Tuesday, August 22, 2006

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Shaarey Zedek - Unlimited Growth

A member writes:

There are very few orthodox shuls that provide unlimited growth opportunities. Shaarey Zedek may be one whose growth is only limited by the size of the building and that is why it is so important that the search committee search much harder.

Shuls in Pico Robertson cannot really expand without cannibalizing other shuls there and it seems as though it has reached near capacity of jews. Few can afford housing there, although it is possible that the bigger fool will pay $700,000 for a condo in Beverlywood so that more jews move in the area. I doubt it, but you are seeing right now the zenith of the jewish community in Pico Robertson. It makes Fairfax in the old days look goyish.

The tonier areas of the Westside simply cannot grow at all. Westwood has no room for growth, and unlike pico robertson, the well organized residents will not tolerate the crappy Israeli/Persian built apartment buildings going co-op that would allow young marrieds to move in. To build in Westwood, your name has to be casden and your lawyer has to be willing to get indicted to launder campaign contributions.

The beach communities such as Venice, Santa Monica, and the Pacific Palisades are also no-growth, barring an earthquake that would wash the coast up to Bundy into the sea.

Hancock park/park la brea/miracle mile and the other frummer areas, well, who wants to live there with all the creepy Bekesher crowd - and it has gotten so crowded in those areas that even the latinos are getting out.

The Valley has a tremendous growth potential. There are no enforced building codes there - I mean you can build literally anything by just giving a grand or two to the right people, and there is nothing stopping the total condo-ization of the area near Shaarey Zedek and within a mile or two walking distance. Young marrieds desperate for housing will put down 400k to live in the helter skelter of the summer swelter of the valley (the current price for a lousy condo) if SZ is viewed as a dynamic place.

The problem is the crop of candidates is not workable. DDD is much too dull to grow a shul - he simply is not buzzworthy. ZZZ wanted too much bling bling and is probably a tad young - I assume that the richer members of SZ blanched a whiter shade of pale at 200k plus for a rabbi who has not yet made a huge name for himself.

Well, for those so honored to get on the search committee, this is more than just an ordinary selection, this is a test of modern orthodoxy and whether it is committed to growth at an expensive cost. Getting your name on a plaque may be nice for the wealthiest members of the shul, but creating a legacy of growth without your name attached is much more important.

World Trade Center And What I Don't Like About American Cinema

I liked Oliver Stone's latest film but found tedious. There are better ways to express deepfelt emotion than to have characters tell each other, "I love you." There are more exciting stories than two policemen trapped in wreckage unable to move for most of the film. I found myself more interested in the story of the two rescuers.

I preferred United 93. I didn't find it cliche.

Whatever Happened To Harry Jakobs?

I was reading Rabbi Abner Weiss's book Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology. Yes, it sounded hokey, but it was Shabbos and I was desperate for reading material appropriate for shul.

I open the book and in the third paragraph, Rabbi Weiss writes: "I am also grateful to the participants in the workshops that I cofacilitated with the late Dr. Harry Jakobs..."

What happened to Harry Jakobs (the producer and director of 1987's Rebel High, which IMDB calls the worst film of all time)?

I'm told he died quickly of a brain tumor (circa 2001).

He was among the first persons I met in Los Angeles in 1994. We saw each other regularly at Jewish events and meals over the next two years. We didn't particularly get along. We had a couple of arguments about religion and Harry later told friends I was an asshole.

Harry said he'd been raised Orthodox and that he had a Ph.D. from Yeshiva University. But now he'd thrown away his religious observance and his beliefs seemed New Agey to me. Harry struck me as very Hollywood. To the best of my knowledge, he'd never married. He liked the ladies.

In June (?) of 1996, Harry invited me to a party at his Hollywood Hills home. He told me to bring porn stars.

I'm glad I didn't because at the party I ran into Rabbi Weiss (and his then wife) along with several beautiful B-level Hollywood actresses best known for taking their clothes off on-screen. I got phone numbers from a couple of the ladies but when I called them over the next few days, they had no interest in me.

Harry later told me he was producing and directing a movie based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel The Slave, which I loved.

Later I saw flyers for these Kabbalistic seminars Harry was giving with Rabbi Weiss and I didn't understand how an Orthodox rabbi could give religious seminars with a secular on-the-make What Makes Sammy Run?-style producer such as Harry.

(I've long admired Rabbi Weiss for, among other things, his frank talk about sex. He said that within the boundaries of Jewish law it was like putting a key in a lock and turning it.)

Rabbi Weiss writes to the July 4, 1997 Jewish Journal:

I am grateful to Ari Noonan for his sensitive article on "The Spiritual Course" which Harry Jakobs, Ph.D., and I are offering to the community ("Taking a Spiritual Course," June 27). The first workshop has taken place and all the participants confirmed that we had, indeed, delivered on our promises.

With his wife, Rabbi Weiss threw great singles parties at his home on Simchas Torah. I went for years to try to find my future wife (which never happened, but in such matters it is the search that counts). There was a hitch though. Rabbi Weiss's wife would warn women I hit on at her house that I was a womanizer.

Despite this, I met one older woman. Despite the warning she got from the rebbetzin, she took a chance on me. She allowed me to give her a ride home. A week or two later, we were hosted for Shabbos dinner by an Orthodox family.

It had been a tough day for my date and I did my best to be sensitive. While the man and woman of the house retired to bed, my date and I retired to a spare room and, by the glow of the fish tank, hooked up.

Afterwards, I walked to my old van parked outside and fell asleep in the back.

Saturday morning, my hosts saw me drive away. I was headed for Stephen S. Wise and the powerful reform Torah of Dennis Prager.

Abner Weiss (who in the 1960s was the runner-up for the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire post which was taken by Emmanuel Jacobvitz) left Beth Jacobs of Beverly Hills for London in 2000. That didn't work out for him. He got divorced. He moved back to Los Angeles. He met a divorcee. He found out he wasn't really a Cohen. Thereby, he was allowed to marry the woman he loved -- Dr. Yolande Bloomstein, "my partner in our mental health practice."

As I reflect on these weighty issues, I realize that Harry Jakobs was right -- I am an asshole.

Fundraising For Israel

The major focus of Jewish life over the past 50 years has been on fundraising for Israel.

Most Jews don't find a Jewish life -- which is chiefly composed of Jewish practice and study -- meaningful and since they've had the freedom to flee from these obligations (since the 19th Century), they've fled them.

Over the past five weeks, fundraising for Israel has been pressed with great urgency in my Jewish world.

As the recipient of enormous amounts of charity over the course of my life (much of it from attractive young women in clear violation of not just Torah law and Natural law, but the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war), I want to know one thing: Why can't Israel take care of itself?

What is the effect on Israelis being the recipient of so much charity?

I can't imagine it is good.

Unless one desperately needs it, receiving charity diminishes one.

What is being done to make sure that the money raised for Israel is used efficiently?

Israel's economy has long been a socialist mess and I suspect a large reason for this is the tremendous amount of money the country receives from Jews in the diaspora.

Israel's economy is the least efficient Jewish economy in the world. Israel's Jews are the poorest Jews in the world and it is their own damn fault for voting in socialists.

I have not studied this issue, but my inclination is that Israel should get its act together (economically, militarily) and pay its own way. Our charity should be carefully targeted (in Israel and elsewhere).

The welfare system in Israel, as in every country, is abused. It allows the charedim (super-religious) to avoid working for a living. Even charedi idiots are allowed to sit around all day and pretend to study Torah (and the state subsidizes this).

Israel (and the leaders it has elected) is responsible for this latest debacle in Northern Israel and Lebanon. I say -- Let Israel get its act together.

In July 2000, I went on a Jewish Federation singles trip to Israel. We visited a Federation-funded battered women's shelter where we were harangued for an hour by some humorless unattractive dyke.

Why was I donating money to be harangued by a dyke about how evil men are?

As far as I know, when a man hits his wife, it's because he loves her and he wants what's best for her. At least that's what my mom and dad told me when I was a little kid (age ten and younger) and they whupped me. They always said it was for my own good. And I believe them.

Sure, my mom might lose her temper and smack me so hard I'd go flying across the room into the wall but that was for my own blooming good because I'd been cheeky and I needed to learn a lesson.

Ergo, if Israel is suffering, the Bible says it's because Israel has been cheeky to God and whoring around. Now He's punishing her for her own good.

Anyway, the point is that there's no more important quality at a battered women's shelter than the ability to laugh at oneself. Otherwise you'll end up a Federation-subsidized man-hating dyke.

When I walked into shul Shabbos morning, a leader in the security contingent put a red sticker on my jacket. "That's because you're high risk," he said.

There was an appeal for Israel. I didn't give anything.

I don't have any spare money, but if I did, I'd give it to the best Orthodox day schools (be they in Israel or the diaspora).

An Israeli friend who lives in America writes:

The issue is that Israel ends up having military expenditures (both direct, such as weapons, and indirect, such as material damage and time spent) that are tremendously high relative to its population.

As far as Jewish economic efficiency, its nature is that it works well when Jews are a minority. They're the best doctors, lawyers, merchants, but it depends on having a large population to serve. In Israel, as many Israelis say, there are too many Jews. Their skills have recently manifested themselves in tremendous success in hi-tech, and I think in the future will manifest themselves in bio-tech. But this stuff takes time.

Consider also that Israel has virtually no natural resources. When you compare to other economies, that has to be taken into account. I do agree with what you said about the handouts to the orthodox and to the rabbinate in Israel. I despise that.

BTW, as far as U.S. Military aid to Israel, it's largely a subsidy to the U.S. Military industrial complex. This money goes right back into buying very expensive weapons from the likes of Lockheed Martin etc...

My interpretation is that American Jews feel they have a responsibility towards Israel, and this is their way of helping in some way to remedy the very high economic damage of this war. Whey shouldn't they?

