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Melvin writes for American Scholar magazine:
We talk by phone Monday, July 31, 2006.
Luke: "I'm rolling tape. I want to ask you some questions."
Melvin: "OK. But first, who are you? Where are you? What are you doing? Why are you doing it?"
Luke: "I live in Los Angeles. I'm a convert to Judaism. I have most of the characteristics of the convert. I should've majored in English Literature. My mother wanted me to."
Melvin: "You're making it up at a late stage in life."
Luke: "I wanted to be tougher. I majored in Economics."
Melvin: "I admire that."
Luke: "Once I started studying Calculus and immersed myself in math, I lost the ability to write creatively."
Melvin: "I'm not sure it necessarily follows."
Luke: "Let's just say..."
Melvin: "It occurred even though there wasn't necessarily a cause and effect."
Luke: "I was writing short stories when I was 20, 21, but once I got into calculus and other things happened, I've never written a short story since, but literature was always my love. I read an enormous amount of Jewish fiction. This project is a natural joining of two of my biggest interests.
"I don't have a thesis statement for what I'm doing. That's one of the weaknesses of my writing, or strengths."
Melvin: "More likely the latter."
Luke: "I feel it out as I go along. I know I've got some good material when it surprises me."
Melvin: "Don't you think that some of the qualities you ascribe to interviewing are some of the qualities one seeks in fiction?
"There are two elements in narratives -- familiarity and surprise. They are both necessary. All surprise with no familiarity would be incomprehensible. Like a foreign language. All familiarity and no surprise would be tedious."
Luke: "I've been reading a lot of crap for this project. Prior to this, I only read [fiction] for pleasure."
Melvin: "I wish I had the strength to put things down more quickly. I tend to finish almost everything. Sometimes Sigmund [Freud] helps me and I inadvertently lose books."
Luke: "Let's tackle 'child of Holocaust survivors.'"
Melvin: "Could you be a little more explicit?"
Luke: "Once we know that somebody is a child of Holocaust survivors, do we know anything else?"
Melvin: "No. We know that they have been in proximity to people who have experienced historical enormity, but it does not convey any special wisdom or any special privilege."
Luke: "That's what I wanted to find out. I find it obnoxious when people use that mantle to claim moral insights."
Melvin: "Writing is not just. It is not a fair pursuit. Good writing comes from where it does, not from who you are. You can say that about children of Holocaust survivors and about people who use the Holocaust to give gravitas to their work."
Luke: "Yeah! I resent that."
Melvin: "I resent it in some and I'm humored by others."
Luke: "In some writing, people are claiming a moral free pass because their parents went through the Holocaust."
Melvin: "Using it for personal benefit."
Luke: "Yeah, getting laid because you're the child of the Holocaust."
Melvin: "Then again, I'm not against using anything for personal benefit."
Luke: "Is it fair to say that compassion by definition is selective? If you are compassionate to everyone, you aren't compassionate to anyone."
Melvin: "Sounds like you are leading the witness."
Luke: "Do we have to treat children of Holocaust survivors any different than we treat anyone else?"
Melvin: "Do we have to treat retards any differently than we have to treat anyone else?"
Luke: "Should we?"
Melvin: "No. I don't believe that exterior conditions of identity require any notice. For the same reason, I'm not particularly in favor of affirmative action. I'm not in favor of anyone nodding to me as an accident of inheritance. I damn well want them to nod to me anyway because of my extreme talent. Even though I am often identified as the child of Holocaust survivors, I never write about them because they don't interest me too much."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Melvin, who was born in 1953: "Alive.
"When I was in third grade, I imagined the presidency.
"I never felt any occupational proclivities until I started writing in college. Nonfiction. I remember going to a 1972 demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C. I had read Normal Mailer's Armies of the Night. I decided I would do for my era what Mailer had done for his (1965).
"I wrote 17 pages in which I fully explored all of the evils of American foreign policy as well as my thoughts about my parents, religion, and various girls I'd been involved with and then ran out of anything to say. Clearly nonfiction did not sustain me. Then I realized I could make things up. And that I could keep doing for the rest of my life."
