When I was a kid, every morning I’d watch my father shave from my perch on the rim of the bathtub. After he washed and patted down his face, he’d squeeze body cement onto the bumpy pale wedge where his real ear used to be. Then he’d paste on his rubber ear, which gave his head a nice gluey smell. As for the prosthetic ear, it was unnoticeable, that is, until you noticed it, and then it lent him a curious air, like a man patched together from scraps and pieces.
He’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting his ear to see if he’d placed it well, and then stories about his own life would start coming: the dirt poor Depression years when his mother had to use burlap bags as underwear or diapers; how he learned to wrestle so no one would ever again pick on him because of his ear; the twenty-nine relatives who all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. Later, around the Shabbos table, he told us Hasidic tales and epic scenes from the Bible. Truth be told, it didn’t matter what he was saying. He knew just how to pause to make us yearn for the next sentence. He was a born storyteller. Continue reading
The Bergen Record was coming to my house to do an interview for my new novel. You’d think after having spent years and years writing this book, I’d have imagined this moment, prepared for it, I’d have my patter down, my lines. Ten minutes before they came, I called my husband. “Quick,” I blurted, “tell me again why I wrote this novel.” My husband, a psychoanalyst, replied, “Tell them you wrote it to be closer to your mother.”
I rolled my eyes, laughed, and then I thought, hey, there’s a shtickel bit of truth here. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a Muslim Arab man. My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, which technically also makes her an Arab, even if she’s an Arabic Jew. Here’s the thing, though. Whenever friends meet my mother, they can’t believe we’re even remotely related. She can belly dance with the best of them and hunt down bargains and tchotchkes with a terrifying zeal. In her seventies she is still noticed, still the Casablancan glamour queen. In contrast, I’m happiest at a Chumash class or holed down in front of my computer in a ragged T-shirt. Also, tchotchkes don’t mean a thing to me. She is so out there, and I am so in here, in myself. Conversations were not always easy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Continue reading
In a wildly unexpected and completely unpredictable turn of events, I fell madly in love, in Cologne. It was the sort of love that makes your heart pound. The sort of love that seeps into your arteries. The sort of love that leaves you smiling at nothing in particular.
It was May, 2006. I was happily married at the time, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem. My husband is a very reasonable man. And he has always believed in love.
Cologne is not the sort of city where you expect to fall head over heels in love. It is a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have the drama or the romance of a city like Paris or Havana. But, it was in Cologne that I fell in love. I fell in love with a church. A Catholic church. A church called St Agnes. Continue reading
It took me years to know that going to the beach had anything to do with being close to the water.
My parents only ever went to the beach when the heat became so oppressive that that staying in the small, three-room cottage we sometimes shared with another family became impossible.
My father worked double shifts in a factory and we usually set off for the beach when he came home, in the late afternoon or early evening. My mother always packed for our outings to the beach. She packed food. Usually peeled cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, a loaf of rye bread and oranges, with the peel already scored in quarters and, if we were lucky, some dark red cherries. She also packed two blankets and two bottles filled with tap water. I would feel giddy with excitement when I saw my mother start packing for the beach.
Going to the beach was a whole adventure. It started with a walk to the tram stop and a forty-five minute tram ride from the working class, inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where we lived. We boarded the tram armed with our blankets and food and drink.
I loved being on the tram. It was so predictable. You sat down, the conductor came around, you paid your fare and he handed you a brightly-colored ticket in return. It was all so normal. And so much of our life was anything but normal. Seven years earlier, both of my parents were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Death camps where almost everyone they loved had been murdered.
When we arrived at the beach my mother set us up in the treed, scrubby area that preceded the water. We really needed the blankets as the ground was rough and littered with twigs and broken branches. There were always other people with blankets and food already there. They were mostly Jews. The Italians and Maltese and Greeks and other migrants, who were also part of the large post-World War Two migration to Australia, must have had a different meeting place.