But I'm not the best person to ask about this, because I don't actually make donations to Israel.

In my opinion the most important show of solidarity is actually showing up in Israel, and I think most Israelis feel the same way, but that's something that many American Jews are a bit reluctant to do.

Israel has the best military money can buy. Israel has the best military in the Middle East. If one million Israelis in Northern Israel have to live in bomb shelters for a month, that is the fault of the Israeli leaders they've elected. Let Israel sort out its own problems and clean up Lebanon and Iran etc with their own military. Israel has the ability (Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have no natural resources and they are rich). What Israel lacks is will. I don't see how it helps to subsidize Israeli ineptitude (Olmert and all the Israeli leadership back to Menahem Begin that left Israel vulnerable to Hezbollah).

Will writes:

Israel's financial troubles are not the result of socialist idealism - they stem from a complete lack of vernacular industry. Of late, one of the strongest exports from Israel in terms of gross dollar value has been custom designed jewellery - often filligree work with small gems - and it is of exceptional quality.

The key to Israel's financial independence rests with the creation of jobs through industry, peace and its associated demilitarization (unlikely) and reform of the welfare system to impose contribution of some kind on the recipients - thus making it less attractive to study Torah for a living. Until such time as Israel has been stabilized militarily and industry can safely set up in the country, we will continue to need to raise money to help the Jews living there.

'I'm Sorry. I Can't Hear You Clearly.'

As I get older and older, I find myself saying that more and more. I probably said it six times Saturday, including four times to the same guy (my age).

Must be the result of all those years playing Air Supply at full blast.

"Literary" - just a fancy title for the genre of despair?

Do MFA programs place too much emphasis on looking within and not enough on looking without (and doing research)? If so, this would be much of the reason for the despairing tone of American-Jewish literature. Doing research among people tends to create bonds which tends to militate against despair.

I email novelist Caroline Leavitt: "Is your work literary or genre? What do those distinctions mean to you as far as your writing?"

She responds: "I never understand what genre means--outside of mystery or chick lit or historical dramas. Of course I want to call myself literary--which reviewers seem to call me--but it's not a label I think about when I'm working. It would drive me crazy! I just try to think of the story and the characters and get into that "waking dream" state."

Novelist Karen Bender - Like Normal People

I call her Thursday evening, August 18, 2006.

Karen (the eldest of three sisters, including Aimee Bender, the youngest): "I wanted to be a writer from age six. I was at a birthday party for a little boy. It was wild. All the kids were running after him, trying to put him through a spanking machine. He ran away from them. He threw a big rock that hit me in the head. I fell backwards. I had to be put on the birthday cake table. They had to move the cake so it wouldn't get blood on it.

"It was horrible. I got bandaged. I couldn't do anything for a while so I started writing. It just felt fun.

"Writing was a place where I could be honest even when I was young."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Karen: "The honors group [at Palisades High]. I remember feeling intimidated by the people going to Ivy League schools."

Luke: "What's it like being a Jew in Wilmington, North Carolina?"

Karen: "I'm often the first Jewish person a lot of people have met. That's odd. It's especially odd being the mother of two small kids (age seven and three). Robert [Anthony Siegel] and I feel a pressure to make sure that their Jewish identity is strong. So we've joined a temple. As a result, we end up celebrating every holiday known to the Jewish religion in a way we hadn't growing up."

Luke: "Is your other sister [Suzanne] a writer too?"

Karen: "She's a child psychiatrist, which is what our father is [mother is a dancer/choreographer]. She's written nonfiction."

Suzanne's the coauthor of Becoming a Therapist: What Do I Say, and Why?

Karen: "I went to therapy first when I was 13. If there was any religion I had, it was psychoanalysis. That was what got me through a lot of hard times."

When I ask Karen to describe her own personality and Aimee's, she passes on the question.

[Later, Karen emails: "I think I'm creative, obsessive, determined, generally optimistic; writing is grounding for me but I also need to get out and interact with the world. I'm also hopefully, each year, evolving."]

Karen majored in Psychology at UCLA, graduating in 1986.

She met her husband at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. "We circled each other for a long time before we ended up dating."

Luke: "Who asked who out?"

Karen: "He did, though I was dropping a lot of hints."

Luke: "Have you been a loner or a social person?"

Karen: "I was stereotyped as a loner growing up. As I've grown older, I've become more social. I'm one of the members of the social committee at the temple.

"Writing is so isolating. One thing about having kids, you are forced to be social. My kids tend to be incredibly social and they force Robert and me to be more outgoing."

Luke: "How did you come to write Like Normal People?"

Karen: "I was very close to my grandmother who was like Ella. I also wanted to write about an aunt who was similar to Lena [the retarded granddaughter of Ella]. In writing, I work out emotional issues such as how to grow up. Growing up and separating was hard for me. Lena was interesting to me because she could never really grow up. I also knew I wanted to be a mother and I wanted to imagine what that would be like."

"My aunt couldn't come to our wedding because she was in the hospital. She was getting a shot. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand. She said, 'No. Why don't you hold Robert's hand.'

"She was smart and sweet. She made you want to be a better person."

"You usually get your first [teaching] job on the basis of publishing one book and you get tenure after publishing two books.

"I'm not on tenure track. I'm part-time."

"The challenge with the [Wilmington] students is to get them to think more like New Yorkers. To think more deeply. Their reading is appalling. Often, all they've read is thrillers. My new plan for this semester is to get them to buy a new book of contemporary fiction, read it, and write a report. They don't know who to read. They're reading Dan Brown. That's not literary fiction.

"When they start [reading literary fiction], it can open them up. They can think about things in a new way and be honest about the world in a way they hadn't before. They can think beyond cliché."

Karen Bender wrote this essay, "Listening to my son talk about God."

Luke: "What are some of the stupidest things people [in Wilmington] have said to you as a Jew?"

Karen: "This little boy came over and he was eating some lentil chili. Suddenly he says, 'Is this a Jewish dish?' It was one of those sentences that was a door to open up all this stuff.

"I wondered if his family was discussing us. Are they viewing us as Jewish people as opposed to people who happen to be Jewish?

"That was weird. I suddenly felt like someone who was other."

"We had one weird thing with our neighbors. I wrote a story about it. It was in Granta last year.

"Her daughter would always come over to play at our house. They never asked Jonah to come over. They used as free baby-sitting. There's an elaborate code with mothers to keep things on common ground. It's like a trade agreement. It's weird when someone doesn't.

"It was our first mysterious Southerner experience."

Luke: What was your primary interest in writing your novel?

Karen: "Characters and language. Plot was a nightmare. I had to learn what plot was in the process of writing the book. My first draft was a 600-page mess of no plot."

Luke: "Did you notice many people were not comfortable with the material?"

Karen: "In what way?"

Luke: "One of the major characters is retarded. I know that makes me feel uncomfortable."

Karen: "Why?"

Luke: "As a man, I naturally orient above me in social status. The people who are weak and retarded, it's not natural for me to be interested in them."

Marine Lt. Ilario Pantano Speaks On His New Book Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

Here's a .wav file of the speech.

According to David Horowitz's organization:

ILARIO PANTANO enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, served in Desert Strom, became a sniper, and trained with militaries around the world. Eager for new challenges, Pantano left the Marines and earned his degree from New York University in three years, studying at night while working for the premier investment bank Goldman Sachs. Hungry for creative success, Pantano began producing and consulting in groundbreaking documentary television, film, and digital media. Witnessing the attacks of 9/11, Pantano fought to return to the Marine Corps in 2003.

About Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy. This is the powerful true story of the Marine lieutenant who, having fought for his country in the first Gulf War, went on to professional success in finance, only to be compelled to reenlist in the wake of 9/11. Leaving behind an ex-model wife and two children, he saw action again in Iraq-and was later charged by the U.S. military with murder.

I arrive early so I can get as many chocolate chip cookies as I want. Say what you want about the speakers, Horowitz's foundation always provides grade A desserts.

There are no chocolate chip cookies. I'm so devastated, I have to eat two other cookies (along with the four macadamia nut cookies I had for lunch), cheese cake, lemon meringue pie and fruit to comfort myself (and wash it all down with mint herbal tea).

Everybody in the room is white (the average age is 50) except for a black (marine?), Robby Brett (sp?) who begins the program with the national anthem followed by Hatikva (Israel's anthem). Robby had never sung Hatikvah in public before. He'd just learned it from Janet Levy's youngest son.

The room is filled with patriotic fervor.

Ilano exudes charisma. People are star struck.

David Horowitz gets a big round of applause. His employees join in. I think of Stalin's meetings where the first person to stop applauding gets shot.

Levy notes that American taxpayers are paying to reconfigure the toilets at Gitmo so they face away from Mecca.

Ilano says the media is undermining out war against terrorism.

He repeatedly pauses and sighs during his presentation, which ends after 30 minutes.

The first questioner advocates stringing John Kerry up by his balls. There's scattered applause.

Much of the crowd is so elderly and frail, I doubt they could string a mouse up by his balls.

An old woman trembles with emotion as she decries a "Marxist PC takeover" of our country so that more people vote for American Idol than for president. It's no accident. Sinister forces have destroyed our education system and corrupted our youth.

I follow her. "Why should we be in Iraq?" I ask. There are hisses and exclamations of anger around the room.

Ilano handles my question calmly. He walks down the rows to where I sit in the back. He says that the best defense is a good offense. We're taking it to the terrorists. Vietnam did not have 1/100th of the strategic importance of Iraq.

His mother started DefendtheDefenders.org for American soldiers accused of war crimes.

The crowd is solidly behind his sentiments, that U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes are entitled to the same presumption of innocence as a drug dealer or pedophile.

He says that Gitmo detainees have better living conditions than any American soldier in Iraq. Ilano says he lived in holes in the ground.

