Sunday, August 6, 2006
Francis comes off as a rapist in this story, which must be ranked as the definitive piece on Joe.
I suspect Claire is cute and charming. Francis must've become enamored with her and pushed things over the edge.
Israel's Pathetic Leadership
Heidi Peterson - Slave to the Arabs
A source writes August 4, 2006:
Sexual Predator Rabbi Ben-Zion Sobel Saves The Children From Hezbollah
Could you name another country that's been bombed and invaded and reacted more weakly? Certainly not England. England and the Allies were thrilled to firebomb Dresden killing thousands of civilians. I think Israel, if anything, has been too restrained. I believe Israel should try to wipe out Hezbollah. Countries and people who nurture terrorists, such as the Lebanese with Hezbollah, as with the Afghans and Al Qaeda, will have to pay a price.
James writes me:
The Ohel Tragedy
A source says: "I knew Ohel was a tragically odd place in Borough Park where kids without foster homes lived; there were mandatory groups of kids from Ohel in alot of the Orthodox summer camps, which contributed to the surreal quality of that experience (not the kids' fault, but there was never adequate social work support to integrate them properly). So it doesn't surprise me that bad stuff happened, though I'm guessing that's probably a fixture of homes like that."
'Soothing Social Inequities'
Melvin Bukiet writes in Neurotica: "Sex, like religion, is a placating power that dissolves social inequities."
While theoretically there's nothing immoral about consenting sex between adults, and theoretically it can all seem very soothing, in my experience promiscuity breeds anarchy and destruction.
In my view, the sexual revolution has done more to exacerbate social inequities than anything. In our hyper-sexualized society where men (and the minority of women who want to pursue sex as a prize in itself) are free to follow their predatory instincts, social anarchy results with children born out of wedlock, relationships dissolving in vicious recriminations (frequently blogged so that both parties are tarnished) that would not have happened if sex weren't so easy, men and women stray from their marriages or avoid commitment to see if something better is coming along.
Religion as I've witnessed it has disciplined people to commit to each other and to behave (and dress) modestly so that sexuality is tamped down and that tiger is leashed. My life is chaotic to the extent that I don't observe my religion.
P.S. I've never read a story about faculty-student sex that has not thrilled me. I can't think of any scenario more erotic.
Not sure what that says about me.
Much of my greatest fun (over the course of my long life) has come from pretending to be my girlfriend's (not speaking of any one in particular) professor and she acts as though she's my bad student.
My biggest weakness is my susceptibility to the wiles of attractive young women.
All Clear! Pico Blvd Closed For A Couple Of Hours From Livonia To Robertson Due To Tisha B'Av Bomb Scare
A bomb squad was called out to examine a suitcase chained to a street sign on Pico Blvd. Pictures.
Everything is OK.
A few months ago, Pico was closed at the same spot because of an attempted bank robbery at the Wells Fargo.
Around the same time, a car crashed onto a sidewalk beside a synagogue around noon on a Saturday. A few minutes before, the sidewalk was filled with Jews exiting shul. Nobody was hurt.
During the end of Yom Kippur, 2001, a car ran down the sidewalk next to Pico Blvd just east of Robertson. Nobody but the driver was hurt (he'd had a heart attack) but shuls in the neighborhood were evacuated in case it was part of some attack.
There have been numerous shootings, murders and robberies in the area east of Robertson (both in the past month and over the past few years).
Every synagogue in America (with more than a hundred members) has at least one security guard on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays.
I went to church at least once a week for the first 18 years of my life and I never remember any church needing to post security guards.
Pico-Robertson is the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy in Los Angeles though there's been a growing influx of more traditional Jews into the neighborhood.
'So What Do You Do With This Cosmic Responsibility?'
Melvin Bukiet writes in his book Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendents of Jewish Holocaust Survivors:
In the PBS special Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Bukiet says:
How depressing. It is one thing to suffer, but suffering without meaning is the worst. Yet Bukiet can find no lessons in the Holocaust nor in anything because he has a fundamentally secular view of life. A secular life is circular. It doesn't go anywhere except to annihilation. Judaism says history must go forward to the Messian age. That Jews are God's chosen people, a pilot project for humanity, who are to embody ethical monotheism.
In Bukiet's secular worldview, nothing makes you free because all we are are atoms, bio-chemistry, and learned survival instincts. Only if there is a God who gives us a soul is there free will, meaning and the opportunity for redemption through good works.
Bukiet calls Second Generation Holocaust writers "viciously unredemptive."
What about the children of other genocides such as the Armenian or Ukrainian or Cambodian or the Chinese?
Bukiet presented one of his novels to German chancellor Hermut Kohl. Melvin signed it 108016, his father's camp number.
I find the following the most revelative story about Melvin Jules Bukiet (in his own words from the book Nothing Makes You Free, pg. 18-19):
In the dedication to his collection Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex, Melvin writes:
Melvin replies to my inquiry: "Luke, Jill thought the dedication was charming since it implied that she could theoretically have an exotic other life. No word from the kids; they know to expect any outrage from their father. As for difference, it's shabby because adoption is a beautiful thing, but I wanted my blood cascading down through the ages."
Los Angeles Public Library Now Carries My Book
I've got two books in that system and I didn't make a peep on behalf of either of them.
In his short story, "Paper Hero," Melvin Bukiet writes: "...[A] journalist's fame lasts until the dog needs walking while the novelist's lasts forever."
I email the Editor of the Jewish Journal: "Rob: Do you read much fiction about Jewish life? I'm interviewing a bunch of Jewish novelists and developing the thesis that they aren't doing enough research and reporting... That perhaps the best books on Jewish life now are non-fiction."
A friend replies:
I Want To Be Swept Away
When I read a story, I want to be swept away.
For that to happen, I usually need:
* Linear scene-by-scene construction.
Much of the best writing on Jewish life comes from such works of non-fiction as The New Rabbi (Stephen Fried), Stephen Bloom's Postville, Jew vs. Jew (Samuel Friedman) as well as Robert J. Avrech's novel for kids -- The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden.
Jewish novelists don't do enough research to make their work compelling. I just finished Melvin Jules Bukiet's realistic novel Strange Fire (a Brokeback Mountain story set amongst Israel's political elite) which is overwhelmingly linear and composed in scenes, just as I like it, and yes the sentences are often smart and witty and it's all very literary, but the details of Israeli life aren't sharp and true enough. It needed more realistic status details. I wanted to experience more "Ah ha!" moments.
If Melvin wanted his protagonist to be more convincing, he should've turned gay for a few weeks and done the hard work necessary for sublime art.
On August 2nd, Bukiet told me: "The novel I'm working on now is set in Washington D.C. I know nothing about Washington D.C. and its political culture. Any Washington insider will know my novel is entirely bogus. But I'm not writing for that elite audience of Washington insiders. If I can truly create the Washington of my mind... Some of my books are set in Germany where I've never set foot. I did no research. It was the Germany of my mind. I don't distinguish between imagination and experience. If anything, imagination seems more real. If I get my Washington correct, I will feel successful and will be able to communicate it to someone else."
Strange Fire was too damn cynical. I didn't care about any of the characters. Perhaps I'm homophobic, but it puts me off my supper to read about a deformed old man who wants to bugger boys.
