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Ehud Havazelet

I phone the author of three books Tuesday afternoon (July 26, 2006). He lives in Corvallis and teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.

Luke: "How do you like your name?"

Ehud: "If I didn't like it, I would've changed it. It's always been an issue with pronunciation. Since age four, whenever teachers have stopped and looked confused, I raised my hand and told them.

"My two sons are named Jacob (5) and Michael (18).

"My name bothered me when I was younger because I felt like it stuck out but now it's fine.

"I was a wannabe musician for a few years and this guy told me that if I wanted a chance with Roulette Records, they were going to call me Ed Hazel. My wife and I use that as a joke name."

Luke: "Did your [second] wife [of six years] take your name?"

Ehud: "No."

Luke: "How do you feel about that?"

Ehud: "Fine. Jacob has my last name. I would've been proud if my wife had taken my name..."

"I've been mistaken more often for an Arab than an Israeli."

Luke: "You were never going to be able to assimilate with your name?"

Ehud: "No. And nobody has asked me assimilate with any name."

Ehud moved to Oregon in 1989.

Luke: "When did you break with Orthodox Judaism and why?"

Ehud: "The second semester of college. I didn't have a positive experience growing up Orthodox in New York. I found it closed, vicious and sniping. I didn't know anyone who had spirituality."

Ehud's father Meir just retired at age 78 as a professor of rabbinics at Yeshiva University.

Luke: "At what age did you first smoke pot?"

Ehud: "Fifteen."

Luke: "At what age did you become a rebel?"

Ehud, the eldest of four kids: "I was rebelling all the time. I went to college wearing a yarmulke and a ponytail. The public rebellion came when I stopped keeping kosher and stopped wearing a yarmulke and started having tremendous fights with my father.

"In 1967, I was eleven when the Six Day War happened. My father and I talked excitedly about getting on a plane and going there and seeing what we could do. By the 1973 war, I had seen the other side. I was against the war in Vietnam and against militarization.

"I hated going to yeshiva. I had to get there at 7 a.m. to pray. I left at 5:30 p.m. I had some rabbis who were very traditional and some very troubled. Some were rigid and sadistic. One threw a kid down the stairs and broke his back. I used to get hit.

"I went to Ramaz. It was the most modern yeshiva. I wanted to go to a non-yeshiva school. My parents said no way. You go to a Jewish school but you can pick the one you want."

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

Ehud: "There wasn't much of a crowd. There were a few of us getting high and going down to the Philmore [for concerts by the Grateful Dead, etc].

"Somebody at [Ramaz] found out that somebody was getting high so they had the police department come down to this nice Jewish school and had a display of the various types of drugs and all the reasons you shouldn't use them. Winning arguments such as, 'Why do you think they call it dope?'

"With wonderful naiveté, they passed around five joints so we could all get a look at them. At the end, only three of them came back to the stage. The principal got up and said, 'No one is leaving this room until they come back.'"

Luke: "Did you get expelled?"

Ehud: "I was suspended often."

Luke: "Have any Orthodox institutions invited you to give a reading?"

Ehud: "Yeshiva University has. A colleague of my father's likes my stuff. I had dinner with a bunch of students from Stern College [the women's branch of Y.U.]."

Luke: "Did you corrupt the youth?"

Ehud: "No. I was on my best behavior. I had a couple of Scotches before I went to make sure I could take whatever would happen. They were very nice. My impression is that they were hampered by having one reference point. They didn't have a way of approaching my material [except] was it pro or anti-Jewish. That's not what I'm aiming for.

"There's a scene in my short story 'Leah' where Rachel's boyfriend is beaten up. I was accused of condoning anti-Semitism."

Luke: "What emotions did you see on your father's face when you were with the yeshiva crowd?"

Ehud: "He loved it. He co-opted the whole thing. My father can't resist an opportunity to be on stage. We started talking about what he thinks, what he thinks the stories are about... It's like asking a person who's never painted to care about everything in a painting and understand how it was put together. He's not a painter.

"Within that context, he's a wild man He's more provocative, liberal and questioning than most of his students.

"My dad's swung to the left politically without changing his allegiance to Israel. He's for a two-state solution. He's there now. We can't get him to come home."

Luke: "When were you last in Israel?"

Ehud: "My bar mitzvah in 1968."

Luke: "Was there anything you loved about Orthodox Judaism?"

Ehud: "I loved the Torah, the Bible, the stories.

"I loved studying Talmud because of the logical argumentation.

"I had the study habits of a dreyhorse. Anyone who goes to 12 years of yeshiva has great work habits. When I turned on to Marx or Shakespeare or James Joyce, I didn't have to develop the tools to approach it.

"I come from a long line of scholars. I grew up with the notion of memorizing things and showing off what you knew. The emphasis was on accomplishment and competition. We didn't talk about the meaning of the ideas behind them [the texts].