I sense that Ilano will run for political office.

Wednesday Morning Club director Michael Finch plugs Operation Gratitude. He's got Heather Mac Donald booked for a Center Breakfast meeting in a few weeks.

Mexican Actress Anabel Ferreira Moves To L.A.

* Why are you moving to LA?

Because I´m very talented but in México where I live right now, nobody cares and I feel frustrated.

* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?


* What did your family expect you to become?

A pianist or a mathematician

* What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?


* Of everything you've done, what are you most proud of?

Becoming better human being

* How do you spend your spare time?

I read, play the piano, I´m writing a book, we have a very motivating thing in the family. We feed 7000 families everyday, and I´m involved in Real States, and always keep learning different subjects.

* What are you writing a book about?

My life Luke.You can´t imagine how special that has been. Do you know about survivors and warriors? Sorry if my grammar isn´t perfect but I went to a french school my whole life. One day my father asked me: What about your English? I said: What are you talking about!

The next day he brought me a dictionary and that´s how I learned.


A friend writes:

Did you relate to the journalist’s dilemma that occurs when one develops relationships with the subjects? Do you feel like Capote, forced to choose between kindness and self-serving ambition? Would your Holly saga be improved if only she would be sentenced to death? Hunter S. Thompson was not the first gonzo journalist, not even close. Capote did it with much greater drama and pathos. Norman Mailer owes some of his work to Capote. Dominic Dunne. I wonder if someone did it before Capote. Young Ernest Hemingway? Emile Zola? Thomas Paine? Saint Matthew? Did you not feel like you understood the man by the end of the movie?

>>I thought Year of Living Dangerously was more illustrative of this theme as I don't think Capote owed anything to the murderers. They were scum. Let 'em die. I did not feel a moral dilemma there. Frankly, that's how I feel about many people -- they're scum and not worthy of much compassion.

You have befriended people whose actions are less than admirable, but who are themselves somehow human, and as such, deserving of some compassion… or at least undeserving of betrayal.

Is compassion conditional? Do you have compassion for Eichmann when he is choking in the gallows?

>>Compassion by definition is restrictive (to quote Dennis Prager). If you are compassionate to everybody, you are not compassionate to anybody. I feel no compassion for murderers or for people making the world worse. Yeah, I befriend people I despise to get stories. It's not one of the top ten things I am most ashamed of. But I loved the movie and the issues it raises. I do think I have clearer answers on them than the movie or Capote.

Robert Anthony Siegel's Literary Novel - All the Money in the World

I sat down one Friday night and zipped through this novel in three hours. It's linear, realistic and fun -- a welcome change from the many writing-exercises-packaged-as-novels I've endured the past three months.

What's wrong with writing scenes that lead into the next scene and propelling the reader along?

I also enjoyed Like Normal People, the novel by Robert's wife's Karen Bender, but its nonlinear structure made me work harder than I wanted. I almost gave up on the book after 40 pages.

I wonder if reading a book should be like watching cricket or baseball -- you can fall asleep for an hour and not miss anything?

Time frame shifts don't allow your mind to wander for a page and then know where you are when you return your attention.

When I read a book, a dull book anyway, I like to skip every other page (or every other 50 pages). That way I can read twice as many books and sound twice as smart as the next blogger.

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Robert: "I was grandiose. I wanted to be important. It had something to do with writing. I was a heavy reader."

Luke: "There are fewer better platforms for a grandiose life than writing."

Robert: "You're wrapped up in what you think about things. Part of the experience of writing a novel is putting yourself at the center of the world. When you come in contact with the real world that grandiosity is a problem. You have to let go of it.

"In many ways, being a writer is humbling. There's almost no readership left for literary fiction. There's little chance to be noticed and to gratify those urges. My first book disappeared almost immediately. It had that classic 90-day shelf cycle. It had a silver lining. It kept me focused on my own writing. There wasn't a lot happening in the outside world. I had to focus in on my inner experience as a writer."

Luke: "Your dust jacket photo and the photo on your professor's page are very different."

Robert: "Two children in between those."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Robert: "I went to a small private school in Manhattan. Everybody inevitably circulated together. I didn't have many close friends. I was shy. I lived downtown. I was a commuter in a neighborhood school.

"Like many shy people, I've learned to compensate. I teach, which is a branch of performance."

At Harvard, Siegel got a BA in East Asian Studies (Japanese).

Luke: "What makes All the Money in the World literary as opposed to a John Grisham-style law-drama genre?"

Robert: "It was a difficult first publishing experience. It didn't get any support from the publisher, which is part of the reason it disappeared so quickly. In so far as they tried to tried to do anything, they tried to represent it as something it wasn't -- as a crime novel. It was the heyday (1997) of the legal thriller.

"People who bought it by mistake were unhappy. When the book got reviewed, it often went to a crime reviewer who was also unhappy because the expectations were so different.

"The book's plot was straightforward. It wasn't a point of interest for me. The focus was on character and the language that carries that experience. That makes it literary."

Luke: "Who's the protagonist of the book?"

Robert: "It's hard to say. The point of view switches between the attorney, Louis Glasser, and his son Jason. Louis is a more interesting character. He's the one who undergoes the drastic life change. It's his book. But Jason stands at the periphery and gives it meaning as an observer.

"That question is unresolved. It might've been a stronger book if it had been resolved."

Luke: "Isn't there a rule against that? It seemed like the protagonist changed 75% of the way through the book."

Robert: "I'm very aware of it as a first book. I'm struggling with so many personal issues and craft issues and my relationship to the material. I was learning as I went."

Luke: "How does Louis change? I know he loses weight and regains the will to live."

Robert: "Losing weight for him is a tremendous thing. If character is destiny, the fault in his character is appetite.

"And yet [the book] doesn't end with a grand pronouncement. That's another thing that marks the book as literary. I was trying to hold within the bounds of normal human experience rather than trying to create a neat dramatic arc. It's true to life. People go through terrible things and sometimes the one reward is having survived.

"Plot was such a struggle for me. It was the last thing I thought about. I was working hard making a plot that runs like a train, from station to station, going somewhere."

Luke: "Have you read John Grisham?"

Robert: "I haven't. I don't want to. For me to read something, there has to be something interesting going on. I don't play videogames either.

"It was pure coincidence that the world of my novel happened to invade their terrain.

"My father was a criminal defense lawyer. I knew that world intimately from childhood on, of small single practitioners with an office near the court buildings in downtown New York. They made good livings but everything was fragile. They worked out of phone booths in the court building and it wasn't clear if they had an office. Some of them worked out of their cars.

"It was my vision of adulthood.

"After college, I worked for my father as a paralegal for a year and a half. That was frustrating. Never work for your father."

Luke: "Did your father bring these crooks home, like Louis Glasser?"

Robert: "In that way, he was like Glasser. He didn't have clear boundaries between work and home, in part because the hours are so strange. When someone gets arrested, you have to go bail them out. It drove my mother wild. I could often hang out at his office. It was a relaxed place. There would be some toys for me. I'd sit there and watch the show (from age six on).

"My dad's clients were always friendly but they were also scary. Kids are learning the difference between what's allowed and what isn't allowed and there's something fascinating and scary about adults who don't follow those rules."

Luke: "How did your father like your book?"

Robert: "He liked it. When he went into criminal defense, that was the least prestigious rung on the legal ladder. He had done extremely well in law school but I think he went in this direction because there was a personal affinity and he lacked a certain comfort with a tonier environment. Like Louis Glasser, he'd grown up poor on the Lower Eastside. He felt he fit in better."

Luke: "How did the publication of your book affect you?"

Robert: "Because nothing happened, it affected me powerfully. These fantasies of literary self-transformation are common among writers. I expected to be changed, whether rich or famous. I thought I'd feel different, that I'd be more confident, that I'd writer better and faster. I would stop having bad days and anxieties. None of that happened. It was a difficult lesson to absorb, but a valuable one."

Luke: "If you would've turned your first novel in to a genre legal-thriller, the primary emphasis would've had to have been on the plot?"

Robert: "Yes. Character must serve plot instead of exploring the ambiguities of what Glasser's guilt is and what it means to him and his family. As one reader put it, Glasser is innocent enough not to deserve his fate but not innocent enough to avoid it. One way to have made it a genre novel would've been to stack the deck, to make him innocent but appear guilty. Then most of the novel would've been about his fight to prove his innocence."

Luke: "Do they give teaching positions to people who write genre novels?"

Robert: "It's a good question. There are literary writers who take a vacation and do genre stuff. Most MFA programs tend to be dominated by literary writers. Literature needs help. Genre work can support itself in the marketplace.

"When I was trying to figure out what plot is, I read some genre books. I really like Elmore Leonard. The plots are fun but mechanical. I picked up on old Elmore Leonard book for a buck on the street. I read it and then realized I had already read it. They tend to be formulaic. There are a bunch of people who transcend genre such as Raymond Chandler."

Luke: "What's your relationship to Judaism?"

Robert: "It's complicated. My father grew up Orthodox but was disillusioned. He said he went to Hebrew school and all the rabbi did was hit all the kids. We had no religious education in the house. I was not bar mitzvahed. But the cultural milieu was Jewish. My grandmother on my father's side was still kosher and yiddish speaking."

Luke: "Do you teach class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?"

Robert: "Don't. Those are not holidays here. I have to take off specially. My undergrads are fascinated. For some of them, I'm the first Jew they've ever met. I take that as a pleasure and responsibility. I tell them what it is like to be a Jew."

Luke: "Was there a time in your life when you realized you were going to be a writer?"

Robert: "It's a continuing anxiety. That first book was so hard to write... I wanted to solve the question of whether I was a writer. The reaction was so thunderously silent that there was no strong affirmation. It's not a question you can look to the outside world to solve. If it hadn't gotten published at all, would that have made it less of a book?