I felt happy as soon as I sat down on the blanket. I loved being surrounded by families. To me, it always felt like a party. It took away some of the loneliness of growing up with dead grandparents, dead aunts, and dead uncles. It took away the loneliness of growing up with cousins who would never be born. Continue reading
I love pens and pencils. I have loved them all my life. Whenever and wherever I travel, I buy pens and pencils. I am not a pen or a pencil snob. I buy them in supermarkets and street stalls as well as every sort of stationery store. I don’t need to go to a Mont Blanc store or own a limited edition Tiffany’s pen.
To tell you the truth, I don’t need to own any more pens. I have a drawer full of pens. Ballpoint pens, roller ball pens, fountain pens. I also have a drawer full or pencils. All sorts of pencils. Short pencils, long pencils, carpenter’s pencils, charcoal pencils. I even have pencils inscribed as Dixon Beginner’s. They are black and thicker than regular pencils.
Having all these pens and pencils doesn’t prevent me from wanting more pencils and pens. I covet other people’s pencils in the same way that others might covet a friend or neighbor’s house or car or husband.
My lust for pens and pencils started when I was a child. My parents and I were refugees to Australia. My parents were a rare statistic. Two Jews who were married to each other before the war and who each survived Nazi death camps.
In Australia, we lived in one room before moving to a very small cottage. I looked at the fountain pens in a news agency, a block and a half away from our small cottage, for over two years before, one day, in a moment of great need and possible recklessness, I stole one. I wasn’t caught. I guarded that fountain pen as though it was Elizabeth Taylor’s Krupp diamond.
I have written all of my books by hand. I know exactly which pens and pencils I used for each of my books. I do the actual writing with pens. For the last few years I have used a Pilot G-2 07 retractable gel ink roller ball pen. Always with black ink. I never write in any other color. In pencil, I circle and draw arrows around whatever parts of my text I want to move or change. For my latest novel, Lola Bensky, I used emerald green Criterium pencils, made in France. I bought them in a tiny, almost hole-in-the-wall, stationery store in a small, mountain town 170 miles north of Mexico City. They were so enticing and so cheap. I bought twenty-five of them.
As soon as I pick up a pencil or a pen, a sense of calm comes over me. I feel that that pen or pencil is directly connected to my core, to my heart, my lungs, my arteries. Nothing separates us. Of course I type on a computer and an iPad and a smartphone. And I take great care with my sentences on each of those devices. Too much care – who needs to search for commas or apostrophes when you’re typing with one or two fingers. And I do love keyboards. And the sounds they make. But they are not connected to me in the same way as a pen or pencil.
I was recently in Seattle. I went into a huge Rite Aid store. We don’t have supersized Rite Aid stores in my part of Manhattan. I always think I love big stores. That is until I am actually inside one. After five minutes of feeling lost and disoriented in a seemingly endless aisle, I left. I did leave with a bag of ten dark yellow, eraser-topped pencils. Paid for, of course.
I spent five or six years of my youth interviewing rock stars. I interviewed them backstage, after concerts. I interviewed them in their homes, in recording studios and in radio and television stations. I interviewed them in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey, California.
I interviewed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher and dozens of others.
It was the mid to late 1960’s. It all began because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought that I would be better than Perry Mason, the lawyer played by Raymond Burr, who won his case, on television, every week.
It is very hard to rebel if, like me, you are the child of two people who were imprisoned in Nazi death camps and had almost everyone they loved in the universe murdered. My rebellion was unplanned. It seemed to come out of the blue. I was at a high school for gifted students, and I successfully botched any plans to become a better lawyer than Perry Mason by going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, twice, instead of sitting for my final year school exams.
I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with my life when it became obvious that I had not sat for the exams and therefore failed the year. I think I wasn’t thinking. Psycho didn’t help me to think any more clearly. It just left me terrified—it was a terrifying movie.
Eventually, after months and months of watching me riding my bicycle in circles around my parents’ small back yard in order to lose weight, my mother, much to my horror, said I would have to look for a job.
My father was bitterly disappointed when, through a stroke of massive good fortune and possibly a degree of deception, I, who didn’t know how to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter, got a job as a journalist. He thought journalism wasn’t a real job. And certainly not a profession. He was even more appalled when he realized I was working for a rock music newspaper. Australia’s first rock music newspaper.