Luke: "What did your parents expect from you?"
Melvin: "They were so astonished at having young that all they expected was that I live... I was the first, not only of my mother and father, but of an entire clan. I heard stories about my uncles staying up all night to build me a life-size fire engine for my third birthday. There was a Christchild atmosphere.
"My parents worried that writing would not lead to solvency. There were no artistic indulgences in their life. They were practical."
Melvin's parents married about a year before he was born. "My father arrived in the U.S. in 1948. My mother's family had been lucky enough to run away from the czar a generation earlier. She grew up in a small town in New Jersey, Norma, that was a shtetl.
"My parents didn't know each other more than a year before marriage."
Luke: "What was your parents attitude towards Judaism and being Jewish?"
Melvin: "They simply were Jewish and didn't need to question it."
Luke: "What attitude were you raised with towards Judaism?"
Melvin: "It was an empty faith for me but then again I don't believe in anything.
"After my bar mitzvah, I went to shul occasionally, mostly to 'young people's services.' I found nothing in that.
"Years later I realized that my lack of satisfaction with any religious culture had to do with my lack of satisfaction with any idea of the deity."
Luke: "Did you believe in God as a kid?"
Melvin: "I didn't think much about Him. I thought more about God as I got older and more existential. It is probable that I believe in some cosmic demiurge. Like any 12 year old, I'm driven mad by infinity.
"God has no answer whatsoever to the necessity of morality in life.
"You can believe in God and say, 'You've done nothing for me.'
"If there is some sense of Jewish continuity, then God has unilaterally violated the covenant and we ought to have nothing to do with him.
"Is this the type of attitude that leads to Jewish continuity?
"I feel perfectly Jewish without a religious basis to my experience. I find satisfaction in things human rather than beatific. I find satisfaction in a historical Judaism, in a cultural Judaism, in an ethical Judaism.
"Is this enough to continue [the Jewish people] through the ages? Probably not.
"Should I therefore advocate a hypocritical faith merely for the sake of continuity? No. Each generation does as it must."
Luke: "Do you belong to a synagogue?"
Melvin: "Yes. Ambivalently."
Luke: "You do believe in God?"
Melvin: "I believe in some force with creative intent. Not the man with the long beard obviously."
Luke: "You've not had a relationship with God?"
Melvin: "I have. It's been entirely antagonistic. Eventually He's going to kill me."
"I find myself really afraid of weakness -- in others and in myself. I squash it in me and shun it in others. Weakness seems suicidal."
Luke: "Where are you on the organized vs. chaotic spectrum?"
Melvin: "What? This is a spectrum I wasn't aware of.
"My study is Augean -- masses of paper everywhere that the world would find incomprehensible. I don't mind living amongst filth.
"I'm absurdly on time. Though there are not many responsibilities in my life, I fulfill them with insane diligence. I don't think I've missed a class in twelve years."
"God bless you. You haven't yet asked any questions about why I write what I write."
Melvin's children are 22, 20, and 18. He's been married for 23 years.
Melvin leaves me a message at 9:20 a.m., Aug. 1. "Luke, I don't know if you've come to realize anything about me yet but I've come to learn something about you."
I call him back. "What have you learned about me?"
Melvin, who has a strong clear professorial voice: "Suddenly, the nature of your inquiries has come together. The first manner in which you identified yourself was as a convert. I think you're trying to get us -- me, Steve [Stern], Pearl [Abraham], whoever, to justify your faith."
This makes me examine myself. Until now, everything had been so easy. Now I turn my faith round and round in my mind and examine my assumptions through the steely gaze of reason. Finally, I come to the conclusion that I believe in Dennis Prager.
Is that so wrong?
I want to abandon my work, lie on my floor, and have my back rubbed by a chick while we listen to Pragerradio.com. You can catch all of the great man's shows without commercial interruption.
I'd like to think I inspired it.
Melvin and I chat about the Holocaust.