"The book sold so poorly that when I finished the second (two years ago, it is tentatively titled All Will Be Revealed, due out in March 2007), I couldn't sell it. I recently sold it to MacAdam/Cage. It was an enormous relief because it coincided with the tenure process. I had to publish a second book to qualify for tenure."

Luke: "Tell me about your second book."

Robert: "It's set in 19th Century New York."

Luke: "Are there a lot of Jews in it?"

Robert: "None, but in a way, the whole western world is Jewish after Freud.

"It's about a crippled pornographer who makes erotic stereographs (which give a three-D immediacy) and spiritualism.

"I give the pornographer in this book the same last name as the pornographer in my first book - Auerbach."

Who's The Highest Paid Orthodox Rabbi In Los Angeles?

Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center received over $400,000 in 2001. The highest paid pulpit rabbi is Steven Weil at Beth Jacob (800 members) with a package around $300,000 (that includes day school tuition for his seven children). Rabbi Elazar Muskin must bring in over $200,000 at Young Israel of Century City.

The total package for the new rabbi at Shaarey Zedek (350 members) will be about $200,000 (about twice what Aron Tendler was paid, and about three times what his predecessor Rabbi Sugarman was paid).

Rabbi David Wolpe at Temple Sinai (Conservative, about 2200 members) in Westwood brings in over $300,000 as does Steven Leder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (about 3000 members).

Lebanon photos: Take a closer look

Tim Rutten writes:

It's worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That's because one side — the democratically elected government of Israel — views death as a tragedy and the other — the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah — sees it as an opportunity. In this case, turning their own dead children into material creates an opportunity to cloud the fact that every Lebanese casualty, tragic as he or she is, was killed or injured as an unavoidable consequence of Israel's pursuit of terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured was the victim of a terrorist attack intended to harm civilians. That alone ought to wash away any blood-stained suggestion of moral equivalency.

Signs and Wonders by Melvin Jules Bukiet

This dark retelling of the Gospels is set in late 1999 and contains Bukiet's trademark homosexual rape (this time of a boy) and pissing on holy places.

I experienced strong emotions as I read the books. At first I was disgusted, and then intrigued, exhilarated, amused, repelled, and finally disgusted.

One thing that usually prevents me from enjoying Bukiet's novels is the lack of a likable protagonist.

From Publishers Weekly: "Sparing no sensibilities in this searing, bitterly satirical novel, Bukiet reflects on the hypocrisy, venality, depravity, corruption and folly of which the human race is capable, and produces a harrowing story that is an eerie reprise of both the biblical account of Jesus' life and the Nazi extermination policy against Jews. ...Bukiet (After) handles language with supple skill, using sardonic humor and a jocular vernacular in his supremely ironic assessment of humanity's capacity for wickedness. Throughout the narrative he adroitly clothes his tragic message in the raiments of black comedy and farce. Some readers may find Bukiet's conviction that Jews will always suffer the fate of scapegoats too pessimistic. However, his message about spiritual rebirth destroyed by hatred rings with moral conviction."

Steven writes on Amazon.com: "The Messiah is vague as a character. He is virtually absent from the book. He has little to say and there is no background info for him that might have given his coming more impact."

I email Bukiet: "There are few heroes in your writing. Your protagonists are not easy to like.

"And there's an awful lot of homosexual rape."

He replies:

Not sure about third observation. Yes, in Signs and Wonders; it's a prison book. And certainly the scene in Strange Fire because I'd set myself homosexuality as a kind of otherly identity for my protagonist: along with national (Israeli), occupational (speech writer), and mostly physical (blindness). I don't think this phenomenon exists elsewhere.

Point two: Why should protagonists be any easier to like than most people?

As for point one, heroes, that's much more interesting, but I can't speculate on it now. Busy. Feel free to take your own shots at an answer.

I guess Bukiet's protagonists are, at least in this respect, like Bukiet.

I suspect that unlikable protagonists deny a book or movie commercial success. I find that I have to push myself to read a book with an unlikable protagonist, such as one who urinates on an altar.

Cathy Seipp on how not to treat a subway groper

It took several months, but the Los Angeles Times's redesigned and generally soporific Sunday magazine finally came up with a must-read story: staff writer Claire Hoffman's riveting Aug. 6 profile of "Girls Gone Wild" mogul Joe Francis. Hoffman opened with a description of Francis twisting her arm behind her back and pressing her face onto the hood of a car (she wriggled free and punched him in the face, unfortunately "not too hard"); continued with a scene in which Francis deflowered an allegedly drunk and unwilling teenager; and closed with Francis pathetically tousling Hoffman's hair while murmuring "We love our little reporter."

Probably not any more, he doesn't, since Hoffman never stopped taking notes. This is what's known in the trade as the subject basically writing the story for you, but kudos to Hoffman for gamely sticking around and producing this terrific piece instead of wilting like a flower from the assault. Now she's sitting pretty while Francis is deservedly the laughingstock of the blogosphere. ("Joe Francis' Lawyer: My Client Is A Well-Hung, Consenusal Devirginizer," Defamer noted last week.)

Nancy Rommelman writes:

Growing up in NYC, I've been flashed, fondled, grabbed. I never put up with it, though once, I did pause, only because it was so bizarre: I was seated next to a Hassidim, and one I took be of high rank, as he wore the big fur hat. We were rolling along on the R train when I noticed his hand had moved from his own knee, to mine. He said nothing; he kept staring straight ahead. I looked at him, wanting him to at least acknowledge what he was doing; he did not. I removed his hand and then changed seats.

Katrina Victims Blamed for Houston Crime

Is there a race angle to this story that people are afraid to talk about?

Dennis Prager's Happiness Hour: Maturity

Guest Dr. Steven Marmer, member of the clinical faculty at the UCLA School of Psychiatry and psychiatrist in private practice in Brentwood, CA outlines what it means to be mature. He asks three key questions of his patients: how much anxiety can you tolerate without having to do something destructive to yourself or others; how much are you able to live in the present; and do you like undertaking obligations.

As he did with Prager's TV show 12 years ago, Alan Estrin has improved Prager's product since taking over as producer (about two years ago). A longtime friend of Prager's, Alan might have more strength to push Prager to not repeat himself as much, to get adequate sleep, to not spend time on esoteric subjects such as stereo equipment and favorite cigars.

If you're thinking of marrying, part 1

Dennis Prager (divorced twice) writes:

4. Does the person have a number of good friends and at least one very close friend of the same sex?

It is a bad sign if the person you are thinking of marrying does not have good friends (including of long duration) of the same sex. Something is very wrong. This alone should rule out the person from consideration. A woman who cannot hold female friends and a man who cannot hold male friends have issues that will probably sink your marriage.

If you're thinking of marrying, part 2

Dennis Prager writes:

10. Is the person unhappy?

Having written a best-selling book on happiness and lectured on the subject on all seven continents, I am tempted write a book-length book explanation of just this question. Suffice it to say that the importance of marrying an essentially happy person cannot be exaggerated. If you are basically happy, do not think for a moment that you can make an unhappy person happy by marrying him or her. On the contrary, the ability of the unhappy to make the happy unhappy is far greater than the ability of the happy to make the unhappy happy.

12. What do people you respect think of the person you're considering marrying?

Israel Defeated

Robert J. Avrech writes:

This is a major strategic defeat for Israel. There is no way around it. Olmert has led Israel into its worst defeat in history. When Nasrallah comes out of his bunker and proclaims victory, he will not be lying. It is almost an understatement. Where are the kidnapped soldiers? When will the rocket bombardment into Israel stop?

Shmuel Juravel plea bargain - over 20 years in prison

JWB writes:

Shmuel Juravel is the son of Rabbi Moshe Juravel who is employeed as a teacher at the Torah Institute of Baltimore. Shmuel Juravel was indicted on March 29, 2006, on the offenses of using a computer to persuade, induce and entice a minor to engage in prostitution or other sexual activity, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2422(b) (Count One); traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of attempting to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2423(b) & (e) (Count Two); and, knowingly possessing material containing images of child pornography, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2252A(a)(5)(B) (Count Three). On August 10, 2006 he plead guilty to three counts of traveling to have sex with a child and use of the Internet to entice a child to engage in illegal sex acts. Samuel Zev Juravel will spend 262 months in jail and a lifetime of supervised release. He also faces a fine to be determined by the court upon sentencing. There is no probation, no parole and no appeal. That was the plea agreement.

Related links:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - A Georgia man has pleaded guilty Thursday to three counts of traveling to have sex with a child and use of the Internet to entice a child to engage in illegal sex acts. WTVM.

Young Britt Douglas Murray Explains Neo-Conservatism To David Horowitz's Freedom Center Breakfast Club

Here's a .wav file of Friday's 67-minute talk.

According to the Aug 10 email:

Douglas Murray, author of "NeoConservatism: Why We Need It”, will be speaking to the Center Breakfast Club tomorrow at 8:00 A.M. He will be introduced by Robert Spencer the director of the Center's Jihad Watch Project and the author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam" and the forthcoming book, "The Life of Muhammad."

From England, Mr. Murray is an expert on the global jihad and will focus on today's thwarted terrorist plot to blow-up as many as 10 flights bound for the U.S. Mr. Murray will also be discussing Hezbollah's attack on Israel and other aspects of the war on Islamic terrorism.

I arrive at 7:30 a.m. Robert Spencer is already hitting the coffee. I bury myself in Tova Reich's comic novel Mara.

When the help eject me from my seat outside, I stroll in and pour myself a steaming cup of green tea. The water tastes of coffee grinds.

Discouraged by the lack of protein options, I plough through three sweetrolls, two plates of fruit and one cup of orange juice. Thus fortified, I look around at my social betters and start a conversation about the unsuitability of homosexuals as protagonists in novels for vulgar heteros.

