The ProsenPeople

Max Baer, Real and Imagined

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren shared his personal list of the Jewish sports heroes that made him feel more American. Jay is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I grew up during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the forties and fifties, and I rooted especially for the handful of their Jewish players: Cal Abrams, Al “Goodie” Rosen, Sandy Koufax, and third base coach, Jake Pitler. I also rooted for Jewish athletes who were prominent in other sports: football, basketball, wrestling, tennis, table tennis, and boxing.

In boxing, my great hero was Max Baer, who, though he wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, was only one quarter Jewish. His grandfather, of French-Jewish ancestry, was a butcher, and named his sons for the tribes of Israel. Max’s father, Jacob, was a butcher too, and his early education took place in Jewish schools.

Baer became a professional boxer in 1929. One year later, in a bout that scarred his heart forever, he knocked out a fighter named Frankie Campbell. Campbell, whose brother, Dolph Camilli, later became a star first-baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, never woke up, and died that night. Max was severely distraught, and in later years quietly put three of Campbell’s children through college.

In 1933, Baer, a contender for the heavyweight championship, fought against “Hitler’s boxer,” Max Schmeling, before more than 60,000 people, and it was for this fight—because of his anger at the news coming out of the Third Reich, and his pride in being part-Jewish—that he first put a Star of David on his boxing trunks, an emblem he would wear in every fight after that.

Schmeling was heavily favored, but Baer defeated him easily, and the referee stopped the fight in the tenth round, and awarded Baer the victory by technical knockout. But Baer, ever a showman, had his great moment just before the fight’s end. When he had Schmeling on the ropes, he called out, for all the newspaper reporters to hear: “This one’s for Hitler!” Then, in the lingo of the ring, he rang Max Schmeling’s bell.

One year later, Baer defeated Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship of the world. Again the showman, at the weighing-in ceremony, Baer began plucking hairs from Carnera’s chest. “He loves me . . . he loves me not,” Baer said. During the fight, when Carnera dragged Baer to the canvas with him, Baer called out, for all to hear: “Last one up’s a sissy.”

Baer lost the championship a year later to James Braddock, but continued to fight until 1941, when he enlisted in the Army. His lifetime record was 72 wins (more than 50 by knockout), and twelve defeats.

Baer was also a movie star, and appeared, opposite Myrna Loy, in his first movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady, in 1933, and in nearly two dozen movies after that, the last one, The Harder They Fall, with Humphrey Bogart, in 1956. He also played the vaudeville circuit, often with another Jewish fighter, one-time light heavyweight champion, “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom.

Max Baer had three children by his third wife (including Max Baer Jr., of Beverly Hillbillies fame), and affairs with many women, including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Mae West. He died at the age of 50.

Small wonder I was enchanted by this man, and by his wild, wonderful, and improbable life. And so I invited him to be a character in my novel, Max Baer and the Star of David. Although in the novel, all the data is accurate, the character of Baer is invented. I have also given Max two close friends: Horace and Joleen Littlejohn, a black couple—Horace as Max’s Man Friday and sparring partner; Joleen as Max’s housekeeper and tutor to his children—as well as a son, Horace Littlejohn Jr.

While non-fiction generally deals with the world of the probable, fiction deals with the world of the possible. Thus, a biography of Max Baer might aim to show us what his life was probably like, whereas my novel shows us what it might possibly have been but never was. The latitude and longitude of my novel true, but the life I’ve given to him is invented.

My hope is that the invented Max Baer of my novel will, for readers, be at least as real as if the real Max Baer had never existed.

Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, four collections of award-winning stories, and his most recent novel, Max Baer and the Star of David.

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My Jewish Heroes

Monday, March 28, 2016 | Permalink

With the recent release of his latest novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, Jay Neugeboren is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the years following World War II, the two great loves of my life were reading and play ball. I’d go to the library at least once a week, take out four books—the maximum number allowed—and read them, return them, and take out four new books. When I was eight years old, I wrote my first novel—a 70-page book about a family of pigs (decidedly un-kosher, my boyhood imagination, since we observed kashruth in my home) that my mother typed out for me, and from which I read a new chapter every Monday morning to my fourth grade class.

When not reading, I spent as much time as I could playing ball. I lived during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams, and within walking distance of Ebbets Field, and so I got to see my heroes—Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella—play several times a year.