"When I was six, my maternal grandfather bought me a Tanach (Hebrew Bible). I remember sitting up at night and reading it through.

"When I was older, I read the Yiddish writers such as Shalom Aleichem.

"My [Jewish] affiliation is more cultural than philosophical."

Luke: "Are you happy?"

Ehud: "Yeah, I'm very happy."

Luke: "But your writing doesn't have much happiness."

Ehud: "Yeah."

"I don't think happiness is what most people's lives are about most of the time. It's about struggle and loss and strife. To write about life as if it is resolvable is not true."

"I write about characters who work hard to find what they need. I write about characters in a lot of pain, with a lot of weight and baggage, who don't behave well, not because they're bad people, but because they're troubled.

"I don't believe in happy endings in art."

Luke: If I were to talk to the people who knew you best, how many would describe you as happy?

Ehud: "None."

Luke: "Why are you happy?"

Ehud: "Because of the direction my life has gone [in the past decade, since he met his second wife, the only years he'd describe as happy]."

Luke: "What does your father think of your writing?"

Ehud: "I don't know. He loves reading. He especially loves the 19th Century Russians. That was a great connection when I was younger -- we'd read books together. I remember him taking tremendous glee when I was twelve in telling me the end of Anna Karenina. 'It's not the plot that matters,' he said. 'You have to get under the plot.' Thanks.

"I don't know that my father has read enough modern literature to have a real grasp of some of the things I'm trying to do.

"I don't know how deeply he wants to look into some of the things I'm talking about. Some of the things you and I have been talking about -- it is not a happy portrait.

"Some of his more literary friends say to him, 'Look at what he's writing about you.' I think he has the sense to know that is not true.

"He has a traditional view of how writing is put together. He gets hurt by things I have written even when they are not about him. But he's very proud of me.

"The huge push from all my friends and family was to be a rabbi, and if not that, to be a doctor or lawyer.

"My parents never discouraged me from being a writer. They worried about it -- for good reason.

"Parents would like their kids to write happy stories. It means they had a happy life."

Luke: "How much does one need to know before one can appreciate your writing? Does one have to be a smarty pants?"

Ehud: "First, there is a measure of acquaintance with what literature in the Modern period and since has done that might help get a handle on some of what I'm trying--if you're most conversant with fables or morality shows, you'll be less comfortable with open-ended (negatively capable) stories like mine. So yes, a bit of smarty pants I'll admit to. The other, related issue, which has nothing really to do with what you've read (though reading always helps me) is your willingness to confront the emotional substrate of your material. Such as: when I was growing up, the Akeda was presented as a lesson solely in faith -- Abraham heeding god's word. What interests me as a storyteller much more is what the characters might feel -- what father would sacrifice his son, what son could live after being strapped to the slaughter block. To these questions there is no single answer and that's why they're often not asked, or given simplistic answers -- faith, submission, god's inscrutable ways. God, except for Moses who got a direct look, is an idea, even to the devout; I'm interested in people."

Luke: "Your father sounds very much like Rabbi Max Birnbaum in your short story collection, Like Never Before -- a bibliophile, absent-minded professor..."

Ehud: "Yes. Immersed in another world. The restlessness and insecurity of Max. My father was a much more successful scholar than Max.

"Both sides of my family were out of Europe before the Holocaust.

"A lot of the tensions between us are in the relationship between Max and David. The biographical facts are different. Max never wrote anything."

Luke: "What about approachable vs. removed? [Max was removed.]"

Ehud: "It's a mix. My father is charming and openhearted. He will talk to anybody about anything. He'll sit on a bus for two minutes and have three friends. He's constantly meeting people. We constantly had people over at the house. I've never met anybody more approachable.

"He's also circumscribed by his beliefs and background. He's from Mea Shearim [the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem]. Parts of him are still in Mea Shearim. We have relatives who are [charedi] and have never left that world.

"He'll debate with anybody but we've not had a real discussion about religion since I was a kid because I don't think, and this will upset him to read, that he really wants to know how I feel about it. He wants to convince me I'm wrong. We had so many fights about it that I demanded and he acquiesced to not talk about it. If we kept down that road, we weren't going to see each other any more.

"My father, to his credit, has straddled two worlds [modern scholarship and traditional piety], but not comfortably."

Luke: "Could you discuss the documentary hypothesis with your father?"

Ehud: "Oh sure.

"He's about the most rebellious irreverent person I've ever seen within his circle."

We move on.

"I don't tell people what my stories are about and how they should interpret them. I just hope they read them.

"I don't write stories to make polemical points."

Luke: Orthodox Judaism is largely absent from your first book [What is it Then Between Us?] but fills your second book.