"...Mexicans coming over our borders," says Janet Levy and I snap to attention for a minute before receding into my carbohydrates-induced fog. Then there's a terrible mix-up and the little Pommie clerk walks behind the lectern and starts mumbling about neo-conservatism.

He's got a plumby upper-class accent and he swallows his words. Those of us not trained in lip-reading are in big trouble.

I finally realize that this bloke talking about going after terrorism on the front foot (a cricketing term) is author Douglas Murray.

He gets terribly philosophical for somebody born in 1979. He says Leo Strauss is the modern founder of neo-conservatism.

He says there are no Muslim countries where non-Muslims enjoy equal rights.

I jot down notes. "Israel builds bunkers to protect its citizens. The other side builds bunkers to protect its missiles."

"Tuesday was all Ned Lamond. Where was Ned Lamont yesterday morning?"

"The four bombers [in London July 7, 2005] received collectively 250,000 pounds in welfare."

"A few days after the bombing, there was a story about a man in full Muslim regalia carrying a backpack boarding a train in London. Everybody froze until a young man went over and pushed the Muslim off the train saying, 'Not today, mate.'"

"The Brazilian who was shot by mistake July 21 is better known in Britain than any of the 54 victims of the July 7 bombing."

Murray recommends bulldozing mosques that teach sedition.

He gets his only spontaneous applause of the day.

Douglas mentions a British communist party whose campaign slogan was, "Vote for us and you'll never have to vote again."

He said we are not in World War III. Sure, that feels dramatic and important, but even if you had a 9/11 every month, that would still be nothing like the conflict of 1939-45.

"There's a vanity to be living at the end of time."

"If we are only given guilt, and not given pride, we will build a demoralized generation."

Douglas noted that due to fear of Islamic assassins, nobody is going to make fun of Mohammed to the degree Jesus is mocked. "And if you were to write about Mohammed's sexual shenanigans, you wouldn't even have to make them up."

Wednesday Morning Club director Michael Finch has grown a goatee. He must be auditioning for tough guy roles. I see him playing Steven Seagal's buddy in various anti-terrorism action adventure flicks with Horowitz's secretary Elizabeth along for fun.

There was a time in my life when I pondered the great issues of life. Now I just surf my neural transmitter tides of whimsy and bludge.

Liberty Film Festival founders Govindini Murty and Jason Apuzzo (they're married) arrive near the end of Murray's talk. She's so freakin' gorgeous it makes me forget entirely Jason's Ph.D. in Germanic Literature from Stanford University. Besides, he's an entirely average looking bald chap. He better thank God he's not gay or he'd be in for a long dry spell.

No conservative gathering can legally disperse until a little old lady raises her hand and protests the "New World Order," and the U.N. and one-world government.

Thus we were sent on our way at 10 a.m.

National Review's John Derbyshire Cites My Work

He writes in The Corner:

This is 3 years old but I hadn't seen it before. It's an interview that blogger Luke Ford had with one of my favorite conservatives, and one of the most interesting people around, Heather Mac Donald.

Clint Brooks emails me:


I found it interesting in your interview with Heather Mac Donald that she was highly critical of Deconstructionism (as am I), yet to some extent couched her criticism of religious belief using what I would call deconstructionalist logic, primarily the assertion that one's psychology or background has directly influenced their ability to believe in God, and her refusal to accept that rationality does play a part in religious faith.

A few observations:

Heather said:

"If people take religion seriously, I don't think you can have the religious tolerance we have. It's one or the other. In our culture now, tolerance has won out, which is a good thing for civil peace but may be a bad thing for religion."

This is of course a complete generalization of religion down to the lowest common denominator. The idea that religion and social tolerance or freedom are incompatible might be easily argued in a conservative Islamic society, but to infer that the two are not merely incompatible, but directly at odds, in certain Christian and other religious traditions is quite embarassing. The same generalization could be made of political ideology or even racial/cultural ideology. I seriously doubt that Ms. MacDonald would go so far as to suggest that having a strong political ideology or considering politics important would be necessarily incompatible with tolerance of dissenting beliefs.

By suggesting that tolerant people don't take religion seriously, she suggests that those of us who do take religion seriously are necessarily intolerant. Such a view is patently wrong-headed.

Heather said:

"I don't understand how people of intelligence can reconcile what I see as constant proof of divine indifference to human outcomes with a reverence for God. To me it's a mystery."

Of course, the entirety of her comment can be traced down to the line "what I see" which suggests that she regards religious belief as a product of something completely apart from rational thought. The result therefore is not one of examining or explaining the rational thought process, but rather dismissing it on the basis of the assumption that individuals who hold such viewpoints are guided by perspectives that are specific to their individual, social, and religious background.

In other words they are "conditioned" to reconcile what for her are self-apparently rational observations. Of course, it is not so self-evident that there is a constant divine indifference to human outcomes if one takes a broader view. One must assume that constant physical intervention in human lives is necessary, in order to hold this view. For those of us who believe in spiritual strength, meaning, and power, and who believe that God has acted, and continues to act in the ways that best suit His and therefore our purposes, such a view is simplistic. MacDonald seems to be railing against God's economy of action in this case, but more likely she is just reflecting a very materialistic world-view (in the philosophical sense).

Finally, Mac Donald adds: "...it is therefore to me a mystery that very intelligent people can be religious. I think there is a part of them that is willing to put aside their rationality because there is a deep emotional or psychological yearning for a belief in a transcendent being who has responsibility for our world. It's a part of the brain that does not involve empirical reasoning."

This is quite extraordinary, given the committment to rationality found in theism, particularly Jewish and Christian theism, embodied in the latter by The Apsotle Paul, St. Augustine, Aquinas, and others throughout history, and more recently by figures such as Franklin Schaffer and Josh McDowell. While one may feel free to argue about methodology and result, the suggestion that rationality must be "put aside" is quite remarkable. Ascribing religious belief to emotional and psychological yearning is not only simplistic but quite condescending. Furthermore, to many of us who have come to or reaffirmed our religious belief in spite of our human desires and nature, it is an observation that has little to do with reality as we have experienced it.

I realize that you are writing from a different perspective from Ms. Mac Donald and that in an interview situation it is not always appropriate to challenge details of a subject's responses. You may have addressed the comments in another part of the blog as well. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to point out that Ms. Mac Donald's responses indicated a perspective that had far less to do with original thinking and reasoning, and far more to do with assumptions regarding other people experiences and backgrounds. And isn't that the primary flaw of Deconstructionalism? The assumption that texts and by extension ideas are primarily the products of social conditioning rather than an appeal to rationality, and that they must thus be analyzed in the context of the social condition of the author and of the reader?

Certainly people are influenced by their personal stories, culture, and upbringing, but assuming their inability to employ rational thought to reach a conclusion we disagree with is a very serious mistake, and not one that is indicative of a truly serious thinker where applied. I would hope that Ms. Mac Donald would apply some of the serious intellect she displays in other areas to her own perspectives on religion.

'We Won't Be Here To Watch You'

The Orthodox rabbi made a brief announcement before reciting Havdalah (ends the Sabbath). "My wife and I are going away for a week. So, keep Shabbos, don't keep Shabbos. We won't be here to watch you."

I shivered.

No matter how wicked or anarchic my life gets, when the rabbi is not where he should be, I feel unease.

I was at minyan the other day. The rabbi was not there. The assistant rabbi was not there. After mincha (afternoon prayers), I looked around and, thank God, I saw another rabbi.

The gabbi asked for the beginning of maariv (evening prayers), but I protested and pointed at the rabbi at the back of the room. A rabbi, incidentally, I've never spoken to, but that did not decrease my need to have the rabbi come up front and give us a dvar torah.

Out Of Africa - The Luke Ford Reality Show

A friend wants to follow me around with a camera and cut together a pilot for a reality show.

What sort of situations would bring out my best? I figured my teaching English to legal immigrants in South-Central LA.

Whatever I do, there need to be a lot of black people around or I won't feel inclusive.

Perhaps someone could invite me and my cameraman to a cool party?

What Has Surprised Our American Correspondent In Jerusalem?

Women here seem to go from ages 20 to 50. I don't think there's much in between? No sex and the city lifestyle in Jerusalem.

It's all pretty familiar in one way or another. The kind of lower class pastimes that a jew in north america would never be caught doing that are par for the course for many here -- guys in souped up cars blasting hip-hop music, or old guys hovering over lottery terminals.

Only got hit up for change 3x at the kotel but then i was there at 9pm. I'd be curious to know how successful these guys are in swapping blessings for money.

The Unexpected Orgy

Spending Shabbat with six half-naked new friends—in one bed by Rachel Kramer Bussel.

Jewish Literature - More Blowjobs Per Page

The most comprehensive sex survery ever (University of Chicago 1994) found that Jews have more sex partners than any other group in the United States.

Jews are the only group in the United States which has a majority opposed to censorship of pornography.

As a convert to Judaism, I've found that Jews are more sexually open than other groups and that Jewish women are more likely than their Gentile sisters to give oral sex (even though this act is regarded as a sin in Jewish law (even between husband and wife) due to the spilling of seed in a non-procreative orifice).

Lauren Grodstein and Binnie Kirshenbaum come to my mind when I think about Jewish literature that blows me away.

Yori Yanover writes me: "Are you nuts? Where did you get that from? Kindly read Nedarim 20:b for a wonderful dissertation on all the many things Jewish husbands and wives can do with and to each other, for the joy of sex, regardless of procreation. The crap you wrote there is so Christian, we may have to re-snip you, to make sure your conversion will keep..."

Miriam the Medium

I was not looking forward to this book but it pulled me in right away because it seemed as though Rochelle Shapiro was writing about her own life (which, largely, she was). There are few qualities I enjoy more in a book than realism.

I also want the unexpected on every page, which this book provides.