Publishers Weekly liked Strange Fire because P.W. likes nothing better than a good buggering. My first book was slammed in P.W. for, among other things, not writing about gay porn (and for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Jews).
Have there been any bestselling novels with a homosexual as the protagonist? My hunch is that most heterosexuals are not into reading about the sexual adventures and libidinous desires of gays.
I remember how funny Allegra Goodman was in her first collection of short stories (The Family Markowitz) and how dull she's become since she's turned to churning out refined novels.
Are There Good Muslims?
On his radio show this week, Dennis Prager said that of course there are good Muslims but that doesn't matter. Good Muslims don't influence Islamic life. The bad guys are in charge. When a society becomes more Islamic, it tends to become crueler.
My new blog and a worthy project for Your Moral Leader.
I'm On The Radio
Jews observe Tisha B'Av in different ways. For instance, I'll spend much of the day mourning the destruction of the temples by doing radio interviews on Mel Gibson including one in Montreal, one in Lansing (Michigan) and one in Canberra (Australia).
Measuring The Hotness Of Chicks By Distance From Combat
During the recent war in the Middle East, I've been watching a lot of cable TV news. I've noticed that the plainest chicks are on the front lines and the hottest chicks are far away from combat. Is that evolutionary biology at work?
I Hate David Mamet
I don't even have a choice in how I react to his work. My body instinctively recoils from anything he touches. Today I saw the movie Edmond. It was loathsome.
Off The Record With Melvin Jules Bukiet
We had a nice chat Wednesday that was off the record. Then I successfully begged him to let me use the following approximation:
Luke: Pearl Abraham's The Seventh Beggar. For 70 pages, she had a ripping good story. Then she went nuts.
Melvin: I appreciate the nutsiness of it. It's courageous. Her publisher would probably have preferred it if she had done The Romance Reader VII. She goes off into this mystical etherium that I'm not capable of understanding but I admire her for the flight.
Luke: Only a tiny intellectual elite are going to follow that.
Steve Stern can tell a good story but his novels aren't linear and he always gets crazy trying to imitate Yiddish in his English.
Melvin: That's where the fun is.
Luke: Only an elite is going to find that fun. Nobody's going to buy him.
Melvin: Who buys anyone? We live in a post-aural culture.
Luke: He could tell a commercial story. Why write English like its Yiddish? He primarily reads Yiddish in translation so his Yiddish thing seems faux.
Melvin: It's where the spark is.
Where does authenticity come from? The novel I'm working on now is set in Washington D.C. I know nothing about Washington D.C. and its political culture. Any Washington insider will know my novel is entirely bogus. But I'm not writing for that elite audience of Washington insiders. If I can truly create the Washington of my mind... Some of my books are set in Germany where I've never set foot. I did no research. It was the Germany of my mind. I don't distinguish between imagination and experience. If anything, imagination seems more real. If I get my Washington correct, I will feel successful and will be able to communicate it to someone else.
Luke: You'll feel successful but you're not going to communicate it to a lot of other people...
Melvin: Most people don't have experience in Washington either.
Luke: I know but if they read a novel about Washington they will want to feel like...
Melvin: If I convey my vision, it will feel true even if it bares little resemblance to the real Washington. I had a student who wrote a story about what it was like to experience a forest fire. I had no idea whether he had spent summers fighting forest fires or just made it all up. If you convey emotional truth... Emotional truth is necessary. The rest...
Luke: That's not going to work for a large number of readers.
Melvin: It will if you get the emotional truth out. Was Dostoevsky a murderer? No. Was he able to create Raskolnikov? Yes. Was Flaubert a female? No. But Madame Bovary...
Luke: Why wouldn't you go to Washington D.C. and do research?
Melvin: I may a little bit. I'm lazy. I'm more interested in writing than research.
Luke: Because my background is in journalism and your background is in literature, maybe that's why we differ.
I'm thinking of these mega-best sellers by Tom Wolfe, you feel like you are in Atlanta, New York and Duke University.
Melvin: I think you are right in terms of best sellers. Best sellers often fulfill a non-fictional purpose. They tell you what it is really like behind the scenes at a movie studio or a modeling agency... But it's not necessarily art. That speaks to the sad literalism and lack of faith in the American readership.
Luke: You're blaming the reader.
Melvin laughs. "And the culture. I'll blame anyone."
Disturbing Facts About Life
As you grow up, you learn disturbing truths about life. One I've been hearing of late is that almost all married couples I know love their kids more than each other. (Molly Jong-Fast)
Another I've heard from writers is that almost all of them would rather write a great novel than have a great marriage.
As someone who's never been married and never been in a relationship as long as a year, I've always thought a great marriage was the greatest achievement a person could hope for.
Wednesday, August 2, 2006 LOS ANGELES (Wireless Flash) – Mel Gibson’s recent drunken diatribe against Jews is having a negative effect on the social life of an Australian Jew who lives in Los Angeles.
Luke Ford, an entertainment journalist and convert to orthodox Judaism, admits that ever since word of Gibson's anti-Semitic comments leaked out, he's had to deal with friends telling him that "all Aussies are ignorant ex- convicts."
It doesn't help Ford that Gibson's comments aren't a one-time thing. He says he has friends who worked on "Braveheart" who tell him that the director went off a tirade against the Jews while on set.
Despite the furor over Gibson's comments, Ford doubts that it will affect the actor's standing in Hollywood because, as he puts it, "Most Jews in Hollywood are not at all religious and tend to worship the God of money rather than the one in "The Bible.""
Although Ford is having to shoulder abuse because of the antics of his fellow Aussie, he has nothing to say to the actor. In his words, "What do you say to an alcoholic who falls off the wagon? You really can't until they choose to help themselves."
Novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet Part Two
Melvin leaves me a message at 9:20 a.m., Aug. 1. "Luke, I don't know if you've come to realize anything about me yet but I've come to learn something about you."
I call him back. "What have you learned about me?"
Melvin, who has a strong clear professorial voice: "Suddenly, the nature of your inquiries has come together. The first manner in which you identified yourself was as a convert. I think you're trying to get us -- me, Steve [Stern], Pearl [Abraham], whoever, to justify your faith."
This makes me examine myself. Until now, everything had been so easy. Now I turn my faith round and round in my mind and examine my assumptions through the steely gaze of reason. Finally, I come to the conclusion that I believe in Dennis Prager.
Is that so wrong?
I want to abandon my work, lie on my floor, and have my back rubbed by a chick while we listen to Pragerradio.com. You can catch all of the great man's shows without commercial interruption.
I'd like to think I inspired it.
Melvin and I chat about the Holocaust.
Melvin: "I've noticed a change [in the past decade] in the way people respond to all things connected to the Holocaust. I think they're getting tired of the Holocaust. It's connected with Israel and events in the Middle East. As people grew frustrated with Israel, those feelings moved backwards to all things Jewish and Jewish suffering... The Holocaust and the [birth] of Israel are inextricably linked in people's minds and in historical fact."
Luke: Tell me about Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex.
Melvin: "It was just a joke. I was on the phone with my agent about ten years ago. She tells me about some anthology she sold -- black women on romance. I glibly said, 'Jews have sex too. What about that?' She said, 'Melvin, you should do that.' I kept joking. 'What would we call it? Neurotica?'