Melvin: "I've noticed a change [in the past decade] in the way people respond to all things connected to the Holocaust. I think they're getting tired of the Holocaust. It's connected with Israel and events in the Middle East. As people grew frustrated with Israel, those feelings moved backwards to all things Jewish and Jewish suffering... The Holocaust and the [birth] of Israel are inextricably linked in people's minds and in historical fact."
Luke: Tell me about Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex.
Melvin: "It was just a joke. I was on the phone with my agent about ten years ago. She tells me about some anthology she sold -- black women on romance. I glibly said, 'Jews have sex too. What about that?' She said, 'Melvin, you should do that.' I kept joking. 'What would we call it? Neurotica?'
"A lightbulb went on over her head. She said, yes, yes, yes. Give me a proposal. She bugged me for months for a proposal. I had never done a proposal in my life. Finally, to shut her up, I spent about 45 minutes one afternoon knocking out three or four pages of nonsense, thinking I would finally put it to bed.
"Two days later, the thing was at auction.
"She hated the original title -- 'The Dirty Jew.'"
Luke: "Is she Jewish?"
Melvin: "I enjoyed it because I think of myself as the most chaste writer in the country. I never use dirty words. My idea of sex scenes is laughable."
Luke: "I wanted to call my memoir 'The Kinky Kike.'"
"How is it different when Jews have sex and when the goyim have sex?"
Melvin: "We think about it more."
On his Neurotica book tour, Bukiet was often asked about the Jewish male's fascination with shiksas. One the last leg of his tour, he blurted out: "They've been f---ing us for thousands of years. We just want to know what it is like once."
Luke: "How has having kids affected your writing?"
Melvin: "It's affected my soul which affects my writing. It's made me a mench."
Luke: "Do you think the novel's a bourgeois medium whose primary purpose is entertainment?"
Melvin: "No. I think the novel's a theological medium. We can make worlds too. The novel's primary aim is to create."
"I don't like the tough on the outside, soft on the inside image but..."
Luke: "It's true."
Melvin: "I'm capable of generosity but I admire [some expressions of] hatred. Outrage pleases me. Loose cannon might not be an inappropriate term. One friend says the reason he's willing to see me again is that at some point I'm willing to say anything."
Luke: "You have a reputation for being a bit difficult, even nasty."
Melvin laughs. "Yes. So? Is ease a virtue? The things I'm nasty about deserve it.
"I'm not very good when I see weakness. Weakness frightens me."
Luke: "How do you determine what is right and wrong?"
Melvin: "You're asking a philosophical question that is beyond me to answer."
Luke: "Don't you wish that there was something wrong with gratuitous human cruelty other than that you don't like it?"
Melvin: "Yes, I do think there is something wrong beyond that I don't like it but I'm not smart enough to propound a system that could find it wrong."
Luke: "Has anything happened in the past twenty years that's made you think you don't understand the world around you?"
Melvin: "The World Trade Center made me think that I understand the world too well. That this is what I had been expecting. This is the shape of the future. I wish I was wrong."
Luke: "How would you feel if your kids intermarried?"
Melvin: "Less upset than I would've been two years and four months ago when I would've been upset on my father's behalf. He would have been devastated. The pain it would've brought him would've been excruciating to me.
"I do believe that Judaism is deeply engraved in my children's souls. Whether they will feel an obligation to make a match with someone who also has it ingrained, I'm not sure. Certainly it would be better to marry a smart, funny rich person than a bland suburban Jew."
"Dara Horn's theological Judaism is evident on every single page. That isn't there for me, but the historical cultural awareness has helped to make me who I am.
"What depresses me [about Jewish life]? Not much. I'm clearly ambivalent about Judaism but I like Jews."
Luke: "Are you a good person and a good Jew?"
Someone leaves a message on Melvin's answer machine.
Melvin: "Oh God. She's such a dope. Let her leave her message. Maybe she'll leave us alone now."
Luke: "Let me press you on the good Jew bit."
Melvin: "I don't think that going to shul is the definition of a good Jew. Fulfilling oneself and awareness of the world around one defines oneself as a good person. What makes one a good Jew is if one embodies Judaism, an incorporation into oneself of a long-enduring ethos."