I traveled the world at a very young age for this newspaper. I interviewed rock stars in an era when you could talk to them without today’s entourage of minders, assistants, managers and public relations people present. I interviewed Mick Jagger in his apartment, Cher borrowed my false eyelashes and Janis Joplin and I discussed difficult mothers. It was, in so many ways, a much more innocent time.
A lot of people thought I had a glamorous job. Although, let me tell you that travelling with Gene Pitney or the Troggs, whose hit at the time was “Wild Thing,” and staying at boarding houses in the north of England is far removed from anyone’s notion of glamour. My father couldn’t have been less impressed or less interested in my job. For several years he harbored a small hope that I might yet end up a lawyer.
In my new novel, Lola Bensky, Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. Mick Jagger makes her a cup of tea and Jimi Hendrix, possibly, propositions her. Lola spends her days planning diets and interviewing rock stars.
I loved being Lola Bensky. And I liked sharing initials with her. My long-term editor calls me LB. I called Lola Bensky LB in all the notes I made for the novel. It wasn’t at all confusing. I knew exactly which LB I was referring to.
Lola Bensky, which is set in 1967, is a book of fiction. But, I did, in real life, interview every one of the rock stars I wrote about in the novel. I wanted to paint as honest a portrait of the rock stars I interviewed as I could. I wanted to draw an accurate and intimate picture of this remarkable group of musicians.
When my father, who is now ninety-seven, saw the book, he was annoyed all over again. I have written sixteen books. No other book of mine has irritated him like this one. It has brought back all of his dreams of having a daughter who could stride into a courtroom brandishing her law degree, and, week after week, against all the odds, win every case.
The recent Pew survey on Jewish America released earlier this month seems to confirm what many already believe: those of us outside of the Orthodox community are finding ourselves increasingly outnumbered, due to our own apparently suicidal commitment to liberal American values. It seems that the tradition of cultural Judaism in American life will soon be as endangered as Orthodoxy was in the 1940s, and that Orthodoxy, in a stunning reversal that nobody saw coming, will soon take from us the power to define what it means to be Jewish in America.
But the answer, as I see it, is not to abandon cultural Judaism, even if it means intermarrying our way into oblivion. Through my work on Jews of Today, I came to know some Hasidim and had several opportunities to hear their thoughts on the future of Jewish life in America. What an insight that gave. They—”they,” the handful of New York Hasidic men I spoke with at any length—are as scared of the collapse of their communities as we are of ours.
Where we have a crisis of numbers, they have a crisis of faith. The old leaders, the rabbonim that built Hasidus in America, are almost all dead. Their heirs have taken up arms against the internet, seeing in it the potential undoing of their earlier victory over television, radio, and other forms of mass-media hostile to traditional life. Yet the internet, at least in the form of a smartphone, is needed for most to make a living.
I nightly see Hasidim sitting in their parked minivans, well after hours, their faces lit up blue. Yiddish internet forums are proliferating, allowing Hasidim to connect with each other on a whole spectrum of topics, including that of dissatisfaction with the mores and strictures of the community. Before, they say, if you were unhappy, a misfit, you assumed you were the only one. No one would talk openly about such feelings. Now, a whole underground of malcontents has formed anonymously and pseudonymously online. How long before that underground makes itself felt above ground?
Back to us cultural Jews. Demographically, we are already defeated. As the Hasidim have 10 kids, we have 1.5, and its likely that not even the 0.5 will be halachically Jewish. So we, the descendants of Jewish immigrants who embrace, rather than reject the treyfe medina, who raise Larry David over the Baal Shem Tov, who break the fast without ever fasting, are disappearing.
But it seems our numbers might soon be replenished by a new wave of Jews hungry for the larger America, again refugees from the old world, only this time not needing to cross an ocean. We, the cultural Jews, must leave them something to inherit, a tradition of reconciling Jewishness with the demands and offerings of American life. So make art, Jews! Make art about being Jewish in this country, in all its forms. Not as apologetics, not as nostalgia, but as a real, hard-thought, heartfelt legacy, so that whoever finds themselves in our position in the future, won’t feel like they are the first to inhabit it.