"A lightbulb went on over her head. She said, yes, yes, yes. Give me a proposal. She bugged me for months for a proposal. I had never done a proposal in my life. Finally, to shut her up, I spent about 45 minutes one afternoon knocking out three or four pages of nonsense, thinking I would finally put it to bed.
"Two days later, the thing was at auction.
"She hated the original title -- 'The Dirty Jew.'"
Luke: "Is she Jewish?"
Melvin: "I enjoyed it because I think of myself as the most chaste writer in the country. I never use dirty words. My idea of sex scenes is laughable."
Luke: "I wanted to call my memoir 'The Kinky Kike.'"
"How is it different when Jews have sex and when the goyim have sex?"
Melvin: "We think about it more."
On his Neurotica book tour, Bukiet was often asked about the Jewish male's fascination with shiksas. One the last leg of his tour, he blurted out: "They've been f---ing us for thousands of years. We just want to know what it is like once."
Luke: "How has having kids affected your writing?"
Melvin: "It's affected my soul which affects my writing. It's made me a mench."
Luke: "Do you think the novel's a bourgeois medium whose primary purpose is entertainment?"
Melvin: "No. I think the novel's a theological medium. We can make worlds too. The novel's primary aim is to create."
"I don't like the tough on the outside, soft on the inside image but..."
Luke: "It's true."
Melvin: "I'm capable of generosity but I admire [some expressions of] hatred. Outrage pleases me. Loose canon might not be an inappropriate term. One friend says the reason he's willing to see me again is that at some point I'm willing to say anything."
Luke: "You have a reputation for being a bit difficult, even nasty."
Melvin laughs. "Yes. So? Is ease a virtue? The things I'm nasty about deserve it.
"I'm not very good when I see weakness. Weakness frightens me."
Luke: "How do you determine what is right and wrong?"
Melvin: "You're asking a philosophical question that is beyond me to answer."
Luke: "Don't you wish that there was something wrong with gratuitous human cruelty other than that you don't like it?"
Melvin: "Yes, I do think there is something wrong beyond that I don't like it but I'm not smart enough to propound a system that could find it wrong."
Luke: "Has anything happened in the past twenty years that's made you think you don't understand the world around you?"
Melvin: "The World Trade Center made me think that I understand the world too well. That this is what I had been expecting. This is the shape of the future. I wish I was wrong."
Luke: "How would you feel if your kids intermarried?"
Melvin: "Less upset than I would've been two years and four months ago when I would've been upset on my father's behalf. He would have been devastated. The pain it would've brought him would've been excruciating to me.
"I do believe that Judaism is deeply engraved in my children's souls. Whether they will feel an obligation to make a match with someone who also has it ingrained, I'm not sure. Certainly it would be better to marry a smart, funny rich person than a bland suburban Jew."
"Dara Horn's theological Judaism is evident on every single page. That isn't there for me, but the historical cultural awareness has helped to make me who I am.
"What depresses me [about Jewish life]? Not much. I'm clearly ambivalent about Judaism but I like Jews."
Luke: "Are you a good person and a good Jew?"
Someone leaves a message on Melvin's answer machine.
Melvin: "Oh God. She's such a dope. Let her leave her message. Maybe she'll leave us alone now."
Luke: "Let me press you on the good Jew bit."
Melvin: "I don't think that going to shul is the definition of a good Jew. Fulfilling oneself and awareness of the world around one defines oneself as a good person. What makes one a good Jew is if one embodies Judaism, an incorporation into oneself of a long-enduring ethos."
Luke: "How is that ethos different than any other Western ethos?"
Melvin: "Created out of a different history. Jewish tragedy has shaped Jewish consciousness. Although all people have suffered. I don't want to compare suffering which is clearly repugnant, but I think we have the crown. It has happened to us more continuously, continuously enough to define us. The Irish potato famine? They know it happened but they don't fear it will happen again."
Luke: "What do Jews have to teach the world?"
Melvin: "I'm not sure I buy the 'light unto the nations' concept. We're just obliged to be holy."
Luke: "What's Daphne Merkin like?"
Melvin: "Daphne's loony. Really smart. She's deeply conflicted. Paradoxical.
"I ended up hanging out for several hours with Daphne and her mom. I can imagine no other sophisticated adult who would be so at ease with sitting on a sidewalk for three hours. Her life is an open book for all the stupid things that life consists off. She's parlayed her flaws into virtues."
A friend calls: "Luke, call me. That Chofetz Chaim [yeshiva] thing is true. They are a bunch of f---ing weirdos of the worst variety. They don't know even learn Torah. They learn other s---."
Bob writes back:
Mel Gibson and the Jews
A friend calls. "I've been telling people for years that Mel Gibson hates the Jews. I had a friend who worked on Braveheart with him. He would go through tirades about Jews. He was not a nice person to work for either."
Melvin writes for American Scholar magazine:
We talk by phone Monday, July 31, 2006.
Luke: "I'm rolling tape. I want to ask you some questions."
Melvin: "OK. But first, who are you? Where are you? What are you doing? Why are you doing it?"
Luke: "I live in Los Angeles. I'm a convert to Judaism. I have most of the characteristics of the convert. I should've majored in English Literature. My mother wanted me to."
Melvin: "You're making it up at a late stage in life."
Luke: "I wanted to be tougher. I majored in Economics."
Melvin: "I admire that."
Luke: "Once I started studying Calculus and immersed myself in math, I lost the ability to write creatively."
Melvin: "I'm not sure it necessarily follows."
Luke: "Let's just say..."
Melvin: "It occurred even though there wasn't necessarily a cause and effect."
Luke: "I was writing short stories when I was 20, 21, but once I got into calculus and other things happened, I've never written a short story since, but literature was always my love. I read an enormous amount of Jewish fiction. This project is a natural joining of two of my biggest interests.
"I don't have a thesis statement for what I'm doing. That's one of the weaknesses of my writing, or strengths."
Melvin: "More likely the latter."
Luke: "I feel it out as I go along. I know I've got some good material when it surprises me."
Melvin: "Don't you think that some of the qualities you ascribe to interviewing are some of the qualities one seeks in fiction?
"There are two elements in narratives -- familiarity and surprise. They are both necessary. All surprise with no familiarity would be incomprehensible. Like a foreign language. All familiarity and no surprise would be tedious."
Luke: "I've been reading a lot of crap for this project. Prior to this, I only read [fiction] for pleasure."
Melvin: "I wish I had the strength to put things down more quickly. I tend to finish almost everything. Sometimes Sigmund [Freud] helps me and I inadvertently lose books."
Luke: "Let's tackle 'child of Holocaust survivors.'"
Melvin: "Could you be a little more explicit?"
Luke: "Once we know that somebody is a child of Holocaust survivors, do we know anything else?"
Melvin: "No. We know that they have been in proximity to people who have experienced historical enormity, but it does not convey any special wisdom or any special privilege."
Luke: "That's what I wanted to find out. I find it obnoxious when people use that mantle to claim moral insights."
Melvin: "Writing is not just. It is not a fair pursuit. Good writing comes from where it does, not from who you are. You can say that about children of Holocaust survivors and about people who use the Holocaust to give gravitas to their work."
Luke: "Yeah! I resent that."
Melvin: "I resent it in some and I'm humored by others."
Luke: "In some writing, people are claiming a moral free pass because their parents went through the Holocaust."
Melvin: "Using it for personal benefit."
Luke: "Yeah, getting laid because you're the child of the Holocaust."
