I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.
I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest,life can be so much bigger than religion.
At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.
Then he sang.
It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.
And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.
The word used by the notorious propaganda chief of the Nazi party is a mangled version of the Yiddish word for ‘family’ (mishpocheh), and it conveys the cruelty and contempt that the Nazis held for the Jewish people. To hear the mamaloshen fall from the lips of a man who seeks to murder every Jewish man, woman, child and baby within his reach carries a special kind of horror.
I quote the journal entry in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), and I use “mishpocheh’ as a kind of leitmotif in the story I tell. At the age of 15, Herschel was sent out of Nazi Germany by his doting mother and father, and the boy was passed along from uncle to uncle until he finally reached Paris, where he was given a place to live by his Uncle Abraham. They were all tragically wrong in assuming that France offered a safe refuge for the Grynszpans, but they acted loyally and courageously in an effort to save the life of the youngest member of the family.
While living in Paris, Herschel learned that his mother, father and older siblings back in Germany had been arrested by the Nazis and driven at gunpoint into the no-man’s-land on the Polish border along with some 12,000 other Polish Jews. Herschel was so distraught over the fate of his cherished family that he bought a revolver, contrived a ruse that allowed him to enter the German embassy in Paris, and assassinated a minor German diplomat as an act of protest and resistance. Ironically, Herschel and the uncle who sheltered him in Paris did not survive, but his father and brother were still alive to testify at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961.
As it happens, I first heard the story of Herschel Grynszpan from one of my own mishpocheh — my late father, Robert Reuven Kirsch. He was a literary critic for the Los Angeles Times for nearly thirty years and the author of many books of his own, and he told me in the late 1970s about the novel he intended to write about Herschel’s life and exploits. Sadly, my father fell ill and passed away before he could undertake the project, but I never forgot the strange and even scandalous details of Herschel’s life story. I decided to honor the memory of my beloved father by writing the book that he did not live long enough to write.
That’s why the word mishpocheh appears for the first time in my biography of Herschel Grynszpan on the dedication page: “For my father, Robert . . . and the mishpocheh for whom [his] memory is a blessing.”
The Mothers is my third novel but it’s the first novel I’ve written that tracks so closely with my own life. I had to make a leap as a novelist to write in the first person, to examine a single woman’s inner life, as opposed to the bigger sweep of the multi-generational novels, Golden Country and Something Red, that were written with an eye toward history and the way it affects families.
This book is all about families really, or about a couple who wants to make one desperately. If my other books deal with what happens to families over time, this character—Jesse Weintraub—is most concerned about time stopping. About the story, as it were, ending with her.
I, like Jesse, struggled for a long time to make my family (even though I do believe that it’s not just children that make a family…). And like her, my spouse and I were involved in a terribly long and particularly harsh adoption process that has only ended a few weeks ago. My most private concerns, a sadness I could only tell myself, were the same concerns I am interested in as a writer. These were in part involving what gets passed down through the generations. The history of our families, the voices of my grandparents and what they went through. What if it all that stopped with me?
What if all the stories just stopped with me? All those voices? At the bottom of it, this is what Jesse feels deeply. She wants to see a new generation grow. She gets a little despairing, she acts a little wild, but at the bottom of it, she wants to pass on all of it, the good, the bad, the painful, the joyous, so the cycle will keep going, so everyone’s story, including hers, gets told.
It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors—different in each individual and situation.
The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another— and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding. The least brave, who number many, allow their empathy to encompass their family, their friends, their tribe— however far they choose to extend the net— and then shut themselves off to everyone and everything else in order to justify behavior that is born of the most primitive fears, anger, and desires. The rest of us, well, we live somewhere in the middle, constantly extending and withdrawing our empathy and understanding like a snail poking its antennae out of its shell as we try to balance our desire for openness, brotherhood and freedom with our anxieties, anger and fears.
Jerusalem, a graphic novel I wrote, inspired by the multitude of myths, stories, diatribes and musings I have been exposed to throughout my life by family, friends, enemies, and teachers, is an attempt to explore this struggle in others and within myself.
I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.
But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.
Still, I wait.
Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.
My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.
Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going… Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be… It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother’s orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing… Continue reading
One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.
There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.
As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.
What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son — my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.
By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.
Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.
I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of my childhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.
When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.
Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.
I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.
Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)
I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city,
owing to the array of hotel bath products.
I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.
I learned that no one does not have an iPad.
But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.
Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.
My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.