And at least equal to the Dodgers were great Jewish athletes, living and dead, I read about, and by reading about them could believe it possible for a Jewish boy not only to become a star athlete, but while doing honor to his heritage also become famous in a world where Jews could generally go as far as their talent and hard work could take them and, thus, become more truly American.

The list was long, and frequently had personal connections. In baseball: Hank Greenberg, who refused to play on Yom Kippur, and married the daughter of the family that owned the Gimbels department store; Andy Cohen, the first Jewish player on the New York Giants; Saul Rogovin; Al “Goodie” Rosen, who played for the Dodgers, but wasn’t as good as future Hall of Famer Al Rosen; Moe Berg, the first cousin of a friend who lived two houses away from me; Sid Gordon, who—what I could never understand—lived a few blocks away yet played for our National League enemy, the New York Giants.

In basketball: Dolph Schayes, Max Zaslofsky, Sid Tannenbaum—three All-Americans who played across the bridge at NYU—Nat Holman, and Lou Bender, who starred for the greatest team of its era, The Original Celtics.

In football: Sid Luckman, who went to Erasmus, went on to be All-American at Columbia, after which he starred for the Chicago Bears and is usually credited with “inventing” the forward pass; Benny Friedman; Sid Gillman; Marshall Goldberg; and Al Sherman, a left-handed quarterback who enrolled at Brooklyn College at 15, and though he was only five foot six and 145 pounds, went on to play in the NFL, and to coach the New York Giants.

In tennis: Herb Flam, Allen Fox, Grant Golden, Mike Franks, Sid Schwartz (an Erasmus grad who visited my gym class), and Dick Savitt, a National Indoor and Wimbledon champion who, at 89, still plays once or twice a week on the same New York City public courts I visit.

There were others: Sidney Franklin, in bullfighting, who went to Eastern District High School, in Brooklyn, with my father; Marty Glickman, who played professional football and basketball, and was removed at the last minute from the United States relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because he was Jewish; Henry Wittenberg, winner of two Olympic medals in wrestling; Viktor Barna and Richard Miles, international and United States champions for many years in table tennis; Vic Hershkowitz, who won fiteen consecutive handball championships.

And then there were the Jewish boxers who dominated boxing in the first half of the twentieth century. The list included champions at virtually every weight level: Abe Attell, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, “Kid” Kaplan, Al McCoy (real name: Al Rudolph), “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, “Battling” Levinksky, Ted “Kid” Lewis, and of course, the man who loomed so large in my imagination as a boy that I wrote a novel about him: Max Baer.

Baer wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and the first time he did so was in 1933 when, at Yankee Stadium he defeated “Hitler’s boxer” Max Schmeling. Baer went on to become heavyweight champion of the world, and to an extraordinary life that exists within the fictional world I’ve created in Max Baer and the Star of David.

Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories.

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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5776

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on last year's list, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5776.

1. The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Though the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri

One of the most compelling contemplations of faith—a thoroughly Jewish faith, and the faith of a writer in his own work—which might be the same thing—to fly under the radar, Avi Steinberg’s sophomore memoir is as profound as its premise is bizarre. To study Joseph Smith’s life and legacy is, for Steinberg, a refreshing reflection on the Hebrew Bible, our hero’s childhood in Jerusalem, the nostalgia for belief of his youth.

2. The Book of Numbers: A Novel

Joshua Cohen’s brilliantly unsettling imitates-life bend of fiction hits full force with his latest novel. Playing with science fiction, technology, and identity crisis The Book of Numbers traces the rambling paths of contemporary quests for forgiveness and redemption that emerge when titan of the Digital Age contracts a freelancer who shares his name to write his biography, all in Cohen’s signature engrossing, thoroughly Jewish-postmodern voice.

3. Made in Detroit: Poems

Marge Piercy dedicates an entire section of her nineteenth collection of poetry to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the turn of the Jewish year in stirring imagery and recurring meditations on family, love, and wishes and failure to be better next year.

Apples and honey for the new year
but you are my year round sweet
apple. The apple of my eye, apple
of temptation and delight. My honey:

I was never truly happy before you.
I was never truly whole before you.

4. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and
the Trial of the Nazis

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, revisited in Tim Townsend’s riveting account of U.S. Army chaplain Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran clergyman assigned to minister to the Protestant defendants tried and imprisoned in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice following World War II. The story is a fascinating history of America’s military chaplaincy, the Lutheran Church and its mission in the United States, and the jurisprudential and journalist community encouched in postwar Germany—as well as a compelling biography of Gerecke and a respectful examination of the members of his flock awaiting condemnation. Besides being my go-to recommendation for a nonfiction read, Mission at Nuremberg is a fascinating study of confronting evil, religious compassion, and the impossible question of what redemption means for the Nazi arbiters of the Holocaust.

5. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined
House in France

Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir of rooting about her family history in attempts to uncover the secret that separated her grandparents half a century ago is a reflective work of self-discovery and rumination on reconciliation. Get a taste of the book and its author with Miranda’s Visiting Scribe posts on questioning Holocaust survivors about their past and the “madeleine moments” she shares with and observed in her grandfather.

6. After Abel and Other Stories

A richly provocative perspective to carry in rereading the Torah afresh starting next week, Michal Lemberger’s collection of nine heartbreaking stories imagines the experience of the women of the Bible, translating their traditional depictions as virtuous, villainous, or simply present into human actions and responses to the experiences and events they witness without voice in the original text. Also a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople, Michal shared her fascination with the story of Lot’s Wife, the narrative struggle of turning King David into a villain, and what the Lifetime adaptation of The Red Tent got wrong with the Jewish Book Council “way back” in 5775.

7. Thresholds: How to Thrive through Life's Transitions to Live a Fearlessly and Regret-Free Life

The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of transition in the Jewish year and within. If you’re looking to embrace this moment of spiritual transmigration beyond the customary liturgy and ritual practices, embark on the personal examination of self in time and place with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch’s mindful guide to discovery.

8. Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker

Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering present a graphic narrative of the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican marrano Benji Melendez to establish a truce between the warring gangs of the Bronx. Alongside Melendez’s discovery of his crypto-Jewish heritage and return to the hidden religion of his ancestors, Ghetto Brother is an absorbing true story of unlikely reconciliation and the birth of Hip Hop.

9. How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

Certainly you recognize David Gregory from his career as a former NBC newsman and Meet the Press moderator, but you might not know how his strong Jewish identity instilled from his upbringing developed into belief over the course of a decade of study with an Orthodox Jewish scholar. Prompted by a question from George W. Bush during David’s assignment as chief White House correspondent, How’s Your Faith? considers the “ Unlikely Spiritual Journey” from one of television journalism’s most recognized faces.

10. Days of Awe: A Novel

You name your book Days of Awe, it pretty much has to be on this list. While the novel does not overtly address the Ten Days, it spins around themes of past wrongs, forgiveness, and the rending process of beginning anew. One of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribes over the Ten Days of Awe 5776, read Lauren Fox’s entries on The ProsenPeople here.

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Interview: Jay Neugeboren

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

I recently had an opportunity to speak with veteran author Jay Neugeboren by phone for Jewish Book Council. This was appropriate because the ability “to conjure up the seen from the unseen” is the premise of his newest book, The American Sun and Wind Moving Picture Company, about a family making motion pictures in the years from 1915 to 1930; a proffered Skype interview wouldn’t have worked as well for a discussion of the work of this author who was a child and teen radio actor at the New York Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, in the Brooklyn of his youth. As in this newest novel, Neugeboren’s twentieth book, the author’s voice and storytelling ability carried our conversation. This is an abridged account of our discussion.

Beth Kissileff: Where do your stories come from?

Jay Neugeboren: The answer is—who knows? No particular source. That’s a question I am always asking. The stories always seem to be there waiting for me, though sometimes shrouded in mist and fog.

I grew up in Brooklyn during and after World War II, so some things are set in that milieu, and sometimes things that have actually happened in my life become transformed into fiction. But beyond that, I have no answer. Just as Irving Berlin made up new songs, and always seemed to have a new melody waiting, so with ideas and notions that are there for me, and eventually they become stories. They are not full-blown at first, but I know enough to begin, and find out the rest while I write. For me, part of the process lies in solving mysteries—in unlayering what is at first unknown to me.

In order to know about the lives of my characters and their ancestors, I had to create them.