Melvin: "Then again, I'm not against using anything for personal benefit."
Luke: "Is it fair to say that compassion by definition is selective? If you are compassionate to everyone, you aren't compassionate to anyone."
Melvin: "Sounds like you are leading the witness."
Luke: "Do we have to treat children of Holocaust survivors any different than we treat anyone else?"
Melvin: "Do we have to treat retards any differently than we have to treat anyone else?"
Luke: "Should we?"
Melvin: "No. I don't believe that exterior conditions of identity require any notice. For the same reason, I'm not particularly in favor of affirmative action. I'm not in favor of anyone nodding to me as an accident of inheritance. I damn well want them to nod to me anyway because of my extreme talent. Even though I am often identified as the child of Holocaust survivors, I never write about them because they don't interest me too much."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Melvin, who was born in 1953: "Alive.
"When I was in third grade, I imagined the presidency.
"I never felt any occupational proclivities until I started writing in college. Nonfiction. I remember going to a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C. I had read Normal Mailer's Armies of the Night. I decided I would do for my era what Mailer had done for his.
"I wrote 17 pages in which I fully explored all of the evils of American foreign policy as well as my thoughts about my parents, religion, and various girls I'd been involved with and then ran out of anything to say. Clearly nonfiction did not sustain me. Then I realized I could make things up. And that I could keep doing for the rest of my life."
Luke: "What did your parents expect from you?"
Melvin: "They were so astonished at having young that all they expected was that I live... I was the first, not only of my mother and father, but of an entire clan. I heard stories about my uncles staying up all night to build me a life-size fire engine for my third birthday. There was a Christchild atmosphere at the wonder of life.
"My parents worried that writing would not lead to solvency. There were no artistic indulgences in their life. They were practical."
Melvin's parents married about a year before he was born. "My father arrived in the U.S. in 1948. My mother's family had been lucky enough to run away from the czar a generation earlier. She grew up in a small town in New Jersey, Norma, that was a schtettle.
"My parents didn't know each other more than a year before marriage."
Luke: "What was your parents attitude towards Judaism and being Jewish?"
Melvin: "They simply were Jewish and didn't need to question it."
Luke: "What attitude were you raised with towards Judaism?"
Melvin: "It was an empty faith for me.
"After my bar mitzvah, I went to shul occasionally, mostly to 'young people's services.' I found nothing in that.
"Years later I realized that my lack of satisfaction with any religious culture had to do with my lack of satisfaction with any idea of the deity."
Luke: "Did you believe in God as a kid?"
Melvin: "I didn't think much about Him. I thought more about God as I got older and more existential. It is probable that I believe in some cosmic demiurge. Like any 12 year old, I'm driven mad by infinity.
"God has no answer whatsoever to the necessity of morality in life.
"You can believe in God and say, 'You've done nothing for me.'
"If there is some sense of Jewish continuity, then God has unilaterally violated the covenant and we ought to have nothing to do with him.
"Is this the type of attitude that leads to Jewish continuity?
"I feel perfectly Jewish without a religious basis to my experience. I find satisfaction in things human rather than beatific. I find satisfaction in a historical Judaism, in a cultural Judaism, in an ethical Judaism.
"Is this enough to continue [the Jewish people] through the ages? Probably not.
"Should I therefore advocate a hypocritical faith merely for the sake of continuity? No. Each generation does as it must."
Luke: "Do you belong to a synagogue?"
Melvin: "Yes. Ambivalently."
Luke: "You do believe in God?"
Melvin: "I believe in some force with creative intent. Not the man with the long beard obviously."
Luke: "You've not had a relationship with God?"
Melvin: "I have. It's been entirely antagonistic. Eventually He's going to kill me."
"I find myself really afraid of weakness -- in others and in myself. I squash it in me and shun it in others. Weakness seems suicidal."
Luke: "Where are you on the organized vs. chaotic spectrum?"
Melvin: "What? This is a spectrum I wasn't aware of.
"My study is Augean -- masses of paper everywhere that the world would find incomprehensible. I don't mind living amongst filth.
"I'm absurdly on time. Though there are not many responsibilities in my life, I fulfill them with insane diligence. I don't think I've missed a class in twelve years."
"God bless you. You haven't yet asked any questions about why I write what I write."
Melvin's children are 22, 20, and 18. He's been married for 23 years.
At Sierra Community College, I had a teacher, Raymond Oliva, who taught us that English was the one subject that was about all of life.
I like that.
Women Who Date Jerks
My ex Holly says: "Rock Star Magazine sent me an email. They're doing an article about why girls date jerks. And they want to interview me about you."
Why This Wall Of Silence About Mother-Daughter Sexuality?
That was the most shocking part of Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges. I've never seen this explored in English-language literature.
I call Leora Sunday night, July 30, 2006. "I can't think of another novel about a girl-mother almost-incestuous relationship."
Leora: "That was a large part of the reason I took to paper because I wasn't seeing that in [English-language] literature either."
Luke: "I can't think of a single example."
Leora: "There's an absence of that complex ambiguity in the relationship between girls and mothers. That bothered me. A female's progression into womanhood is dependent on that relationship.
"I've seen it represented in older works, in French works, in European authors, in Elfriede Jelinek. She wrote The Piano Teacher. She's fierce about that.
"I grew weary with the standard answers about child abuse and what incest was.
"I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten from women who said, 'Thank you. You just wrote about my mother and me.'
"It's a fearful place to go.
"I got a lot of support from men who said it was fascinating to read the female point of view. 'I've read a lot of Philip Roth and he's so honest.' But women have been holding back for many reasons, including fear of damaging the feminist movement.
"I know a lot of people simply put the book down. They couldn't go there."
Luke: "Is there something more Israeli or European in this openness?"
Leora: "I think so. I'm only half-American. My mother is Israeli. The literature I've always read is European, with a lot about the body and sexuality and symbiosis. There's a strong Puritanical streak here with a different view of sexuality and where it belongs."
Luke: Toni Bentley's book The Surrender, about anal sex, got big play for probing the last sexual taboo. I'm thinking there are a lot more important and bigger taboos about sexuality than anal sex such as a daughter's awareness of her mother's boundary-less sexuality.
Leora: "Thank you. In America, yes, we have a lot of psychoanalysis, but a lot of it is suspect and a lot given to clear-cut incest with clear-cut boundaries. There's just an entirely different sensibility and way of looking at life [in America]. If you bring up the Clinton incident in Europe, people don't even know what the fuss was.
"What about Australian literature?"
Luke: "Not big on mother-daughter sex."
Leora: "I know how terrifying it is, but you just go with what you have to do."
Luke: "There's a ton of stuff about boys wanting to have sex with their mothers. There's nothing new with that."
Leora: "I'm a big fan of Proust. He's a great teacher of complexity and ambiguity."
Luke: "Is your mother [born in 1920] still alive?"
Luke: "And she's got all her senses?"
Leora: "No. She's in a home. She has dementia.
"She did read my book. She loved it. She keeps it on her night table.
"She grew up in Palestine but was she educated in Austria. She said to me, 'You were honest.' That's her way of judging what you do as an artist.
"Grace Paley is the arch-feminist and she thought it was fascinating to see the daughter's side of what was going on.
"A lot of people see it as a negative portrait of my mother. I don't see it that way. She was just a complex, charismatic, problematic figure."
