her brilliant oldest son. Like many immigrant mothers, she husbanded the family's limited resources, but what she could spend, she spent on Lou. In somewhat less typical fashion, Bertha left him alone to find his own way through the poverty-stricken world of Philadelphia's Northern Liberties district. In later life, Kahn credited her with having "absolute confidence" in him.

    Kahn worked on several synagogue commissions in the course of his life, but his two greatest synagogue designs, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the Hurva in Jerusalem, were never built. Two of his most successful projects were a church (First Unitarian in Rochester) and a mosque (part of the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh). When he was hired to design the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Battery Park, he labeled its central glass pillar a "chapel"; the memorial was voted down by a committee of fifty prominent Jews. When working on the Mikveh Israel commission, Kahn wrote "Kaddish" and "kiddush" in the margins of one of his plans to remind himself of the different Hebrew terms; again, the synagogue membership ultimately rejected his plans. He apparently viewed all religions as essentially one, and though he was frequently described as a person of great spiritual depth, he did not practice any religion himself. He joined the Rabindranath Tagore Society in Philadelphia before embarking on major work on the Indian subcontinent, and he studied Islamic architecture before building the government center in Bangladesh.

    As an adult, Kahn never celebrated Jewish holidays, but he and Esther donated small sums, intermittently, to various Jewish causes; they also donated $1,000 to the Unitarians in 1961, when he was working on the church. His extended family, included Esther's sisters and cousins, celebrated Christmas every year at Kahn’s house.

    When he died suddenly in 1974, a rabbi he had never met was hired to conduct his funeral service—a decision made without his own involvement. Since his parents had both been buried by rabbis, people assumed he would have wanted that, too.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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