In the early days of film—what we call silent films—they worked without scripts. There is a wonderful childlike wonder to that for me—a sense of 'let’s pretend.' As in 'I’m a mother, you’re a father, I have a dog—or a barn—so let’s make a movie.'

BK: How much research did you do for this book? There is such a wealth of detail in the novel about so many aspects of the early movie making process and I wonder how much of it is based in fact.

JN: I did not know a lot about the silent film era, and UMass-Amherst [where Neugeboren taught for many years] has an extensive library on film. I spent six to eight months watching movies and reading, lots. I read Anita Loos, biographies of D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, the 1001 Nights, Kevin Brownell (a film critic). I did my homework. I was fascinated by the technical aspects [of how films were made], and in the novel, for example, I make use of the fact that they edited films in the camera, cranking backwards and filming a scene again.

Like the proverbial hem of the skirt, I hope all my research doesn’t show. I try to let the research—the detail—serve the story.

BK: Since you are so fascinated by the movie-making process why did you write this as a novel, not a screenplay, since you have written screenplays too?

JN: The novel is my first love. I’ve written screenplays on occasion, mainly to get my kids through college, but things come to me in their particular forms or genres. This story said: “I am a novel.”

A novel, for me, relies on my imagination to inspire your (the reader’s) imagination. It is not all there for you. My novels or my stories come to me visually. I use words—what else?—to translate the novel I see inside my head into words that I hope will create a movie inside your head. A movie can evoke feelings, thoughts, it is all there and happening, there is no control over the images when you are watching a movie. You are transported for three hours to a world where you see real people. In a novel it is private—there’s only you, and words on pages. The landscape is in your mind and in your feelings. I hope this novel does for others what stories and novels did for me when I was a boy—I hope, that is, it will allow you to become lost in a world totally unlike the actual world we live in.

I work hard to make the words evoke particular images, thoughts, feelings, the mystery of relationships.

The American & Wind Moving Picture Company is made up of six sections—six separate films, six woodcuts—and I tried to pare everything down to essentials, to carve a book with words, and then to compress, compress, compress—so that the effect is stark, and the scenes are as vivid as dreams.

BK: What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

JN: I grew up at Shaare Torah synagogue in Brooklyn and I would run the Saturday morning services when I was in college. One day the rabbi, Joseph Miller, called me in. He asked me to consider the rabbinate, and said that he would see that I would be supported financially. I thought about it, but I wanted to be a writer. Being a pulpit rabbi and a writer is rough, though it can be done. My rabbi from Northampton [Massachusetts, where Neugeboren is a past president of Congregation B’nai Israel], Phil Graubart, is a marvelous writer.

I didn’t feel a calling for it—it should be a calling, really—the way writing is for me. The rabbinate should be a calling, and not simply a way to earn a living.

BK: What helped you write this book?

JN: Joey’s voice. Once I found that, I was home free.

BK: What do you take pride in as a writer?

JN: As a writer I am proud that if you took my last four books, and they didn’t have my name on them, I don’t think readers would know they were by the same author. The same with this novel. I think what I am making is an object that has a life and identity of its own, apart from me.

There is nothing wrong with a writer who has a distinct style in book after book, but I am not interested in repeating myself.

BK: Why do you write?

JN: I remain curious about all the lives I can’t have—and about the lives of others, real and imagined, past and present, and how people came to be who they are . . . and who they might yet be. I am enchanted by the landscape of possibility.

Read more about Jay Neugeboren here. 

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under consideration for publication and she is working on a second novel and volume of short stories.

Places Never Seen

Friday, February 22, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren wrote about the title story of his third collection and the art of silence. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?

The answer: No . . .

And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army—the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).

I had never been to the Soviet Union.

The list of writers who have written about places they’ve never been to is long and impressive, beginning with Shakespeare (his many plays set in Italy: Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, etc.), and includes, for starters, Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King, set in Africa, which Bellow had never visited), Franz Kafka (Amerika, set on our shores, which Kafka never saw), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, an imaginary dialogue set in China between Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo). And Shakespeare, I note, never met a Jew, for they were banished from England during his lifetime, yet he created Shylock.