Luke: "Really screwed up."
Leora: "Yes. Definitely of the body. That's a problem for people."
Luke: "We don't like mothers who have so few boundaries with their daughters."
Leora: "Then I got fascinated with this whole issue of boundaries in the Middle East. That's all they ever fight about."
"Part of the complexity of my childhood is that every year we went to Israel for three months. My father is a New Yorker [American Jew, atheist, intellectual] and he made sure we knew her world."
Leora has a sister three years older and a brother three years younger. "My sister just hates her guts. The boundaries between a boy and his mother are different."
Luke: "Was he her favorite?"
Leora: "Oh yeah. He could do no wrong."
Luke: "Did your mother help the Haganah?"
Leora: "Oh yes."
Luke: "What are the differences, if any, between your mother and the mother in your book?"
Leora: "That's a hard question."
In other words, very little.
Luke: "Did your mother have these lack of boundaries?"
Leora: "Oh yes. She still does.
"I began to heal myself from that by understanding the culture she was raised in."
Luke: "What was your mother's reputation in New York?"
Leora: "It was very difficult for me growing up in Pound Ridge. Not only were we the only Jewish family, my mother was the only Israeli. She was an oddity. But everyone admired her.
"There were a lot of innuendoes about my mother being a primitive. She wasn't like the other Westchester housewives.
"I feel like I'll never have to write another book about my mother as long as I live because that was a very complete portrait."
Luke: "I can't think of any Jewish community in the U.S. who wouldn't ostracize your mother."
Leora: "Yes. The Jewish Book Council selected my book and publicized it but they had trouble with it because it didn't fit in to anything. It doesn't fit anyone's conception of Judaism or Israel."
Luke: "Was she physically affectionate with a lot of people?"
Leora: "Yes. That's the Israeli way. Just think of the Italians or the Spanish. Somehow people just understand that Italians are like that.
"Jewish Americans are very different from Israelis. They are very reserved."
Luke: "Was your mother sleeping around while you were growing up?"
Leora: "Oh no. She stayed loyal to my father."
Luke: "Did your parents have a good marriage?"
Leora: "I'd have to say no. It was a terrible marriage.
"I lost my father early in my life. We were in a car accident together. I was 17. He had permanent brain damage. He lived for six years. My mother brought him home from the hospital and looked after him.
"It was my college interview. He was driving me home from Vermont. He had a stroke [at the wheel] while we were going about 50mph."
"People ask me if my mother was homosexual. My answer is that she was polymorphous."
Luke: "Did your mother cling to you?"
Leora: "Oh God. Yes.
"The French sense of family is incredibly cloying. French parents don't visit their children. They stay over. I don't think my cousins have left the home where my grandmother was born. Americans are concerned with independence."
Leora: "Debra Hamel is a wonderful person. She has a Ph.D. from Yale. But she's very American. We had lots of dialogues about what she was saying. 'Fractured encounter' is a valid criticism but that was my experience.
"Artists face these challenges. Do you want to be clear? You know you'll get more.
"Israel's a wild chaotic place. There are few introductions to anybody. Everybody is living on top of one another.
"I chose to bring a sensibility and sometimes that won over how clear I was going to be.
"I'm a visual writer. I'm not good at the logic of plot because it doesn't excite me."
Luke: "Did you have any suicides in your life?"
Leora: "It's better for me not to talk about it."
Ivy, the sister of protagonist Liana, doesn't change much in Leora's novel. "That's true of my sister too," she says. "She's always going to hate my mother."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Leora: "I've always wanted to write and to act. My father was a lawyer for actors."
Leora married at age 22 to the son of a diplomat and 32 years later, they're still married.
Luke: What's with the hyphenated name [Skolkin-Smith]?
Leora: "That was very conflicted. He's a Christian atheist. I'm a Jewish atheist. I don't believe in the manifest destiny of the Jewish people or Zionism or any of that. I was very sensitive about taking away my identity. My husband is a doctor. I didn't want to get letters [addressed to] 'Dr. and Mrs. Smith.' After your fourth letter as a physician's spouse, you begin to feel faceless. 'Leora Skolkin-Smith was an announcement of identity.
"It wasn't a feminist thing. I just wanted to keep my identity."
Luke: "Does he have the hyphenated name too?"
Leora: "No. He's just Matthew Smith.
Luke: "Do you have children?"
Leora: "That's something I couldn't do physically. I've managed to mother a great deal people who are not from my body."
Luke: "Would you rather write a great novel or have a great marriage?"
Leora: "Wow. Great music. That's a fear question inside myself. I never want to have to answer that. That's how important writing is to me and he is to me. I'm glad I'm with a man who can handle that. He's a psychiatrist. My intensity forced me into writing."
"I'm lucky enough to have a man who pays the rent while I write."
Leora has two degrees from Sarah Lawrence College -- a B.A. in Writing (1975) and an MFA (1980).
Luke: "What do you love and hate about the writing life?"
Leora: "I love writing. I hate the writing business. I don't think writing is a consumer product. I hate competing with other writers. We're not horses. They set you up for this horse race. I was nominated for a bunch of awards for this book. I've resented it."
Luke: "You resented being nominated? You resented not winning?"
Leora: "Of course I resented not winning. I won one thing -- a stipend from the PEN/Faulkner Writing Foundation -- and I wanted everyone to be happy for me. I'm going to Washington D.C. They're putting Edges into the school system."
Luke: "When you say you hate the business, what you're really saying is that you hate that aspect of reality."
Luke: "This is just life."
Leora: "Yeah. You want everyone to love you. You want everyone to walk up to you and say you've transformed their life. Of course you want to win the Pulitzer."
I thought all the great songs had been sung.
I was down, my dreams were wearing thin. When you're lost, where do you begin? My heart always seemed to drift from day to day, looking for the love that never came my way...
Twenty Five Years Ago Today...
Air Supply's song "The one that you love" was the #1 song in the U.S. It was recorded in one take in Los Angeles.
It was the summer of 1981 and I was falling in love for the first time (that was requited). I frolicked with my girlfriend at the Pacific Union College pool many afternoons. One day a little black boy wearing goggles surfaced beside us and asked me, "Why is your penis sticking out like a lance?"
I never kissed my love. I was too scared. Over the next nine months, however, away from my love and at public school for the first time, I learned how to french kiss. That next summer, back at P.U.C., I got the nicknames "Hans Ford" and "Romeo." I made out with my love and went to R-rated movies with a college girl four years my senior. For the first time, I learned that women's panties get wet when they're sexually excited.
A friend asks me July 30, 2006: "How are you?"
Luke: In a torpor, perhaps depressed, have a hard time leaving my bed, just exhausted, back hurts, money prospects poor etc. All I do is lie in bed and listen to Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
>It's good that you have enough energy to take part in the shul stuff ... lectures etc. I really wish I could revive myself to the point where I'd go to the fancy aish shul, but that was four years ago already. The formality of it gave me focus.
How come there's never been a book about air supply?
>I read a decent book: 'Great Pretenders' by Karen Schoemer. It's half memoir and half writing about the pop singers of the 1950s. I could imagine you doing that kind of book that contrasted your life with the music of air supply. Check that out and see if you're inspired.
The first time I saw Air Supply live was a year ago during the Nine Day (before Tishu B'Av). I went with my 24yo GF who'd never heard of Air Supply.
