April 27, 2006
Author Challenges ‘Brainy’ Jews Myth
Amy Wilentz cringes before speaking engagements involving Jews and Israel.
"I know they're going to get a bit 'bloody,'" the journalist-author says. "I expect to get yelled at.... But I also know I'll enjoy the chance to argue."
Wilentz, the former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is an old hand at standing up to critics. After she wrote the "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" in 1989, Haitian politicians accosted her in public, pointing fingers and hurling accusations. Her childhood rabbi walked out of her reading of "Martyrs' Crossing," her 2001 debut novel dramatizing both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wilentz expects more conflict when she takes part in an April 30 panel at the People of the Book Festival. (She'll also participate in two events at this weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.)
The panel's agenda is to take on Jewish myths. At the top of her myth list is the Jew-as-brainiac.
"We think we're smarter than other people," the 50-something author says from her Los Angeles home. "We think that's because we care more about education and intellectual issues. There are even genetic theories. But when I hear these things I think the dangers of arrogance are enormous, and believing yourself to be better than other people is very dangerous. I just don't like assumptions of superiority ... or simple notions of things."
Wilentz has devoted her career to challenging simple notions, especially about politics, in work that is both serious and irreverent. In an interview, the author alternates between thoughtful and breezily sarcastic remarks, eviscerating her own foibles as well as everyone else's.
She doesn't hesitate to admit she's a "hypocrite" and a "sell-out," given her left-wing ideals, for sending her three sons to private school and living in toney Hancock Park. She chides herself for practicing yoga, which she deemed frivolous upon moving here from Manhattan four years ago. Her upcoming political memoir, "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger," includes musings about whether a writer should have a pool. (Oops -- she does.)
Yet she insists even her most ironic work stems from a deep commitment to ethics she learned as a child in Perth Amboy, N.J. Wilentz's grandfather prosecuted the Lindberg kidnapping case; her father was the former chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. By osmosis, she says, she absorbed their Jewish "sense of social responsibility, and their connection to politics and the world."
Wilentz reinterpreted their example in 1986, when she hopped one of the last airplanes to Haiti before the corrupt "Baby Doc" Duvalier was ousted in a military coup.
"I felt obligated to narrate a peoples' struggle with a dictator, and I became obsessed with the fall of this evil regime," she says.
At the time, Haiti was the poorest, most volatile nation in the Western hemisphere; its people were "blighted by AIDS, food riots ... rigged elections, trigger-happy Tonton Macoutes," The Independent noted in a review of Wilentz's 1989 book on Haiti. "Perhaps understandably, Wilentz is keen to let us know how she risked life and limb behind the barricades with the bullets whizzing overhead.... There are firsthand descriptions -- occasionally a little prurient, of brains and guts galore."
Wilentz's ideals sustained her through the chaos, but she adds that she was devastated when the new regime also proved corrupt. And too little in Haiti has changed since.
"That marked the decline of my political romanticism, which really came to an end when I moved to Israel in 1995," she says.
She settled in Jerusalem with two young children and husband Nicholas Goldberg, who had been named Newsday's Middle East correspondent. (Goldberg now works as an editor at the Los Angeles Times.) A self-professed Palestinian sympathizer, she became appalled by tales of sick Arab mothers and babies who were held up at army security checkpoints even when they needed immediate medical attention.
"I heard of women dying in their last, desperate attempts to rush around a checkpoint," she says.
Wilentz -- who gave birth to her third son in Jerusalem -- began envisioning "Martyrs' Crossing" as a tale about what would happen after Israelis delayed an Arab mother from seeking treatment for her severely asthmatic toddler.
The story crystallized when she accompanied her husband to a checkpoint near Ramallah -- she thought it might be interesting to go along. She'd been expecting nothing worse than rock throwing from the Palestinians, so she and other observers were keeping closer watch on the Israeli soldiers. Then, shooting came from the Palestinian direction.
"This 'intrepid' reporter fled into a photocopy shop with a bunch of other journalists who didn't have to witness the events," she recalls with a laugh. But her husband was out there, and Wilentz wondered how she had allowed herself to "get into this violent situation where we might never see our children again."
She felt irresponsible and guilty. Such feelings also wrack her Palestinian heroine in "Martyrs," who believes she could have planned better to save her child. They also torment the Israeli who detained the sick boy -- part of Wilentz's attempt to humanize both Arabs and Jews.
And though her rabbi disapproved, many critics were impressed with the results.
"Diaspora Jews who comment on the moral failures of Israel often come off as preachy, but in 'Martyrs' Crossing,' Amy Wilentz manages to raise some difficult questions for both Israelis and Palestinians without sounding holier than thou," the Jerusalem Report said.
"Like the best documentaries, 'Martyrs' Crossing' allows us unprecedented access to a little understood and often misrepresented part of the world," the Chicago Tribune noted.
And though many Jews denounced the tome as "anti-Israel" at readings, such hostility subsided over time, which should make for a smoother ride on the L.A. panel -- that is, until she informs fellow tribe-members that they aren't so smart as they think they are.
"My people love to argue, especially with me," she says.
For more information, visit www.peopleofthebookfestival.org. Her memoir, "I Feel Earthquakes Before They Happen" (Simon & Schuster) hits stores Aug. 15.