William Saroyan, a splendid novelist and story writer, once did a travel piece for Esquire magazine about Mexico City. After the article appeared, his editor at Esquire called to tell him that several readers had written to the magazine saying they could not find some of the places Saroyan mentioned in the article. Had Saroyan visited them? “You asked me to write about Mexico City,” Saroyan replied. “You didn’t say I had to go there.” And of course there are the thousands of historical novels—novels that try to portray historical periods and figures by fictionalizing them—as opposed to what writers like Bellow, Calvino, Shakespeare, McMurtry, Charyn, Chabon, Laxness, Dickens, and others have done, which is to re-imagine historical periods and figures.

But why, in novels and stories, should writing about a place you’ve never been to be any different than writing about imaginary people you’ve never known? Or about historical figures you’ve never met (e.g., E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc)?

The great joy for me as a writer of fiction is to be able to go anywhere in time and place, and to be anyone. In my next novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (March 2013), I’ll start out as a twelve-year-old boy in the year 1915 who, on a frozen lake in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is about to play the part of a young girl in a (silent) film his family is making. And the novel I am at work on now is told by a black man, born in Louisiana at the beginning of the twentieth century, who becomes close friend and “Man Friday” to the heavyweight champion, Max Baer, who famously, and in my novel, strode into the ring at Yankee Stadium on August 6, 1933, proudly wearing a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and proceeded to knock out a former heavyweight champion of the world, “Hitler’s Boxer,” Max Schmeling. And after that, I’ll probably be . . . 

Jay's newest book, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, will be published in March. Visit his official website here.

A Rabbi’s Tale

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren wrote about the art of silence. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:

When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline. 

I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life—I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile. The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the twentieth century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)

But many years before this, when the story was a manuscript, I had shown it to our B’nai Israel rabbi, Philip Graubart, himself a marvelous novelist and short story writer. Philip and I were friends, and I asked him to take a look at it, especially because in the story I had detailed a day in Rabbi Saul Gewirtz’s life. In that single day, Rabbi Gewirtz is attacked by a man with AIDS, who spits on the rescued Torah, and accuses the rabbi of being a heartless unforgiving God and smug Jewish doctor rolled into one; he is sexually assaulted and cursed by a female congregant with whom he had once had an affair; he is harangued by a Russian Jewish emigré whose children despise him, and whose wife has left him, and who, weeping away, asks the rabbi why God plays jokes with honest men.

They came and they went: a lesbian couple whose adopted daughter, not yet a year old, was afflicted with leukemia; an Israeli man of seventy-eight whose divorced wife was dying in Israel and who wanted to go there and ask her forgiveness, but was terrified of flying and fearful that his ex-wife would die before he arrived; a fifty-year-old stockbroker, whose father, eighty-three years old and a survivor of Buchenwald, had Alzheimer’s, was perpetually incontinent, refused to wear diapers or to live in a nursing home, and so was sitting day and night in his own piss and shit in the son’s home; a brother and sister, fourteen and fifteen years old, who, victims of a joint custody arrangement in which they stayed in a house that their mother and father took turns visiting, had begun having sex with one another . . .

And on and on it went.

Rabbi Graubart called me a few days later, and suggested we have lunch together. I was nervous—worried he had taken the story personally, and had been offended—but when, at lunch, I asked him what he thought of the story, he said he loved it. When I asked him what he thought of the rabbi’s day, and of the people who came and went from the rabbi’s study, he smiled.

“It seemed like a typical day in my life,” he said.

And then he laughed.

Jay's newest book, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, will be published in March. Visit Jay's official website here.

The Art of Silence

Monday, February 18, 2013 | Permalink
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 20 books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories. His most recent books are The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (March 2013) and The Other Side of the World (December 2012). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.

During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.

Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:

I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.

What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.

In The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey is forced into exile, and we follow his cross-country adventures in both time and space—from New Jersey to Wisconsin to California, and from 1915 to 1930. He arrives in Los Angeles at a time when silent movies are giving way to ‘talkies,’ and where his uncle Karl, who directed the family’s movies when Joey was a boy, has become a major producer and director in Hollywood. In the novel’s final chapter, Joey and Joey and Karl sit on a mountain top and look down at a desert that has been the setting for a great battle the day before for the uncle’s cast-of-thouands production of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And what do these two men do when they look down upon a scene of horrific devastation? It is the end of the Sabbath, and they talk about the sermon they heard in synagogue that morning—they talk about King David and King Solomon, and about God’s ways, and about why it is the rabbis say that on the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.

Visit Jay Neugeboren's official website here.