Twenty four year old girls are good for me because I'm 40 and stuck in my ways and these young uns are more flexible. I don't know why my friends push me to go out with hags when I could be hanging with community college girls.
I've been told that my craggy features have a timeless beauty and, frankly, I haven't grown up much since I was four years old. So I'm not married and don't have a respectable life? At least I've dated a lot of women. Quantity has a quality all of its own.
I Despair About Israel
I'm no political or military expert, but as as many Hezbollah rockets are falling on Israel today (July 30) as they were at the start of the war almost three weeks ago, I can only conclude what I believed when the war began -- that Israel's prime minister, Defense minister and IDF leadership are incompetent.
Nosh 'n' Drosh On Death
Judaism revolves around eating, praying and leading a holy life.
It's the religion of life.
"We all know that we should have an advanced medical directive that indicates our desires should we, God forbid, become ill and incapable of expressing our desires," said the rabbi. "But the topic doesn't come up often on "date night" (or on the elliptical at 24-hour fitness). The same is true for the disposal of our worldly assists when we're no longer here to enjoy them - and doing so in a manner that will not run into halachik obstacles. And what about that organ donor dot? So come on over. It'll be a laugh a minute!"
"That sounds great," he thought, and as his calendar was empty, he put on his tzitzit Saturday afternoon and his white shirt and black tie and black pants and black jacket and trudged a couple of miles through the humidity to a beautiful home in Beverlywood.
Once inside (5 p.m.), he grunted at the host and went right for the cold water and then for desserts and then for generous helpings of the fruit salad.
Then he found a seat in the back, next to a Holocaust survivor, and listened to the rabbi speak. During the lecture, he watched the kids playing catch in the backyard. He kept imagining that at any moment the ball would come crashing through the window.
He felt his jacket pull down on his weak shoulders. As he moved in his seat, he felt his back spasm. As the room filled up, he felt claustrophobic.
The rabbi referred to rabbis.org where you can make a nifty will. It says: "Jewish religious law does not recognize the validity of a will."
Yet Rav Moshe Feinstein says that a secular will is just fine.
To what extent do you use heroic and invasive measures to sustain the life of the terminally ill?
The rabbi said people should fill out an advanced medical directive making their will known in these matters.
Rav Feinstein provides a lot of room for letting the terminally ill die without resorting to any efforts beyond providing oxygen, food and water.
"I could do with some oxygen, food and water right now," he thought.
It was 6:20 p.m. "No need to resuscitate me," he muttered and made a mad dash for the door, barreling past two dozen cramped but pious souls. "If I don't get out of here right now, I'm going to die. I don't care that I'm being rude. I don't care that I'm leaving while a dozen people want to involve the rabbi in some esoteric discussion. Let me go right now. No heroic measures need to be exerted on my behalf. I can't breathe in here. I want to go home."
Luke: "What inspired Girls in Trouble? Was it in part the Baby Richard case?"
Caroline: "I have one young son, and we wanted a second. We had a cousin who had a very successful open adoption so we started that process. While we weren't chosen (the birth mothers were suspicious of our professions--my husband and I are both writers. They also didn't love it that we had a "natural" son and felt we couldn't love their babies as much as our own. Not true, but there you have it...) We gave ourselves 6 months and during that time Imust have spoken to over 60 birthmothers, most of them very young. These girls wanted attention and support, and sometimes I felt as though they wanted me to adopt them. I couldn't forget them and I was fascinated by the lives they were leading and so, I wrote about them.
"Certainly, the Baby Richard case was on my mind. I felt so terrible for all the people involved. There was another horrible case in Ann Arbor, where a two year old was taken from her parents and returned to the birth parent. It's horrible. But what the newspapers didn't talk about was the fact that in the Baby Richard case the father had started court proceedings to get his birth child back days after the child was given up--it just took four years. But does it serve justice to give a four-year-old back to a birth parent? It's tragic, but I don't think so."
Luke: "Were there things you wanted to teach in Girls in Trouble or did you just want to tell a good story?"
Caroline: "When I write, I'm always writing to answer some question that I, myself, have, to try and figure out the answer for myself in the writing. I was really concerned with these young birthmothers. Because I couldn't have any more children after our son, my husband and I had tried to open adopt, and though we weren't chosen (!!!!) and eventually gave up the process. But I kept wondering about all the young girls I had spoken to, who seemed to want me to adopt them as much as their babies. I was really curious about how families are formed, and how people see themselves as a parent.
"The interesting thing is that before the book came out I got a lot of emails from adoption agencies who were thrilled that I was going to write about open adoption. The email I received from birth mothers wasn't so positive! They were afraid I would give them a bad rap, and they felt they had enough bad press. After the book came out, the birth mothers embraced me for telling their story, but the agencies were annoyed that I had shown some of the difficulties with open aoption!
"Of course, my primary concern is also just to tell a good story, to create characters that breathe on the page!"
Luke: "What were the questions you had going into the book and what answers did you reach? It seemed to me that you did reach some answers."
Caroline: "Hmmm, the questions I had going into the book were could you get over loss? If so, how did you do it? I was thinking in terms of losing your child, fear of losing your child, and losing your great first love. And I came to realize at the end that you can't get over loss. You just can't. It always stays with you. It doesn't mean you can't have a good life, but there will always be that undercurrent, that feeling of "what if" that you can never resolve."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Caroline: "A writer. Always a writer. When I was six, I began writing novels about an orphan who travels around the world."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
Caroline: "I grew up in Waltham, Mass, which was pretty working class. About 5% of my high school went to college, the rest married, went to beauty school or joined the military. There were three groups, the jocks, the hoods and the outsiders who were dubbed the charming name of "faggots." I was an outsider, mocked for my straight A's, made miserable for my dress, and my boyfriend was routinely beaten up for his long hair! I couldn't wait to get out."
Luke: "How has your life been affected by your publishing eight novels?"
Caroline: "It's wonderful. I get to make up stories for a living, what could be better? The downside is while I do the thing I love, we've have rough financial times (my husband is also a writer) and no steady paychecks or affordable health insurance!"
Luke: "Would you rather write a great novel or have a great marriage?"
Caroline: "A great question. A great marriage. The older I get the more I realize love is what is important. You need that Freudian duality, love and work, but love is better!"
Luke: ""Fun to read." Have you heard that description of your work? Does it ever bug you? Is there ever a negative edge to that remark?"
Caroline: "Another great question. I have heard that--in fact there was this really interesting review I got in The Washington Post -- a full fledged rave -- that talked about how books that are "fun" are sometimes thought of as not literary, but here I was, an author who was both. I don't mind it, but I would mind being called a beach book or chick lit!"
Luke: "What's been the proportion of friends/relationships made to ones lost because of your writing?"
Caroline: "Much more made. People write me and sometimes I write back (oh, okay, always...) and friendships are born. Never lost a friend. Actually what's happened is often people think they see themselves in my writing when they aren't there. And for my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, I had a lawsuit because the names of the people (strangers to me) suing (Rozzy, Ben and Bea) were the names of my characters and the situations were similar. Ridiculous and insulting, because would I really use the same names of people I knew as my characters?"
Luke: "What do you remember about the best and worst interview experiences you've had (as an interviewee)?"
