For retired Israeli spy Mishka Ben-David, writing fiction was a realization of artistic aspirations he had long suppressed.
So we return, with the inevitability of quarrels in a shul, to the question posed at the outset: what makes a Jewish writer? I promised to avoid it, but there is a Wittgensteinian way out (and by the way, was he a Jewish philosopher?) A Jewish writer is someone whom we choose to call a "Jewish" writer. Would we rather have a clear category or fecundity and individuality of expression? Uniformity of commitment or divergence? The dilemma of modern Jewish writing is the same as that which bedevils modern Judaism: Where one can be everything, how likely is it that in the end, bristling with talent and showered with opportunity, one will come to nothing?
In Amy Bloom's novel "Away," Lillian Leyb makes her way from the Lower East Side to Seattle and then Alaska, hoping to get to Siberia to find her daughter.
Somehow, this most blatant form of self-promotion, this venue that, until a couple of hours ago, had looked to me like a literary meat market, has suddenly reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place: to tell a good story; a story about Jews; a story that in its own small way continues the tale of this people who have had to struggle, in every generation, to ensure that their story doesn't end.
I was not entirely comforted. I recalled a conservative propaganda movie about Islam warning people of taqiyya, the Muslim "mitzvah" of deception, in which militant Muslims put on a peaceful disguise for Westerners.
"Write and record," historian Simon Dubnow urged his fellow Jews, as he was taken to his death in Riga. Over the decades since Dubnow's murder in 1941, many have taken his words to heart, and scholars, survivors, novelists, poets, members of the second and third generations continue to publish new work on the Holocaust. This season, in time for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, there are impressive historical works, memoirs of lost childhoods, personal testimonies and artful works of fiction; many written by those who feel an obligation to those whose voices were stilled.
Etgar Keret is coming to Los Angeles, but fear not. This brilliant young Israeli writer of his generation, a skillful satirist who seems to have a knack for expressing the emotions, thoughts and language of his peers, has not gone completely Hollywood.
Everything Is Illuminated," Jonathan Safran Foer's tragi-comic tale of a young American Jew's journey through Ukraine in search of his grandfather's roots, is the first winner of JBooks.com's People's Choice Award for the decade's best work of Jewish fiction at the Koret International Jewish Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco.
Third season of "Numb3rs"
One should read Israeli writers, of course -- Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew's relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.
If the day ever comes when someone makes anti-Semitic attacks in the United States and the attacks enhance the person's reputation, we Jews will know we are in danger. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson started attacking Jews and Zionism, which he called a "poisonous weed." When an African American journalist reported some of Jackson's anti-Jewish comments, Jackson felt constrained to issue an extended apology to the Jewish community and has avoided such comments since.
This season brings engaging reading in a mix of genres: literary fiction, comedy, love stories, detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and books that break genre boundaries; books by veteran authors and others not-yet well-known.
Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?
7 Days in the Arts
Sheila Solomon Klass and Dr. in Perri Klass -- mother and daughter co-authors -- don't finish each other's sentences, but they do elaborate on them
If there's an overriding theme among the newest books related to the Holocaust, it's one of concealment and discovery, whether in the writer's own wartime experience or invented on the page. Sometimes it's a case of lost books being rediscovered.
Letters to the Editor
In 1979, comedian Al Franken wrote a skit for "Saturday Night Live" called "What if: Überman," featuring Dan Aykroyd as Klaus Kent, a clerk in Hitler's Ministry of Propaganda. Klaus dashes into phone booths to become Überman, uses his X-ray vision to detect bombs and to reveal Jews by looking through their pants, and ultimately leads his country to victory.
Forty years ago this Oct. 15, Houghton Mifflin published "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski. The book was immediately acclaimed as a must-read text on the Holocaust and the nature of human cruelty.
While there are no statistics to prove it, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Typing "Jewish romance novel" into Google calls up dozens of bodice rippers featuring Jewish themes or characters, and not all published by small presses.