Ehud: "All first books are apprenticeships. There's some abject imitation in there. I was responding too much to what I had read.

"I was not ready to write about [Orthodox Judaism]. I was young. I was angry.

"It kept coming up. In graduate school, my best teacher was Lynn Sharon Schwartz. She said [Orthodox Judaism] was my material. I said, 'No, it isn't. My material is hard-drinking, hard-loving misanthropes.'

"I'm publishing my third book next year -- a novel (Bearing the Body)."

Luke: "Do you keep any mitzvot [divine commandments]?"

Ehud: "I keep in mind the concept of a mitzvah as much as I can. A mitzvah to me is an act of generosity, a good idea. But I don't start with them as an injunction.

"My grandfather (Rabbi Samuel K. Mirsky) had a big shul in New York (at one time, he had the biggest Young Israel in the country, a thousand-member shul). We'd come back from shul on Friday night and all the grandkids would line up and he'd bless us. I give the same blessing to my boys. The older one accepts it readily and the younger one is bored and wants to go back to videogames."

Luke: "Do you eat pork and shellfish?"

Ehud: "Yes.

"The first time I ate non-kosher meat I thought I was going to get sick. Two of my sisters claim that they did get sick."

All fours kids left Orthodoxy.

Ehud: "I can't tell if I'm disappointing you."

Luke: "One advantage of your upbringing is that you always knew who you were."

Ehud: "No. The opposite. That's what was intended but I had an identity handed to me that I was supposed to emulate and I was never allowed to develop by myself. I grew up within a small intense internecine New York Jewish community.

"We had non-Jewish families living on our block but we had nothing to do with them.

"I was proud of my family. I thought we were like the Kennedys. We turned out to have their flaws.

"I wanted to write my own stories, not repeat the ones I was told. I wanted to write about people. I wanted to see the world and find myself. I had to go find my identity."

Luke: "What is your primary identity?"

Ehud: "Father."

"The breaking point between my father and me... As long as I stayed in the same landscape, we could argue about anything. When I said I'm leaving, we didn't have anything to talk about."

Luke: "Has he read your books?"

Ehud: "I'm sure he has. I just don't know how deeply.

"There's a scene in Like Never Before where David Birnbaum gets on the roof of the neighboring shul and dances on the ledge and taunting everybody in front of my father. That was completely made up. I used to go on the roof with friends, anything to get out of shul for a while, but I was terrified of heights. There was no way I would dance on the edge and taunt everybody.

"My father said to me, 'I remember that. I've always felt so guilty you were up there. I should've come up and gotten you but I just stood there and watched.'

"I wanted to say, 'That was the one thing that was completely made up,' but that is the one thing he feels the worst for."

"One of my favorite memories is when my father would tell Bible stories to Michael when he was five, six, seven, eight. It brought back my favorite memories of growing up. But part of modern life is that you don't live in the same village as your family. My mother died last year. I don't think my younger boy will remember her."

Luke: "Do you think your boys will become writers?"

Ehud: "My 18 year old has shown no such inclination. My younger boy, as far as lying and embroidering and wanting to hold everyone's attention, he certainly has that.

"I don't care what they become as long as they don't become neo-Nazis or go into advertising."

Luke: "I'm thinking about the advantages for a writer in coming from a particularistic background, an advantage that your children won't have."

Ehud: "Yeah. I do regret that there's no way I know to immerse my children in the ritual and culture I grew up in and hated most of the time. I have the memories of all the Succos and seders and the endless hours in shul on Yom Kippur. From age nine, my father would let me bring books of Jewish writers in to shul. He said, 'Sit down and shut up. Don't make a big deal out of it. But you can read those instead of daven.'

"I grew up as an unhappy troubled kid. I wouldn't do that to my kid. The system I was brought up in was repressive and did not give you the chance to find your own answers."

Luke: "It must kill your parents that all four kids left Orthodoxy."

Ehud: "It was hard for them, not just the ideological split..."

Luke: "But the practical..."

Ehud: "Yeah."

Luke: "Did they ever ask you -- 'Where did we go wrong?'"

Ehud: "No. It was more telling me where I went wrong.

"It was as frightening to them as if I had turned out to be gay. They weren't able to understand it. [Orthodox Judaism] was the most important thing in the world to them. 'How could you not want it?'"

Luke: "Is your wife Jewish?"

Ehud: "No."

Luke: "Did your parents come to the wedding?"

Ehud: "Yes.

"My first wife converted [to Judaism] of her own accord. She more into it than I was. She took Michael to Israel for his bar mitzvah. But my parents still had a lot of trouble with her. I would never blame them for the marriage not working out but they sure didn't help.

"I think they realized that."

"I don't go out of my way to read Jewish writers. I read 19th Century writers. I read what I need to write."