Here's my email interview Thursday with Rochelle.

* From reading the book and all the articles about you, I get the impression that as far as happiness goes, being a medium is a downer.

Sometimes, being a medium is a downer because you see and experience the pain of everyone involved--the deceased, the family. Once I let go of that--and it is work to do so--I have to meditate three times a day so I become the observer rather than the reactor, I then become the reporter. What is wonderful for me is when a person I've worked with recommends a relative or friend who then tells me, "Oh, you've helped ..... so much." I can't know that as I'm doing the reading. It's like writing in that way. You only know the worth of what you've given got when your editor tells you. The worst part about being a medium is that people expect certain specific information to come to validate the reading and it may not. I may know that the deceased died of a head injury, for example, but might not hear the pet name he called his wife. I always tell the client that you have to let go. It's like listening to someone's dream about you. Although the novel is called Miriam the Medium, I am predominantly a regular psychic--that is I receive info about one's life--health, finance, relationships, etc. The spirits either are there when the client calls or appear when the client asks specifically, "Is my mother around?" I'm always afraid, because of the title of the novel, that people will think of me primarily as a medium and not call me about their jobs, their cranky husbands (or wives), etc.

* If you are happy, what are you happy about?

I'm happy about the small things of this world--how the pansies on my terrace are cascading over their pot and how this wonderful plant, called chenille, that I'd never knew about until I bought it this season at the nursery, feels like my mother's pink bedspread that, as a child, I used to rub my face against for comfort. I'm also happy about the circle of love that I'm in--the devoted friends, the kindness of my sister and brother, watching my clients grow and change their lives for the better. And writing makes me very happy (when it's going well.)

* Do you believe in God, an eternal soul, the divinity of the Torah and the basics of Jewish belief?

Since I converse with eternal souls on a fairly regular basis, I believe in them with all my heart. I love the rituals of my religion--lighting the Friday night candles, eating inside a succah even when it's raining, putting on a Purim costume and hissing at Haman. Religion is a great bond in a family, a community. I am fascinated with the torah, the teachings. But I'm equally as fascinated and moved by reading about and hearing about other religions. I've read about Mohammed, I've read the works of St. John of the Cross, Julianna of Norwich, The Little Flower, St. Teresa of Aragon, the Bagavad Gita. Religion has a lot to offer. But I respect people who choose agnosticism or atheism. I love living in a pluralistic society.

* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a singer, dancer, and actress. Actually, my mother had signed me up for Mac Levy's professional school where learned to sing and tap dance and did Shirley Temple-like acts in nursing homes.

* What crowd did you hang out with in high school?

I had to raise my little brother and had a ton of family responsibility. When I had a chance to get into the MLP--Maximum Learning Program in high school, I had to say no because my brother was too young to be a latchkey kid and I would have had to spend hours at the library. (Pre-computer days, of course.) So I hung out with kids who rebelled. Some of them are spirits to me--they either were killed in Vietnam or killed by overdoses of heroine. I was lucky that I didn't have enough free time to get into real trouble.

* How have those closest to you reacted to your Miriam the Medium book?

Although my daughter never, ever got into the kind of trouble Cara did in Miriam the Medium, she doesn't want any of her friends to read it for fear that they will believe she did. When my husband heard that I was doing an autobiographical novel, he told me he'd be jealous if I was in love with anyone but him, so Miriam is married to Rory, a 6 foot 4 inch pharmacist like my husband.

* Is it a struggle to only use your powers for good or do you get tempted to use them against people you hate?

There wouldn't be any way to use my powers against someone I hate. If you project hate, it only comes back on you. Besides, I only hate someone for a moment, and then I see the pain they went through that made them behave like that and I'm mush. My husband gets so annoyed with me. "You feel sorry for everyone, don't you?" It's not feeling sorry for--it's seeing them in my mind as they were as a child, what they went through. Really, who can hate a child?

* Which is more painful to you and which brings you more joy and which talent do you have more of a choice about exercising? Psychic or writer?

I don't feel that I have much control over either gift. Both writing and my psychic work seem to have minds of their own within my mind. I am constantly sitting down to write about a character doing thus and so when suddenly, I'm pulled in a new direction. Another character comes in or the character does something I never expected. The same with the psychic work. A person calls, just wanting to know whether his relationship will last and all of a sudden, I might see a drowning incident that he had as a boy.

* Have you ever done TV about your psychic powers and how did it go?

I wouldn't do TV with my psychic work. I'm not used to doing it in front of crowds, let alone with all those lights. I love the one-to-oneness of the phone work. I do radio shows, but I get so nervous that my heart slams in my ears and I can hardly hear myself speak.

* Best and worst interviews?

The worst interviews were by people who hadn't read my work and had no idea what questions to ask me. The best interviews were ones where the interviewer did his homework, followed his own curiosity.

* I assume that for most people, your being a psychic, overwhelms every other quality.

Yes, that's the part that's quite annoying. Oh, you're a psychic. Do you know if my son will pass the bar exam? Or "I went to a fabulous psychic who told me...." Or, "I have psychic powers too," and I'm treated to a snoring story of how one day a woman drives up to her house and sees a spirit's hands around it and then she went inside and the TV didn't work and the lights flickered and then her neighbor's fire alarm went off and then...."

* By telling your story, by revealing your inner landscape, baring your soul, it must have informed and educated some people in your life...but left you more vulnerable to others.

Well, certainly people from my town got quite huffy with the satirical portrait that I painted of them, but as a comic from the fifties, Belle Barth, used to say, "If I embarrass you, tell your friends." I think it's hard for writers in general. You go off to do a reading at a bookstore and what do you hear? "You look so much younger in your pictures." Would they have said that to Eudora Welty? Once, I barely escaped a reading at a library because people were demanding free psychic readings and pulled at my sleeves. I was afraid they would pluck my clothes off as they once did to Marilyn Monroe who happened to be wearing a sexy dress with flowers sewn all over it. Ah, what horticultural fans will stoop to!

Jewish Survivors: Was HaRav Dovid Cohen Threatened? Is That Why He Turned Survivors Away?

Last week I asked the question "How Many Survivors Did HaRav Dovid Cohen Turn Away?"

Since then I've been hearing some very disturbing rumors from some of my most reliable sources.

One rumor I keep hearing consistently "the reason why Rabbi Cohen turned away so many survivors had to with the threats he received to his own personal well being and that of his family".

I've also been told "if Rabbi Cohen showed any support to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau, the organizations he was connected would loose a great deal of financial support from the Steinharter Family of Baltimore (Steinharter Insurance Servcies)."

I've been told that this particular family supposedly financially supports many of the organizations in Baltimore that tend to support other alleged sex offenders.

I also want to mention that last week someone posted the following comment to the thread "How Many Survivors Did HaRav Dovid Cohen Turn Away?"

There is a prominent family in Baltimore named Steinharter. They are close friends of Eisgrau and have done some dirty cover up work connected to the allegations against him. They have money and I was wondering if anyone has any insight...Are the Big Three N, H, H, (Neuberger, Heinemann, Hopfer) controlling the Steinharters, or are the Steinharters and their money controlling the Rabbis?

I need help looking into these rumors, so if anyone has any information please e-mail it to me.

I Get Rejected By Self-Publisher iUniverse

It's not been a good week. I lost a blogging gig ($333 a month). I can't get my domain name lukeford.com. And I'm impotent.

Now I get rejected by a vanity press.

I thought that in this cold cruel world of ours, I could always find solace in the bosom of a vanity press.


I published my first book through Prometheus in June 1999. It was a horrible experience. First, I failed. My book was bad. I didn't know what I was doing. Second, the editing process was horrible. I had two dates to respond to a manuscript covered with the editor's red ink and I was not allowed to rewrite the chapters, I could only write my responses into the messy manuscript. Also, the editor unilaterally decided I could not use the real names of the people I wrote about and that certain things were too gossipy and salacious. In other words, she removed much of the best material in the book.

I threw up my hands. I failed and my editor failed the book.

So I moved on to self-publish three books through iUniverse, two of them books of interviews.

Unlike with Prometheus and mainstream publishers, I did not need to get releases from all the people I interviewed.

But that's changed.

Sunday night I submitted my latest book -- Lives on the Edge: Profiles in Sex, Love and Death (a collection of my best interviews over the past decade) -- to iUniverse.

On Monday, I got an email from the publishing assistant at iUniverse assigned to my book:

After reviewing your submission, I see that it is a collection of interviews, many of which have an accompanying photograph. Please note that we will need a copy of your permissions letters for the following:

1) We will need a permission letter from each person interviewed.

2) We will need a permission letter from the rights holder for each photograph used.

Once we have a copy of each letter on file, we may proceed with publication.

OK, that made sense, but I wanted to fight it.

I've published two previous books of interviews with iUniverse and never had to provide permission letters from any person interviewed. Some of the persons whose interviews appear in this book are no longer alive and others I have no idea where they are. All of the interviews in my book have been previously published on my website. Do you still need a permission letter if the interview appeared originally on my website? I can provide the citations. If so, I'll have to cancel, get a refund, and publish my book elsewhere.

The assistant responded:

Thank you for your reply. I will submit the book to our Editorial Board for a second opinion regarding the interviews. I will let you know what they decide in a couple of days.

If you do not own the rights to the photographs, however, you may want to begin working on obtaining the necessary permissions.

That made sense. I had all the photo permissions.

Tuesday, I was emailed by the iUniverse assistant:

Luke, The Editorial Board has agreed that permissions are required from each person interviewed. In recent months various publishers and authors have been sued for libel, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy (one publisher and author, for example, were ordered yesterday to pay $200,000 in a libel suit). Thus far we have avoided these types of lawsuits. To avoid litigation, we have been much more aggressive to ensure that our books do not violate copyright law, are not libelous, and do not violate anyone's right to privacy. This policy is in place to protect both iUniverse and the author.

