My parents are getting ready to move, to abandon the house I’ve lived in since I was born, and we traveled down to Philadelphia to help them. (No, that’s a lie: We traveled down because I had a reading for my new picture book, My First Kafka, and school is out, and we were getting ready to dump the kids with them for a week.) Everything is in boxes. If there’s one thing my kids are good at (there’s a million things), it’s causing chaos. They promptly set to work unpacking the remains of my parents’ life.
My five-year-old daughter promptly uncovered Treasure Island. Yes, the book. It was an illustrated—though uncut—edition. “Read it,” she demanded.
Hey, what kind of father would I be to deny classic literature to my next of kin? I read.
We reached the first death—a gristly scene where Billy Bones, an old seaman, gorges himself on rum, stabs an old fellow pirate, then collapses dead on the floor. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?” I asked her.
“Read,” she urged me.
Similarly, the second death (Old Pew, trampled by horse-hoofs cutting into his ribs) and the third (the night of Long John Silver’s violent mutiny aboard the Hispanola—no, actually, there was no death here, but a whole lot of swordfighting). We took a breath, not because she demanded it, but because my lungs were getting tired. “Are you really sure you want to read this?” I asked her. “Do you know what’s going on?”
She looked up at me with earnest, pleading eyes.
“The pirates are getting ready to kick off the good people from the ship,” she said. “Now they want to decide if they should kill them or hurt them or leave them on the island all alone.”
Kids: one point. Me: zero points. Robert Louis Stevenson: having a freakin’ veritable party in his coffin somewhere, I’m sure.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about why kids like dark stories. What I told the New Yorker was, it’s because they’re still trying to understand the world, things like death and disease and renewal. They’re still getting used to existence, and they’re exploring this existential state as well as its corollary, what it would mean to NOT exist. That’s why they become fascinated with simple, pretty things like flowers and animals, as well as why they’ll stare in fascination as a just-stepped-upon ant crinkles slowly in its dying throes.
But I also think that the boundary between dark, depressing stuff and normal, happy stuff doesn’t exist for them, not the way it does for us. We as adults have a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize—work and home life, cartoons vs. reality. Kids not only don’t need to do that, they don’t want to. They’re more fascinated with the paradoxes of the universe than the idea that these things could be paradoxes. They don’t sit around all day talking about what it could mean that a person could be transformed into a giant bug and what it represents symbolically because, to them, it doesn’t represent anything symbolically—it’s an actual story.
I’ve been avoiding reading my book to my kids lately. It feels too self-indulgent, too performative; I’m much more comfortable with Maurice Sendak or Arnold Lobel. But at my Philadelphia reading last Sunday, I read one of the stories from the book, “Josefine the Singer, or, the Mouse-People.” The ending is really sad, and I almost cried onstage. My kids, sitting about halfway back, had these huge toothy smiles. After everyone had gone, I asked what they thought of that, weren’t they sad? “It was sad when you were reading it,” said my younger one, “but it’s a story. It’s supposed to be sad.”
“I sound like a cheap, mean kyke,” my father raged. “I sound like an idiot, a complete non-entity,” my mother was furious too. I had been nervous about them reading my first memoir, Fame Shark, but none of my jitters had prepared me for this ballistic reaction. We were sitting down to breakfast at Castillo, a Dominican restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side where I had grown up eating delicious homefries colored orange from Sofrito. Now they stuck in my throat.
For me, the book was a monument to the obvious: I was in love with both my parents. But raised by two Jews who were brilliant psychoanalysts, my love had a darkness, a depth, an introspection I’d learned from them. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that flattering?
“So, it’s basically fiction,” Mom said,”a lot of this stuff never happened.” It was true that I had purposefully pandered to a modern American culture that had the attention span of meth addicts. I’d cut all the “boring” bits out of my life in this telling. But fiction? No way. It had been hard, terrifying and humbling to write truths about myself: I had been bullied to the point of molestation as a kid, I had later exchanged sex for money and movie roles, cultivated friendships with drug dealers, sunk to supreme unhappiness at the altar of celebrity worship. I had begun writing Fame Shark still half in the throes of an idiotic, unoriginal fantasy that the book itself would lift me into celebrity. Only the therapeutic writing of it had helped take me out of my own narcissism/self-hatred (a diagnosis my parents had once agreed with, in our darkest conflicts). Continue reading
I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance). As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate. There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia—I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.
In my 20s, I was an erstwhile punk. I was ahead of my time. No need for a New York Times Magazine cover to convince me of how germs are good for you. On a sunny September morning in 1981, I picked up a tattered black leather motorcycle jacket for 25 dollars from a guy under the Cube on Astor Place, put in on and didn’t take it off again for the next 3-7 years; it was the 80’s, so who can remember the exact number. I furnished my entire apartment with items I found in dumpsters. Ok, the entire place was only about 200 square feet. But still. Now, time has caught up with me. It’s not like this happened overnight, but as the days approached leading up to my 50th birthday, I was waking up at night, well, at 4am, the witching hour for all hormonally challenged women, thinking there’s been a mistake. The math is wrong! I’m just not ready for that number yet. That number is so huge; but when you start experiencing your youth like it was yesterday, never mind that 30 years have come in between me and the time when a jacket could symbolize a life choice, well, that’s a sure sign that the math is right, a big birthday is afoot. That was also the last time in my life when I thought there were good people and bad people. Now I know there’s just people and I’ve done things that anyone could easily label bad, just ask my son; he’s got an entire list of my transgressions.
At the same time as I was speeding toward 50, my son was reaching a milestone age as well. 13. Again, this had to be a mistake. My son—who used to regularly spout adorable esoteric insights as children are want to do, like at age 7 when he announced, “When I was younger, Mom, I wasn’t sure life was going to be so great, but it’s so much better than I expected”—was now becoming my biggest critic. He’s Ben Brantley to my Alec Baldwin. For instance, I was on The Oprah Winfrey show giving millions of viewers a tour of a landfill, thinking I was serving a greater good, and hoping to make my son proud, but no, even this was not to his liking. “Mom, you picked up a volleyball in that pit and you called it a soccer ball! Who would ever listen to anything you say now? You suck.” My cooking, my clothing, my comments, everything was just horrible now to him.
That was just one of reasons why I decided he just had to have a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a way of bringing us together.
There was also a practical consideration. Both my husband and I are atheists and secular Jews. We came to the conclusion that if he’s inherited even a smidgeon of my opinionated personality, he should at least have a working knowledge of what he might later want to rebel against. I’m not proud of it, but it is a passion of mine to argue against things I know very little about. Movies, books, and people I haven’t met are some of my favorite targets, but I aspire for my son to be a more informed critic. All things considered, I told myself, it was a good thing I’d done some time in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chino.
To be continued…
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.