Luke: "How is that ethos different than any other Western ethos?"
Melvin: "Created out of a different history. Jewish tragedy has shaped Jewish consciousness. Although all people have suffered. I don't want to compare suffering which is clearly repugnant, but I think we have the crown. It has happened to us more continuously, continuously enough to define us. The Irish potato famine? They know it happened but they don't fear it will happen again."
Luke: "What do Jews have to teach the world?"
Melvin: "I'm not sure I buy the 'light unto the nations' concept. We're just obliged to be holy."
Luke: "What's Daphne Merkin like?"
Melvin: "Daphne's loony. Really smart. She's deeply conflicted. Paradoxical.
"I ended up hanging out for several hours with Daphne and her mom. I can imagine no other sophisticated adult who would be so at ease with sitting on a sidewalk for three hours. Her life is an open book for all the stupid things that life consists off. She's parlayed her flaws into virtues."
Off The Record With Melvin Jules Bukiet
We had a nice chat Wednesday Aug. 2 that was off the record. Then I successfully begged him to let me use the following approximation:
Luke: Pearl Abraham's The Seventh Beggar. For 70 pages, she had a ripping good story. Then she went nuts.
Melvin: I appreciate the nutsiness of it. It's courageous. Her publisher would probably have preferred it if she had done The Romance Reader VII. She goes off into this mystical etherium that I'm not capable of understanding but I admire her for the flight.
Luke: Only a tiny intellectual elite are going to follow that.
Steve Stern can tell a good story but his novels aren't linear and he always gets crazy trying to imitate Yiddish in his English.
Melvin: That's where the fun is.
Luke: Only an elite is going to find that fun. Nobody's going to buy him.
Melvin: Who buys anyone? We live in a post-aural culture.
Luke: He could tell a commercial story. Why write English like its Yiddish? He primarily reads Yiddish in translation so his Yiddish thing seems faux.
Melvin: It's where the spark is.
Where does authenticity come from? The novel I'm working on now is set in Washington D.C. I know nothing about Washington D.C. and its political culture. Any Washington insider will know my novel is entirely bogus. But I'm not writing for that elite audience of Washington insiders. If I can truly create the Washington of my mind... Some of my books are set in Germany where I've never set foot. I did no research. It was the Germany of my mind. I don't distinguish between imagination and experience. If anything, imagination seems more real. If I get my Washington correct, I will feel successful and will be able to communicate it to someone else.
Luke: You'll feel successful but you're not going to communicate it to a lot of other people...
Melvin: Most people don't have experience in Washington either.
Luke: I know but if they read a novel about Washington they will want to feel like...
Melvin: If I convey my vision, it will feel true even if it bares little resemblance to the real Washington. I had a student who wrote a story about what it was like to experience a forest fire. I had no idea whether he had spent summers fighting forest fires or just made it all up. If you convey emotional truth... Emotional truth is necessary. The rest...
Luke: That's not going to work for a large number of readers.
Melvin: It will if you get the emotional truth out. Was Dostoevsky a murderer? No. Was he able to create Raskolnikov? Yes. Was Flaubert a female? No. But Madame Bovary...
Luke: Why wouldn't you go to Washington D.C. and do research?
Melvin: I may a little bit. I'm lazy. I'm more interested in writing than research.
Luke: Because my background is in journalism and your background is in literature, maybe that's why we differ.
I'm thinking of these mega-best sellers by Tom Wolfe, you feel like you are in Atlanta, New York and Duke University.
Melvin: I think you are right in terms of best sellers. Best sellers often fulfill a non-fictional purpose. They tell you what it is really like behind the scenes at a movie studio or a modeling agency... But it's not necessarily art. That speaks to the sad literalism and lack of faith in the American readership.
Luke: You're blaming the reader.
Melvin laughs. "And the culture. I'll blame anyone."
'So What Do You Do With This Cosmic Responsibility?'