In your case, we do need a permission letter from each person interviewed. If you are not able to obtain a permission letter, you will need to remove that interview from your book.

In addition, real names of people and organizations are used throughout the book. While you do not need letters of permission, you do need to have them sign some kind of release form in order to have them in the book.

Everything made sense to me except the last paragraph.

I decided to cancel and go with another publisher.

If I may, I would like to make a suggestion. Before publishing the book elsewhere, I think it would be a good idea to have the manuscript vetted by an attorney with publishing experience. With the technology available today (the Google Print program, for example), it is extremely easy for an organization or individual to find what has been written about them. In today's litigious environment, it is important for authors to be cautious and to protect themselves.

I wish you all the best, and I hope you will consider iUniverse for any future projects.


Five years ago (Aug. 8, 2001), I sold lukeford.com and signed a written contract that gave me the right to buy back the domain name lukeford.com on Aug. 8, 2006, for $1,000.

I now see that Jerry at mallcom.com owns Lukeford.com. But he's not the guy I sold the domain to. My contract is with another entity.

I want my name back.

The Future Of The Valley's Modern Orthodox Shul Shaarey Tzedek

SZ member "Jennifer" writes:

There is a real split in Jewish Orthodoxy today. Modern v. Old School.

Modern orthodox women go to shiurim (Torah lectures) with printouts about how god manifests himself in an eschatological fashion in our technological society while wearing the latest from Aldo and have 2 kids. Old School orthodox women wear a sock on their head and barely leave the house because they have 6 kids.

Modern Orthodox men have poker games and watch football on sundays. Old School orthodox men learn torah at night and don't know a wide receiver from a from hi fi receiver.

Old school orthodoxy is where the heat is. Their institutions are busting at the seams, they have kids like arabs do, and they are attracting many more fire breathing baal teshuvas. They are authentic and dont apologize for being intolerant.

Modern Orthodoxy is defining itself by what it is not. It is tolerant and apologizes for being authentic. Look at Shaarey Tzedek. Tendler would probably not have gotten the job if he interviewed today. A modern orthodox rabbi wants 200K a year plus a pension. An old school orthodox rabbi just wants to save souls, not save for his 401(k). 25 years from today, a place like Shalhevet with co-ed classes will be a book storage facility for bais yaakov, the separate girls high school in Hancock Park. Modern orthodoxy is like Conservative Judaism in the 1950s -- all present and no future.

Jack writes:

Regarding “Jennifer”’s statement today, I find it a sign of the victory of Modern Orthodoxy. For after all, who is Modern and who is traditional? Let’s see. Modern Orthodoxy: studies texts in the original, tends to go to yeshivot in Israel, have produced a large body of successful community and Rabbinic leaders as well as important texts with lasting impact (Rav Soloveitchik, Shalom Carmy, Norman Lamm, etc). What the “Valley” calls traditional Judaism? Hmm. Can generally not read or learn in Hebrew/Aramaic, does all “learning” from ArtScroll in English (when I was growing up in the yeshiva world, it was an insult to be caught reading Mishna Berura, much less using an English gemora), believes in things like Bible codes generated from computers (not found anywhere in the classical Torah literature), and produces second tier grade and high schools, where graduates become dependant upon places like Touro, founded by none other than those so called “Modern Orthodox” people. Oh, and of course, a defining characteristic of the so called Valley traditional model is to wear blue fedoras of the Modern period, ie the 1940s and 50s. Aside from the fact that Rabbi Tendler would in no way be listed among the Modern Orthodox, having never studied in YU or university but being purely of Ner Yisroel stock. In fact, if you peruse the list of offender rabbis, other than Baruch Lanner, they are all from the “traditional” world (Gafni, paradoxically, liked to consider himself Modern Orthodox at first, but he was not a YU grad or musmach, his college degree is from a correspondence school in NJ, then tried to label himself as neo-Hassidic, before falling into the ultra-Renewal circles). And if their entire argument is based upon the cramped quarters of Valley Torah, perhaps they should look at the real overall statistics (of course, if numbers defined truth, then we should all be Hindus). I would also suggest that much of the traditional yeshiva world would look upon Chofetz Chaim grads as “modern orthodox” or modern something or other.

Houses Are For Breeders

Greg writes:

Last night's win for Lamont means that the Democratic Party is going to become a very arid place for Jews with a world view that is shaped by their relationship with the state of Israel as opposed to their relationship with their local starbucks. No matter whether you are pro or anti the war in Iraq, the presence of 4 plus combat divisions of US troops in iraq and a division plus in afghanistan puts Iran in a hell of a box. That is good for Israel and good for western civilization. Whereever US troops are, there are no land wars within a 300 mile radius unless US troops are fighting in it. Land wars get in the way of delivering IPOD and DVDs to US troops. There is no way Iran is going to attempt any direct miliary action against Israel so long as the US is doing commando raids against targets in Iran proper. And Ahmadinejad is going to be alot more reasonable with a US presence in his backyard. Elect more Ned Lamonts and US troops will be handing out care packages in Darfur....

Certain cities are going to become difficult for jews to live in as "political" anti-semitism rises. The nazi variant was a racial/religious form of anti-semitism, but racial anti-semitism is way too unPC these days. You can't say you hate jews because they have big noses, dont have blonde hair, or killed Jesus. However, you can say you hate jews because Israel is not aceding to the demands of palestinians by moving pack to galicia - it is the jews' political stance that is hated, not the jews themselves. Certain cities are hotbeds for this progressive sort of think - like seattle (a city dominated by muslims who run the car rental business at the airport), all of northern california (if there was an attack on a federation building there, you would not see any sort of protest from the local body politic, there would be too much of we condemn the killing of jews for the actions of israel, BUT israel should restrain itself and stop the "nazi" style "blitzing" of lebanese "civilians"), probably detroit, and some other college towns. A contrary example would be Irvine, California. The muslims run rampant on campus there, but if any one of them were to walk outside of campus and try to garner support in the south coast plaza for the "right of return" i bet more than one hot blonde bimbo would ask if the right of return lets them get a refund on a boob job gone wrong.....

Gay men in Los Angeles are really in a quandary. What do you do when you take over a section of the city (west hollywood) and it turns into a friggin tourist trap with way too kitschy and crappy stores. I guess you move out of boystown and buy a piece of the pie on the westside. Well, silly, houses are for breeders. If you are gay, why would you ever need more than one bedroom? Why do you need a backyard? Why do you need a rumpus room? As gays become more and more successful, I think we will see more and more adoptions by gays so that they can get a hobby other than russell terriers...

Women in their 30s and up in L.A. are also screwed. Men who are divorced would rather spend their money on strippers, prostitutes, and no limit texas hold em rather than try and date women who want to give men the third degree and have them play second fiddle to such women's ill conceived rug rats. Many a single friend of mine have cancelled their match.com subscriptions and are using their funds to frolic with the whores in vegas or "massage parlors". They spend their downtime playing poker or listening to talk radio, rather than chasing women with fat ankles who won't jerk a guy off until he passes the 40 point compatibility test.

Chaim Amalek writes:

1. Greg is very wise.
2. Lieberman has a good shot at retaining his senate seat in the general election by running as an independent.
3. Muslims hate Jews more than the shvartzes ever did during civil rights days. And they are much better armed.
4. Putting a Jewish state in the middle of a sea of angry arabs was a bad idea. It's a good country, far better than any run by arabs or informed by Islam, but it still was a bad idea. Too bad the Jewish state wasn't sited in Madagascar.
5.American liberalism is utterly incompatible with Zionism. How can anyone favor equal rights for all to come here, open borders, and then tolerate a nation like Israel that does the opposite?
6. So many of the complaints men have about women come from the failure of these men to snag a good one in a timely manner.
7. Northern California, especially Silicon Valley, is rapidly being absorbed into Asia, to the detriment of other races.
8. The Republicans will lose control over, well, over just about everything in the next few years. Invading Iraq was a terrible blunder, one for which the electorate will not be in a very forgiving mood.
9. The Jews will lose power in this shift.
10. The Jews in Hollywood will learn to get along with the new national order, and start making some movies more sympathetic to the plight of the muslim trying to make his way in the West.
11. Gay marriage? As if! Islam has no use for it. Back into the closet, all you pro-gay people..

Strange Fire

I email author Melvin Jules Bukiet: "Do you think heterosexuals are going to read books with a homosexual protagonist?"

He replies:

Dear Mr. Flaubert,

Do you think that males will read books with a female protagonist?

Do you think that Americans will read books with a French protagonist?



Dear Reader,

Empathy, the ability to imagine oneself as someone else, is the precondition for art.


One. Notice that neither Gustave nor Melvin answered my question about how people act. I didn't ask about how people should act.

[Melvin responds: "Not sure how to answer that. I like audiences and appreciate them, but I don't really think about them much. Neither do I think much about writers. It's the writing itself, mine or others, that interests me."]

Two. Nobody can dispute that men and women are happy to read about each other. What I asked is whether heteros will read books with a homo protagonist. From my sense of things, they generally will not.

Only under duress will I read a book or watch a movie with a homosexual male protagonist who is explicit in his homosexual desires. I find buggery (and the use of hard drugs) more disturbing than almost anything short of murder.

I also suspect that most whites won't read many books with a black protagonist. Certainly box office figures and rating prove that whites watch few movies and TV shows with leads who are black (Denzel Washington, Will Smith aside, and Eddie Murphy at one time crossed the color line).

A part of myself that I want to deny suggests that Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, (features a bi-questioning Jewish protagonist) might be just the book to ease me into gay lit.

Jack writes:

I can only think of three or four gay-protagonist novels that I've read and liked. So I don't think you are wrong per se, but on the other hand I think that really great writing can make us relate to characters who are different than us. But there isn't much really great writing out there. And like most identity-driven art (including jewish fiction) most gay fiction is awful.