Caroline: "The worst time (which was not the interviewer's fault) was when my son Max was three. He had been told that I was going to be on the phone for a few minutes and he had a sitter with him. I was on national NPR (live) and suddenly we heard breathing. Loud breathing. And then a little voice said, Hi. I want a cookie. I calmly introduced him, and told him to ask the sitter. And then five minutes later, it happened again! The interviewer was very nice about it, but it was a little unnerving.
"The best are with the unexpected questions (like this one.) And though it can be unpleasant, it's interesting to be attacked sometimes. This has never happened with an interviewer per se, but people calling in were often furious about GIRLS and would make pointed attacks. Lucky for me, my best friend is a media coach and she had warned me to be prepared, and to always stay calm and say the magic words, "I hear what you are saying," which always seemed to calm irate tempers down!"
Pearl Abraham's Best Interviews
I email her: "I'm sure you've been interviewed over 100x... Who was the best and the brightest?"
I phone the author of three books Tuesday afternoon (July 26, 2006). He lives in Corvallis and teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.
Luke: "How do you like your name?"
Ehud: "If I didn't like it, I would've changed it. It's always been an issue with pronunciation. Since age four, whenever teachers have stopped and looked confused, I raised my hand and told them.
"My two sons are named Jacob (5) and Michael (18).
"My name bothered me when I was younger because I felt like it stuck out but now it's fine.
"I was a wannabe musician for a few years and this guy told me that if I wanted a chance with Roulette Records, they were going to call me Ed Hazel. My wife and I use that as a joke name."
Luke: "Did your [second] wife [of six years] take your name?"
Luke: "How do you feel about that?"
Ehud: "Fine. Jacob has my last name. I would've been proud if my wife had taken my name..."
"I've been mistaken more often for an Arab than an Israeli."
Luke: "You were never going to be able to assimilate with your name?"
Ehud: "No. And nobody has asked me assimilate with any name."
Ehud moved to Oregon in 1989.
Luke: "When did you break with Orthodox Judaism and why?"
Ehud: "The second semester of college. I didn't have a positive experience growing up Orthodox in New York. I found it closed, vicious and sniping. I didn't know anyone who had spirituality."
Luke: "At what age did you first smoke pot?"
Luke: "At what age did you become a rebel?"
Ehud, the eldest of four kids: "I was rebelling all the time. I went to college wearing a yarmulke and a ponytail. The public rebellion came when I stopped keeping kosher and stopped wearing a yarmulke and started having tremendous fights with my father.
"In 1967, I was eleven when the Six Day War happened. My father and I talked excitedly about getting on a plane and going there and seeing what we could do. By the 1973 war, I had seen the other side. I was against the war in Vietnam and against militarization.
"I hated going to yeshiva. I had to get there at 7 a.m. to pray. I left at 5:30 p.m. I had some rabbis who were very traditional and some very troubled. Some were rigid and sadistic. One threw a kid down the stairs and broke his back. I used to get hit.
"I went to Ramaz. It was the most modern yeshiva. I wanted to go to a non-yeshiva school. My parents said no way. You go to a Jewish school but you can pick the one you want."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
Ehud: "There wasn't much of a crowd. There were a few of us getting high and going down to the Philmore [for concerts by the Grateful Dead, etc].
"Somebody at [Ramaz] found out that somebody was getting high so they had the police department come down to this nice Jewish school and had a display of the various types of drugs and all the reasons you shouldn't use them. Winning arguments such as, 'Why do you think they call it dope?'
"With wonderful naiveté, they passed around five joints so we could all get a look at them. At the end, only three of them came back to the stage. The principal got up and said, 'No one is leaving this room until they come back.'"
Luke: "Did you get expelled?"
Ehud: "I was suspended often."
Luke: "Have any Orthodox institutions invited you to give a reading?"
Ehud: "Yeshiva University has. A colleague of my father's likes my stuff. I had dinner with a bunch of students from Stern College [the women's branch of Y.U.]."
Luke: "Did you corrupt the youth?"
Ehud: "No. I was on my best behavior. I had a couple of Scotches before I went to make sure I could take whatever would happen. They were very nice. My impression is that they were hampered by having one reference point. They didn't have a way of approaching my material [except] was it pro or anti-Jewish. That's not what I'm aiming for.
"There's a scene in my short story 'Leah' where Rachel's boyfriend is beaten up. I was accused of condoning anti-Semitism."
Luke: "What emotions did you see on your father's face when you were with the yeshiva crowd?"
Ehud: "He loved it. He co-opted the whole thing. My father can't resist an opportunity to be on stage. We started talking about what he thinks, what he thinks the stories are about... It's like asking a person who's never painted to care about everything in a painting and understand how it was put together. He's not a painter.
"Within that context, he's a wild man He's more provocative, liberal and questioning than most of his students.
"My dad's swung to the left politically without changing his allegiance to Israel. He's for a two-state solution. He's there now. We can't get him to come home."
Luke: "When were you last in Israel?"
Ehud: "My bar mitzvah in 1968."
Luke: "Was there anything you loved about Orthodox Judaism?"
Ehud: "I loved the Torah, the Bible, the stories.
"I loved studying Talmud because of the logical argumentation.
"I had the study habits of a dreyhorse. Anyone who goes to 12 years of yeshiva has great work habits. When I turned on to Marx or Shakespeare or James Joyce, I didn't have to develop the tools to approach it.
"I come from a long line of scholars. I grew up with the notion of memorizing things and showing off what you knew. The emphasis was on accomplishment and competition. We didn't talk about the meaning of the ideas behind them [the texts].
"When I was six, my maternal grandfather bought me a Tanach (Hebrew Bible). I remember sitting up at night and reading it through.
"When I was older, I read the Yiddish writers such as Shalom Aleichem.
"My [Jewish] affiliation is more cultural than philosophical."
Luke: "Are you happy?"
Ehud: "Yeah, I'm very happy."
Luke: "But your writing doesn't have much happiness."
"I don't think happiness is what most people's lives are about most of the time. It's about struggle and loss and strife. To write about life as if it is resolvable is not true."
"I write about characters who work hard to find what they need. I write about characters in a lot of pain, with a lot of weight and baggage, who don't behave well, not because they're bad people, but because they're troubled.
"I don't believe in happy endings in art."
Luke: If I were to talk to the people who knew you best, how many would describe you as happy?
Luke: "Why are you happy?"
Ehud: "Because of the direction my life has gone [in the past decade, since he met his second wife, the only years he'd describe as happy]."
Luke: "What does your father think of your writing?"
Ehud: "I don't know. He loves reading. He especially loves the 19th Century Russians. That was a great connection when I was younger -- we'd read books together. I remember him taking tremendous glee when I was twelve in telling me the end of Anna Karenina. 'It's not the plot that matters,' he said. 'You have to get under the plot.' Thanks.
"I don't know that my father has read enough modern literature to have a real grasp of some of the things I'm trying to do.
"I don't know how deeply he wants to look into some of the things I'm talking about. Some of the things you and I have been talking about -- it is not a happy portrait.
"Some of his more literary friends say to him, 'Look at what he's writing about you.' I think he has the sense to know that is not true.
"He has a traditional view of how writing is put together. He gets hurt by things I have written even when they are not about him. But he's very proud of me.
"The huge push from all my friends and family was to be a rabbi, and if not that, to be a doctor or lawyer.