Narrated in the first person, present tense (always risky), "Love With Noodles" follows Gelder's canoodling with a string of women who enter his life just as he emerges from mourning his late beshert, Ellen. Gelder lives alone. His grown son, Eric, faces financial ruin. What's worse, Eric is planning to marry a non-Jew.
In late fall of 1999, I wrote a short story, "Summertime," which I eventually included in my collection, "Assumption and Other Stories" (Bilingual Press, 2003). When the book reviews started coming in, most noted that particular story's unsettling premise.
What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library.
Hurwitz's new page-turner, "The Program" reads like an expose of cult con artistry.
A historical romance, "Songbird," is told through the voice of Mia; when the novel opens in 1939, she is a 17-year-old vacationing with her family at a resort called Krzemieniec, "the Polish Athens."
The wildly best-selling apocalyptic adventure novels involve, among other things, vivid scenarios in which the Jews neatly fulfill their function in the Christian narrative by converting en masse as Armageddon nears.
If Jacob Green sounds like every teenager who's hated mandatory Shabbat dinners, he's also the protagonist of Joshua Braff's viciously witty and poignant new novel.
In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother, father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.
Can a work of fiction be important without being successful? If so, it would look pretty much like "Foiglman," by the distinguished Israeli author, Aharon Megged.
"Foiglman" was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.
Megged's book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely overpower the novel itself.
"The Rabbi and the Hit Man," by Arthur J. Magida (HarperCollins, $24.95).
If not for the legion of pederast priests unmasked like some gruesome ecclesiastical episode of "Scooby Doo," Rabbi Fred Neulander might have been a shoo-in for "most infamous religious figure of the past decade."
Now, it's a toss-up. So be it.
Yet after tearing through Arthur J. Magida's "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," the painstakingly detailed account of the rise and fall of Neulander, a philandering New Jersey rabbi who paid an assassin to bludgeon his wife to death in 1994, one can only lapse into a well-worn cliché. Truth is stranger than fiction.
"King of Odessa" by Robert Rosenstone (Northwestern, $24.95).
In an impressive effort of literary boldness, historian Robert Rosenstone fills in some of the blanks in Issac Babel's life and work in a first novel, "King of Odessa." He writes as though he has recovered a lost Babel manuscript, imagining what one of Babel's final years might have been like. Other than a few postcards sent to his family, no records remain of the summer and autumn of 1936, when Babel, then 42, returned to Odessa, the city of his birth.
It's official. American Jews are now the People of the Book Festival.
Nowadays, literature in general -- and Jewish literature in particular -- have become much more public entertainments.
Until recently, the word Drohobycz (pronounced "Dro-ho-bit-ch") sounded to most American readers like an exotic Eastern European tongue twister.
Dara Horn wrote an exuberant scene in her stunning debut novel, "In the Image," upon returning to her dreary garret flat during a year abroad in 1999. "I'd been to this dismal British market in which an entire aisle was devoted to butter and fats," the ebullient Horn, 25, said animatedly. "I recall a product called 'beef drippings.' The produce was wilting. All the milk was expired yesterday.Â I was very homesick."
Jennifer Weiner began writing "Good in Bed" during a bout of Dumper's Regret in 1998.
She'd been dating her nice-Jewish-writer boyfriend for a few years, but no engagement ring was forthcoming. So she requested a trial separation. "I went home and proceeded to think about the relationship, and he went home and proceeded to date someone else," she says.
I despise 'Schindler's List' because it ends on a redemptive note, and I don't see the slightest bit of redemption in the Shoah...There's all this nonsense out there about healing, but I don't want to heal anything. I want to rip open the stitches. I want readers to bleed."
Don't get author Melvin Jules Bukiet started about the cliché of the sad-eyed Holocaust survivor.
I love cookbooks, but on lazy summer days, I usually read fiction -- few cookbooks are engaging enough to replace a good novel. And when I go into the kitchen at all, it's usually just to stand in front of the open freezer. But when I do find a cookbook that captures me, cooking with it is just a plus.