Melvin Bukiet writes in his book Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendents of Jewish Holocaust Survivors:
In the PBS special Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Bukiet says:
How depressing. It is one thing to suffer, but suffering without meaning is the worst. Yet Bukiet can find no lessons in the Holocaust nor in anything because he has a fundamentally secular view of life. A secular life is circular. It doesn't go anywhere except to annihilation. Judaism says history must go forward to the Messian age. That Jews are God's chosen people, a pilot project for humanity, who are to embody ethical monotheism.
In Bukiet's secular worldview, nothing makes you free because all we are are atoms, bio-chemistry, and learned survival instincts. Only if there is a God who gives us a soul is there free will, meaning and the opportunity for redemption through good works.
Bukiet calls Second Generation Holocaust writers "viciously unredemptive."
What about the children of other genocides such as the Armenian or Ukrainian or Cambodian or the Chinese?
Bukiet presented one of his novels to German chancellor Hermut Kohl. Melvin signed it 108016, his father's camp number.
I find the following the most revelative story about Melvin Jules Bukiet (in his own words from the book Nothing Makes You Free, pg. 18-19):
In the dedication to his collection Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex, Melvin writes:
Melvin replies to my inquiry: "Luke, Jill thought the dedication was charming since it implied that she could theoretically have an exotic other life. No word from the kids; they know to expect any outrage from their father. As for difference, it's shabby because adoption is a beautiful thing, but I wanted my blood cascading down through the ages."
In his short story, "Paper Hero," Melvin Bukiet writes: "...[A] journalist's fame lasts until the dog needs walking while the novelist's lasts forever."
I email the Editor of the Jewish Journal: "Rob: Do you read much fiction about Jewish life? I'm interviewing a bunch of Jewish novelists and developing the thesis that they aren't doing enough research and reporting... That perhaps the best books on Jewish life now are non-fiction."
A friend replies:
I Want To Be Swept Away
When I read a story, I want to be swept away.
For that to happen, I usually need:
* Linear scene-by-scene construction.
Much of the best writing on Jewish life comes from such works of non-fiction as The New Rabbi (Stephen Fried), Stephen Bloom's Postville, Jew vs. Jew (Samuel Friedman) as well as Robert J. Avrech's novel for kids -- The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden.
Jewish novelists don't do enough research to make their work compelling. I just finished Melvin Jules Bukiet's realistic novel Strange Fire (a Brokeback Mountain story set amongst Israel's political elite) which is overwhelmingly linear and composed in scenes, just as I like it, and yes the sentences are often smart and witty and it's all very literary, but the details of Israeli life aren't sharp and true enough. It needed more realistic status details. I wanted to experience more "Ah ha!" moments.
If Melvin wanted his protagonist to be more convincing, he should've turned gay for a few weeks and done the hard work necessary for sublime art.
On August 2nd, Bukiet told me: "The novel I'm working on now is set in Washington D.C. I know nothing about Washington D.C. and its political culture. Any Washington insider will know my novel is entirely bogus. But I'm not writing for that elite audience of Washington insiders. If I can truly create the Washington of my mind... Some of my books are set in Germany where I've never set foot. I did no research. It was the Germany of my mind. I don't distinguish between imagination and experience. If anything, imagination seems more real. If I get my Washington correct, I will feel successful and will be able to communicate it to someone else."
Strange Fire was too damn cynical. I didn't care about any of the characters. Perhaps I'm homophobic, but it puts me off my supper to read about a deformed old man who wants to bugger boys.
Publishers Weekly liked Strange Fire because P.W. likes nothing better than a good buggering. My first book was slammed in P.W. for, among other things, not writing about gay porn (and for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Jews).
Have there been any bestselling novels with a homosexual as the protagonist? My hunch is that most heterosexuals are not into reading about the sexual adventures and libidinous desires of gays.
I remember how funny Allegra Goodman was in her first collection of short stories (The Family Markowitz) and how dull she's become since she's turned to churning out refined novels.
I email author Melvin Jules Bukiet: "Do you think heterosexuals are going to read books with a homosexual protagonist?"
One. Notice that neither Gustave nor Melvin answered my question about how people act. I didn't ask about how people should act.
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).
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."
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.