"My parents never discouraged me from being a writer. They worried about it -- for good reason.
"Parents would like their kids to write happy stories. It means they had a happy life."
Luke: "How much does one need to know before one can appreciate your writing? Does one have to be a smarty pants?"
Ehud: "First, there is a measure of acquaintance with what literature in the Modern period and since has done that might help get a handle on some of what I'm trying--if you're most conversant with fables or morality shows, you'll be less comfortable with open-ended (negatively capable) stories like mine. So yes, a bit of smarty pants I'll admit to. The other, related issue, which has nothing really to do with what you've read (though reading always helps me) is your willingness to confront the emotional substrate of your material. Such as: when I was growing up, the Akeda was presented as a lesson solely in faith -- Abraham heeding god's word. What interests me as a storyteller much more is what the characters might feel -- what father would sacrifice his son, what son could live after being strapped to the slaughter block. To these questions there is no single answer and that's why they're often not asked, or given simplistic answers -- faith, submission, god's inscrutable ways. God, except for Moses who got a direct look, is an idea, even to the devout; I'm interested in people."
Luke: "Your father sounds very much like Rabbi Max Birnbaum in your short story collection, Like Never Before -- a bibliophile, absent-minded professor..."
Ehud: "Yes. Immersed in another world. The restlessness and insecurity of Max. My father was a much more successful scholar than Max.
"Both sides of my family were out of Europe before the Holocaust.
"A lot of the tensions between us are in the relationship between Max and David. The biographical facts are different. Max never wrote anything."
Luke: "What about approachable vs. removed? [Max was removed.]"
Ehud: "It's a mix. My father is charming and openhearted. He will talk to anybody about anything. He'll sit on a bus for two minutes and have three friends. He's constantly meeting people. We constantly had people over at the house. I've never met anybody more approachable.
"He's also circumscribed by his beliefs and background. He's from Mea Shearim [the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem]. Parts of him are still in Mea Shearim. We have relatives who are [charedi] and have never left that world.
"He'll debate with anybody but we've not had a real discussion about religion since I was a kid because I don't think, and this will upset him to read, that he really wants to know how I feel about it. He wants to convince me I'm wrong. We had so many fights about it that I demanded and he acquiesced to not talk about it. If we kept down that road, we weren't going to see each other any more.
"My father, to his credit, has straddled two worlds [modern scholarship and traditional piety], but not comfortably."
Luke: "Could you discuss the documentary hypothesis with your father?"
Ehud: "Oh sure.
"He's about the most rebellious irreverent person I've ever seen within his circle."
We move on.
"I don't tell people what my stories are about and how they should interpret them. I just hope they read them.
"I don't write stories to make polemical points."
Luke: Orthodox Judaism is largely absent from your first book [What is it Then Between Us?] but fills your second book.
Ehud: "All first books are apprenticeships. There's some abject imitation in there. I was responding too much to what I had read.
"I was not ready to write about [Orthodox Judaism]. I was young. I was angry.
"It kept coming up. In graduate school, my best teacher was Lynn Sharon Schwartz. She said [Orthodox Judaism] was my material. I said, 'No, it isn't. My material is hard-drinking, hard-loving misanthropes.'
"I'm publishing my third book next year -- a novel (Bearing the Body)."
Luke: "Do you keep any mitzvot [divine commandments]?"
Ehud: "I keep in mind the concept of a mitzvah as much as I can. A mitzvah to me is an act of generosity, a good idea. But I don't start with them as an injunction.
"My grandfather (Rabbi Samuel K. Mirsky) had a big shul in New York (at one time, he had the biggest Young Israel in the country, a thousand-member shul). We'd come back from shul on Friday night and all the grandkids would line up and he'd bless us. I give the same blessing to my boys. The older one accepts it readily and the younger one is bored and wants to go back to videogames."
Luke: "Do you eat pork and shellfish?"
"The first time I ate non-kosher meat I thought I was going to get sick. Two of my sisters claim that they did get sick."
All fours kids left Orthodoxy.
Ehud: "I can't tell if I'm disappointing you."
Luke: "One advantage of your upbringing is that you always knew who you were."
Ehud: "No. The opposite. That's what was intended but I had an identity handed to me that I was supposed to emulate and I was never allowed to develop by myself. I grew up within a small intense internecine New York Jewish community.
"We had non-Jewish families living on our block but we had nothing to do with them.
"I was proud of my family. I thought we were like the Kennedys. We turned out to have their flaws.
"I wanted to write my own stories, not repeat the ones I was told. I wanted to write about people. I wanted to see the world and find myself. I had to go find my identity."
Luke: "What is your primary identity?"
"The breaking point between my father and me... As long as I stayed in the same landscape, we could argue about anything. When I said I'm leaving, we didn't have anything to talk about."
Luke: "Has he read your books?"
Ehud: "I'm sure he has. I just don't know how deeply.
"There's a scene in Like Never Before where David Birnbaum gets on the roof of the neighboring shul and dances on the ledge and taunting everybody in front of my father. That was completely made up. I used to go on the roof with friends, anything to get out of shul for a while, but I was terrified of heights. There was no way I would dance on the edge and taunt everybody.
"My father said to me, 'I remember that. I've always felt so guilty you were up there. I should've come up and gotten you but I just stood there and watched.'
"I wanted to say, 'That was the one thing that was completely made up,' but that is the one thing he feels the worst for."
"One of my favorite memories is when my father would tell Bible stories to Michael when he was five, six, seven, eight. It brought back my favorite memories of growing up. But part of modern life is that you don't live in the same village as your family. My mother died last year. I don't think my younger boy will remember her."
Luke: "Do you think your boys will become writers?"
Ehud: "My 18 year old has shown no such inclination. My younger boy, as far as lying and embroidering and wanting to hold everyone's attention, he certainly has that.
"I don't care what they become as long as they don't become neo-Nazis or go into advertising."
Luke: "I'm thinking about the advantages for a writer in coming from a particularistic background, an advantage that your children won't have."
Ehud: "Yeah. I do regret that there's no way I know to immerse my children in the ritual and culture I grew up in and hated most of the time. I have the memories of all the Succos and seders and the endless hours in shul on Yom Kippur. From age nine, my father would let me bring books of Jewish writers in to shul. He said, 'Sit down and shut up. Don't make a big deal out of it. But you can read those instead of daven.'
"I grew up as an unhappy troubled kid. I wouldn't do that to my kid. The system I was brought up in was repressive and did not give you the chance to find your own answers."
Luke: "It must kill your parents that all four kids left Orthodoxy."
Ehud: "It was hard for them, not just the ideological split..."
Luke: "But the practical..."
Luke: "Did they ever ask you -- 'Where did we go wrong?'"
Ehud: "No. It was more telling me where I went wrong.
"It was as frightening to them as if I had turned out to be gay. They weren't able to understand it. [Orthodox Judaism] was the most important thing in the world to them. 'How could you not want it?'"
Luke: "Is your wife Jewish?"
Luke: "Did your parents come to the wedding?"
"My first wife converted [to Judaism] of her own accord. She more into it than I was. She took Michael to Israel for his bar mitzvah. But my parents still had a lot of trouble with her. I would never blame them for the marriage not working out but they sure didn't help.
"I think they realized that."
"I don't go out of my way to read Jewish writers. I read 19th Century writers. I read what I need to write."