From a commercial standpoint you are certainly right -- I doubt there will ever be a big mass market successful novel with a gay protagonist (or at least not one with a lot of gay sex in it.) But in the world of high-brow literary fiction, which is mostly what I read anyway, not many books are widely read anyway, so I don't think gay characters make much of a difference in their minute overall sales levels anyway. Nysteries of Pittsburgh might actually be an exception to both of these rules since it is a serious literary novel, whatever that means, and sold pretty well.

Many or even most upper middle class kids who want to be novelists go to MFA programs these days. Probably most aspiring young Jewish writers are from upper middle class backgrounds.. There's already been a lot written about the pros and cons of MFA programs as a cultural trend, and I think it's hard to generalize. Good for some people, bad for others. They do create a lot of teaching jobs for mid career fiction writers who would otherwise have to have some sort of shitty day job, which I think is a good thing -- even if the programs don't produce a lot of good young writers, they indirectly subsidize some excellent writing from their faculties.

Who Is Claire Hoffman?

Who is the woman who nailed Joe Francis?

She's apparently 29. She must be gorgeous as well as blond and charming.

Lauren Grodstein - Reproduction is the Flaw of Love

I call her in New York August 7, 2006.

Luke: "You do look like Monica [Lewinsky]. The full mouth."

Lauren: "Maybe I did. Once they started referring to her as chunky, I decided I didn't look a thing like her."

Luke: "Did you really have all that angst over it as you wrote in The Modern Jewish Girls Guide To Guilt or was that more of a construct?"

Lauren: "I felt embarrassed that she was Jewish.

"When I went to graduate school, I decided to forgive myself more. I couldn't control the political landscape."

Luke: "I don't understand what you were forgiving yourself for."

Lauren: "I wouldn't say I was forgiving myself for anything I had done."

She sighs. "I was letting myself off the hook for feeling weirdly implicated while I was in France for being a friendly Jewish-American woman who smiles a lot. The French tend to mock Americans for being puritanical and ridiculous."

Luke: "I've noticed that a lot of Jewish women say their biggest flaw is they give too much. I ask them about their moral struggles and they say, 'Oh, I give too much.'"

Lauren gives the laugh of recognition. "I think all women feel that way. We're raised to take care of other people."

Luke: "It seems delusional to think that 'my biggest moral struggle is that I give too much.'"

Lauren: "Can people identify their biggest moral struggles? I have no idea. I know I have several but it's hard to pin them down."

Luke: "With guys, you know the biggest moral struggle is not to screw around and not to beat people."

Lauren: "Really? To keep your pants zipped and your fists to yourself. Women also face that."

Luke: "To the same intensity men do?"

Lauren: "I have no idea."

Luke: "You [frequently] write the male perspective. I'm impressed with how well you understand the male psyche. It's basically blowjobs."

Lauren laughs. "And existential angst and the girl who got away.

"Men and women aren't that different from each other. When the character Grant Miller [in Reproduction] fell in love, I tried to make it how I felt when I fell in love. People say how well I got into the male character but all I tried to do was write about myself honestly."

Luke: "Did Blair [the girl who got away] and Stan [Grant's father] ever get it on?"

Lauren: "I don't think so. I could never decide for sure."

Luke: "Why did you tell this tale of despair?"

Lauren: "I thought it had a happy ending. The guy [Grant] decides he can be alone. I did get teary when I wrote about Stan's death."

Luke: "Almost all your stories tend to be bleak and depressing."

Lauren laughs. "Maybe that's true?"

Luke: "Is that a reflection of your psyche and your experience? I can't imagine a happy person writing a lot of bleak stories."

Lauren: "The stories aren't autobiographical aside from location. I'm a happy person who gets the sadness out in what I write. Never in my life have I thought of myself as a sad person.

"The stories are about people in their late teens and early twenties. I wrote one of them when I was 19 and the last one when I was 25. That's a terrible age. Those were not the best years of my life. I was uncertain. I never imagined these stories were going to get published.

"I tend to write about absent parents and both of my parents are alive and well. I tend to write about broken hearts and I've been with the same man for six years and we've been married for almost two."

Luke: "The emotional landscape is so bleak."

Lauren: "I thought it was funny."

Luke: "What happened to your blog?"

Lauren: "I felt extremely exposed. In fiction you get to hide behind your characters. I freaked out and stopped."

Luke: "Would you rather write a great novel or have a great marriage?"

Lauren: "Write a great novel. I don't think it's even a question. Luckily I'm married to the kind of guy who understands why I said that."

Luke: "How did the title - Reproduction is the Flaw of Love - help you tell your story?"

Lauren: "Here's the whole quote, from Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo: 'Although Samuel had a depraved imagination—perhaps even because of this—love, for him, was less a matter of the senses than of the intellect. It was, above all, admiration and appetite for beauty; he considered reproduction a flaw of love, and pregnancy a form of insanity.'

"The quote reminded me of the way Miller might try to justify his admiration for Lisa - as a matter of the intellect, perhaps, if not the senses. Also, in this novel, reproduction (or the possibility of it) is the thing that ends whatever form of love Lisa and Miller have managed to muster up."

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Lauren: "A writer."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Lauren: "I was pretty dorky. I hung out with the smart kids. When I was a junior, I scored myself a marginally more popular boyfriend, which made the rest of highschool a lot better."

Luke: "What's been your relationship with Judaism?"

Lauren: "I've become a better Jew since I married my husband who was not born Jewish but became interested in it after we met. We took courses together. We started going to a synagogue in our neighborhood, a progressive, socially-conscious place. We try to light candles on Friday night.

"I was raised in a culturally Jewish home but not religious."

Lauren is the eldest of three kids.

Luke: "How does your family feel about your writing?"

Lauren: "My father was very concerned about this choice. He's a physician... Now he's proud of me. He believes that all my sex scenes come from things I've seen in movies."

Luke: "There's a strong theme of blowjobs in your writing."

Lauren: "Fiction, fiction, fiction."

The Modern Jewish Girls Guide To Guilt

Many of the stories in this nonfiction collection are more compelling than most of the fiction created by these same writers.

Daphne Merkin and Gina Nahai are always compelling in either genre, but folks such as Dara Horn, Aimee Bender, and Rebecca Goldstein, who tend to write complicated and demanding (or surreal in the case of Bender) novels, are straight-forward in Guilt.

The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin

From Publishers Weekly: "More than a decade has passed since Griffin Mill's murderous ascent to Hollywood power in The Player. Now, with his career stalled and only $6 million in the bank, he is, by Hollywood standards, broke. The 12-year-old daughter he sired with his then mistress (now discontented wife), Lisa, is a brat who reverts to noxious baby talk when she doesn't get her way. His two older children hold him in cold contempt. He suffers from erectile dysfunction (his allergy to Viagra a wicked double whammy) and lusts after his ex-wife, June. In Griffin's mind, all of Western civilization is in decline, and his fantasies feature a Pacific atoll stocked with food and weapons. Step one in his plan to gain control hinges on leveraging the politics of elite Los Angeles private schools. (He commits manslaughter in the process.) Griffin's ploy snags the attention of a voracious entertainment magnate who plucks Mill from his stagnation and taunts him into concocting a multibillion-dollar idea. Mill's antiheroic effort to wring love and meaning from a loveless and meaningless life is heartfelt and cynical, resulting in a powerful dark comedy that transcends the shopworn genre of Hollywood satire."

Facing Middle Age With No Degree, and No Wife

It's not just me.

The Literature Of Despair

For the past few weeks, I've been gorging myself on fiction about Jewish life.

I've noticed a common theme -- despair.

If one's view of Jewish life was primarily shaped by modern Jewish fiction, one would have to conclude that Jewish life isolates people rather than connects them.

As a convert to Judaism, my experience of Jewish life is the opposite -- that Judaism helps you form meaningful bonds to others (the primary determinant of happiness after genes). For instance, Judaism mandates that Jewish men pray three times a day, preferably with a group of ten or more Jewish men. It's hard to see the same people day after day and not start forming attachments.

You can say many things about Judaism but you can't deny it is a superb way of forming community.

Those who write the literature of loneliness, dislocation and hopelessness include Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Pearl Abraham, Elisa Albert, Steve Almond, Molly Jong-Fast, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Jon Papernick, Thane Rosenbaum, Steve Stern.

I suspect these people are writing what they know.

I believe these authors are overwhelmingly secular -- that they don't practice much or any Judaism and they don't have much or any belief in God.

I don't think the lack of a religion and an obsession with despair is a coincidence. Atheism and lack of membership in a religious community robs most people of purpose and meaning.

As Variety Editor Peter Bart notes, writers do their best work when they are angry and isolated.

I believe the American-Jewish literature of despair is primarily a reflection of the psyches and choices of those who write it rather than a realistic portrayal of Jewish life.

Incidentally, I don't believe that the primary purpose of art is to inspire. Rather, art's first duty is to reveal life. I don't believe that the primary obligation of Jewish writers is to inspire people to practice Judaism. I do believe that most writers create more powerful work when they do research (as opposed to just making things up).

I wager that if you throw yourself into a form of Jewish life that speaks to you, you will usually find that participation tends to connect you to others more deeply than secular alternatives.

I believe that everything you do and read and watch affects you. By gorging on the literature of despair, I've found myself depressed. My feelings have flattened. Life has seemed robbed of purpose.

After nihilism, my biggest complaint about Jewish fiction is the lack of research done by Jewish novelists. There are way too many fables and concerns with fancy pants literary techniques as opposed to capturing life in a profound way (a la Tom Wolfe, Richard Russo, Leo Tolstoy).

I believe these two points are connected. One who researches the wider world and forms bonds with people is less likely to craft nihilistic stories. Engagement leads to meaning.