The ProsenPeople

Returning to Where It All Began

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flashback: Miami Beach, 1972

Wednesday, April 01, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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


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

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

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

And all were waiting for a second chance.

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

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


Democrats and Republicans in Convention in 1972

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

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

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


Jackie Gleason

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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