You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.) Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.
Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.
In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.
Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.
I might be obsessed with historical figures. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. But my two most recent books were Osama (a novel) and Jesus & The Eightfold Path (a novella) – though the one may be too early to be called historical, and the other may not be historical at all. Josephus Flavius, supposed chronicler of my novella (The Gospel According to Josephus, we learn half-way through) is our only contemporary historian to mention Jesus, but it appears quite likely the mention – a single paragraph – was inserted into the text centuries later.
Be that as it may, with a recent short story called “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” (in the Solaris Rising anthology) chronicling the effect multiple clones of the legendary revolutionary had on the world’s various conflicts and wars, I think I might suffer from Historical Figure Fixation, and that just sounds like a bad Woody Allen movie (which is, basically, any Woody Allen movie after 1985. Badabing).
I keep saying my next book will have to be Mother Teresa, Gunslinger. I also like to say I never joke about future books. Though it occurs to me this might be better as a graphic novel. Certainly my planned book about a gun-slinging Walt Whitman traversing a future planet Mars accompanied by an automaton Golda Meir (in search of mysterious alien ruins, perhaps!) isn’t a joke. I’m just waiting for someone to pay me to write it.
I might be waiting a while, though.
Still, as long as you’re willing to be poorer than someone who was made redundant from McDonald’s, the writing life is a wonderful thing. You get to come up with titles like “The Were-Wizard of Oz” and sell the resultant story to an anthology (Bewere the Night, in all good bookstores!) or, indeed, re-imagine what would have happened if the three Wise Men from the East were the three companions of the Buddha (that is, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy) from the Chinese classic A Journey to the West. The working title, needless to say, was Kung Fu Jesus.
Four Jews made an undeniable impact on 20th century culture. Freud gave us psychoanalysis. Marx gave us Marxism. Einstein gave us Relativity. And Haim Saban gave us Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
It’s a hard act to follow.
But history’s a great thing for a writer. Otherwise it just, sort of, sits there. Doing nothing. Might as well package it. Ideally with some kung-fu.
But I think I’m getting better. I avoid the history books. Shun the History Channel. No more HFF for me. The words of my grandfather keep echoing in my ears, instead.
When, he said, when will you stop writing this weird… stuff, and write something serious for once?
I don’t know, Granddad. I don’t know.
When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.
Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.
I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.
I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)
My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.
I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and the sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.
And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.
In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”
Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.
I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother recently. This is my paternal grandmother, the longest-lived of my four grandparents and the only one I came to know well. Her name was Rose – like so many women of her generation – and the name suited her personality: under her smooth exterior (held in place by corset and garters) there were thorns.
People use a lot of words to describe women like Rose. Hard. Cold. Judgmental. Even unloving. But – and it’s a big but – Rose was a mother, to four children. She has nine grandchildren now, most of us with advanced degrees, thriving in every corner of this country. How do we reconcile what we knew of her with what she gave us?
A couple weeks ago I visited a book group that had read my first novel, The Little Bride. The women were discussing my protagonist, Minna Losk, a Jewish orphan who travels to America in the 1880s as a mail-order bride. They were talking about how complicated she is – how along with being strong and compassionate she can also be stubborn and selfish. One woman said she forgave Minna all of it, because of what she’d been through. “She’s a survivor,” she said, and the other women nodded. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” the woman went on. “And my grandmother was not a nice woman.”
Immediately, others began to speak.
“My grandmother wasn’t nice, either.”
“Mine was very cold.”
“I never saw my grandmother smile.”
The table erupted in laughter. Then the women began talking about their grandmothers, and why they thought they’d been the way they were. They wondered about stories they’d heard – of immigration, or abuse, or miscarriages. And they wondered about stories that might have been kept a secret.
As they talked, I started wondering about Rose. Most of her stories had been about my grandfather’s history, or about her children. She hadn’t often talked about herself. What was her story, not the public version but the private one? What were her secrets? How had she become the woman I knew?
That conversation opened up a new door for me in my relationship with my grandmother. Fiction can do this, I think – it can lead us, however circuitously, to new compassion: for difficult characters, yes, but also for the people in our own lives. I feel closer, suddenly, to my Grandma Rose. I can hear her scolding me – “But I’m not even alive.” But I don’t think that matters one bit.