Whenever I tell anyone that mother was in a German labor camp during World War II, they assume she was Jewish and in a concentration camp. I then explain that the Third Reich needed labor to produce war materiel and that millions of non-Jewish subjects of the counties they conquered were often forced into working in these camps. Although concentration camp inmates worked, the survival rate for labor camp workers was far greater. The Nazis work philosophy was that you either worked for the Reich or die.
My mother, a Catholic, was fifteen and living in Krakow when the Germans invaded in September of 1939. About two years later, she was put into a labor camp in Germany. She worked in a factory that made chewing tobacco. I thought this was an odd product for wartime; I associated chewing tobacco with hillbillies in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. But I discovered that soldiers (German or Allied) can’t smoke all the time in the field. A lit match at night or a wisp of smoke could give away a platoon’s position resulting in their destruction. The chewing tobacco satisfies the craving for nicotine.
One day when she was working, a civilian German supervisor came up to her and said he had a job for her. Because she was fluent in German, he could arrange for her to be a translator and housekeeper. This was an act of pure kindness on his part; there was nothing in it for him.
My mother would go to work for a contractor who tunneled out the Harz Mountains in Nordhausen where the Nazis built the V-2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile. Hidden deep under the mountains, the manufacturing facilities were protected from allied bombing. The tunnels had to be excavated and shored up from timber before they were lined with concrete. Inmates of all nationalities would go into the surrounding forests to cut the timber, while my mother acted as translator.
As a result of the German’s kindness, my mother lived in relative comfort with the contractor and his family while less than a kilometer away, mostly Jewish inmates perished while producing the rockets. It was these acts of kindness I wanted to include in my novel, The Paris Architect. Out of the goodness of their hearts, people step forward to help someone. My mother never saw the supervisor again but always knew how incredibly lucky she had been because of what this man did for her.
Jews of Today could never have begun as a project had I not encountered the phenomenon of the Hasidic enclave. As a recent transplant to New York City in 2006, I wandered into Williamsburg like any other would-be gentrifier in search of cheap bars, good restaurants, and an “authentic” atmosphere. I did not expect to encounter such a dense population of Yiddish-speaking, black-frock-wearing Jews. I felt like I’d found my lost ancestors. I was awestruck and attracted. But my early efforts to make connections with Williamsburg’s Hasidim were met with the customary cold shoulder.
I quickly learned that their part of Williamsburg was a virtual fortress, meant to keep people like me (or rather, unlike them) at a safe distance. This of course only enchanted me further. Why? Who knows. I guess I felt like some secret of great importance was being hidden inside their castle walls. The Ethiopians claim to keep the Ark of the Covenant in a church in Addis Ababa, which, after all, no one is allowed to enter…
So how is a Hasidic enclave created? Jewish enclaves have a long history, full of important variations. Of course, they were usually imposed on Jews from the outside, rarely by Jews themselves, and even more rarely by Jews against other Jews. Williamsburg represents an important reversal of that trend. Philip Fishman, a non-Hasidic Jew who grew up in mid-century Williamsburg, has written a vivid memoir on the subject, titled A Sukkah is Burning.
This (somewhat aged) article from Matzav is an important artifact of my research and shows very specifically how my favorite Hasidic enclave is being maintained today.
So everybody knows that Hanukkah is all about miracles, right? I think when it comes to miracles we’re each entitled to our own, so I’d like to nominate my personal best modern day miracle: stepping on the scale after Hanukkah and noting that the number is lower than it was before the holiday.
This year, we’re combining our Thanksgiving feast with Hanukkah treats. That’s right. I know Hanukkah is “supposed” to happen at the end of December, but this year the Hebrew date falls in November, on Turkey Day! It’s all about crossing lunar calendars with solar calendars and somehow this year we wind up making latkes out of yams and tying paper dreidels to roasted drumsticks. I just know we’re going to waddle away from that table, fully stuffed, prayin’ for a really big mama miracle.
Somehow we’ll have to stagger through the next seven days and nights too. But we can handle it. Really. Strategy is important, as well as a few simple rules. Continue reading