"All That Matters" by Jan Goldstein (Hyperion, $17.95).
Walk into Zabar's and it's easy to spot 76-year old Gittel "Gabby" Zuckerman. She's feisty and funny, and her shrinking height and failing health don't diminish her power. Nor do the memories of the family she lost in the Holocaust ever leave her.
Gabby is the heroine of Jan Goldstein's uplifting first novel, "All That Matters," a book that's been compared to Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie," for sharing the wisdom -- this time in fiction -- of an elderly person facing death. It's Gabby who ultimately saves her granddaughter Jennifer, and the novel follows their journey together, toward each other, affirming memory, life and love.
Jennifer loses her way after her Hollywood producer father ("Harvey Weinstein in a size 40") leaves the family and marries a younger woman ("Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics"), and after her mother Lili's death. Lili was fatally struck by a car while crossing a Los Angeles street, on a day when she lent Jennifer her own car. After Jennifer feels abandoned by one more person, a boyfriend who promises her a better life and then asks her to move out, the young woman tries to commit suicide on Venice Beach -- but she is found by a truck driver.
Defying her doctor's orders, Gabby flies across the country when she hears the news and insists on bringing her only child's only child home with her to the Upper West Side, rather than allowing her ex-son-in-law to confine her to an institution. To see her granddaughter so troubled "was a grandmother's pain, one that reached the deepest part of her, a place where the memory of lost family resided."
Gabby wrestles with God, never forgiving God for failing to save her family in Poland, yet on occasion she offers up prayers of gratitude nonetheless. But when it comes to Jennifer, she found that God "didn't seem a reliable bet," so she turns to her late daughter, Lili, searching for her voice.
It's exactly this time of year when Gabby and Jennifer return to New York City, when the air is crisp and the leaves are turning burnt orange and golden. The fall scene on the book jacket could be Central Park, where some of the novel's key scenes are played out. When Jennifer first enters her grandmother's apartment in the West 70s, she "took a deep breath and exhaled, looking over the glass coffee table overflowing with tchotchkes. It was if she'd entered a time warp, fallen into some kind of back hole where everything modern and contemporary had ceased to exist."
The author -- whose book recently made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list -- is an L.A.-based poet, playwright and screenwriter who has written two nonfiction books, "Life Can Be This Good" and "Sacred Wounds." One fact about him doesn't appear on the book jacket: He's a rabbi, trained in the Reform movement. For 20 years, he was the rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, and he now heads a congregation called Shofar, "a show business shul," he said. He said that his rabbinic experience "has given me insight into human psychology and what moves people."
As a man probing the inner lives of women, he credits the powerful example of his mother, who was a poet, and his father, who was an actor, and helped establish a conservative synagogue in Burlington, Vt., where he grew up, "surrounded by poetry and theater."
Goldstein explains that he also learned a lot about women as a single father, with primary responsibility for raising his three children -- two daughters and a son, who are now grown up -- after a divorce. Now 53 and remarried, he also has a stepson and a young daughter.
His attraction to the rabbinate grew out of his involvement in the ecumenical movement in Vermont.
"We wanted to bring people together, to create more understanding between religions," he said. "I wanted to explain who Jews are."
Throughout his rabbinic career "the writer in me has been wanting to come out," he said.
He describes his Jewish outlook as "progressive in orientation, with a healthy respect for tradition and a healthy hunger for creating new forms of ritual. Telling stories is a very Jewish activity, also a human activity, making meaning out of human experience."
"We have a profound power through creativity to help alter the world. In a small way I'm doing that through the stories I tell." He added, "Artists like to nudge the world along."
"All That Matters" was inspired in part by the suicide of a vivacious young woman Goldstein had taught; he hadn't seen it coming and that haunted him.
"I wondered if I could create a character who could intercede, who could mentor her back to discover the joy of living," he said. "I couldn't think of a more dramatic person to reach someone and show someone how precious love is than someone who has seen the worst that life can dole out."
The character of Gabby was informed by several Holocaust survivors he has known, who have a joyous quality about them -- in spite of all they have been through. In particular, his father had a cousin whose own experience of surviving and being hidden by a righteous Polish woman is reflected in Gabby's story. Goldstein was also influenced by a meeting with Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, when he was researching an earlier nonfiction book. Some of Wiesenthal's determination -- how early experiences in his life led to his involvement in bringing the world to justice, and a sense of owing something to future generations -- surfaces in Gabby.
For Goldstein, the message of the book is about second chances in life, about learning to savor life's gifts.
"Sometimes we look in the wrong places for a special kind of love that can rejuvenate our lives," he said.
Goldstein's writes with ease and fluidity, and he explains that he finished the book quickly, in 10 weeks.
"It just poured out of me," he said.
While he was writing, he could imagine a film version and several producers have shown interest. The author dreams of Natalie Portman playing Jennifer.
About the book title, he sounds rabbinic, "When we discover what matters, life becomes different and better."
Goldstein will be the featured guest at Sinai Temple's Friday Night Live on Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.
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