Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Adventure has always provided the raw material for great books, ranging from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Alive” and much in between. That’s why I was thrilled to be asked to moderate a panel on “Stories of Survival” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on the weekend of April 24-25, 2010.
The panelists are all authors of recently published books about how the danger they endured and how they lived to tell about it. A couple of them confront us with the human face of terrorism in exotic locales, and the third one shows us that life-and-death ordeals can take place very close to home. From the comfort and safety of a UCLA lecture hall, we will witness three sagas of survival.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo’s “Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban” (Europa Editions: $15.00) (Translated by Michael Reynolds) is the story of the Italian reporter’s ordeal at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2007. At the worst moment of his captivity, the author was forced to witness the decapitation of his Afghan driver by their captors. “Many consider this episode merely a terrible and bloody story,” writes Mastrogiacomo about his long confinement and ultimate liberation. “I prefer to remember it as an experience that cast me down into the depths of my soul, made me stronger, more convinced of the vital importance of many things: my relationships with loved ones, life’s small everyday moments, basic human values, my profession.”
Richard Phillips is the author (with Stephan Talty) of “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” ( Hyperion: $25.99). Readers will remember his heroic exploits as the captain of a U.S. cargo ship that came under attack by Somali pirates and his rescue on the high seas by Navy commandoes. “When someone has a loaded AK-47 pointed at your face, you get to know his mood really well, believe me,” recalls Philips about one moment of peril in the waters of the Indian Ocean. “They wanted me to stretch out. No goddamn way, I said to myself. I’m not going to be your fatted calf.”
The third panelist is Norman Ollestad, author of “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival” (Ecco: $25.99), an adventure story that takes place no farther away than the San Gabriel Mountains. As a young surfer and skier, Ollestad was flying to a championship ceremony with his father in 1979 when their chartered Cessna crashed into a mountaintop during a sudden blizzard. His father was killed in the crash, and the 11-year-old boy was forced to make his own way to safety from the ice-bound peak. “As much a thriller as a memoir,” wrote Carolyn See in praise of Ollestad’s book.
The panel on “Stories of Survival” will take place in Broad Hall 2160 on the UCLA campus at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, 2010. Tickets and information are available at the Festival of Books website.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com
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April 10, 2010 | 11:24 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
No one alive when Jesus of Nazareth was born had the faintest idea that it was the year one. Only by pious Christian tradition did the world enter the period of history known to scholars as the Common Era and to Christian believers as Anno Domini, “the Year of Our Lord.” And, thanks to the vagaries of calendar-keeping over the centuries, Jesus was probably born around the year 5 BCE, which would have made him six years old in Year One.
That’s why the title of Scott Korb’s wholly fascinating new book, “Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine” (Riverhead: $25.95, 241 pps.), is mostly fanciful. But the fact remains that the first century of the Common Era was crammed with history-making people and events, no less for Jews than for Christians, and Korb’s book gives us a glimpse of ordinary life for the men, women and children who lived in Bible times.
Jesus and his depiction in the Christian scriptures are a kind of benchmark for the author, but Korb is right when he insists that his book is not a religious tract. Indeed, he introduces Jesus as a flesh-and-blood figure: “He was a peasant. He was a healer who acted like a rabbi and a prophet. Some people see him as a revolutionary.” Nor is Korb’s book about Jesus himself: “f Jesus had been the kind person who had neighbor,” cracks Korb, “this would be a book about them.”
So we are allowed to glimpse the Holy Land in the first century of the Common Era as it was experienced by ordinary people — the coins they carried, the language they spoke, the sights they saw on the street, the food they eat, and how they earned their livelihoods. The author considers Bible-era sex and birth control, food cultivation and preparation, disposal of human waste and burial of corpses, among many other things. He points out that the Hebrew word translated from the Bible as “leprosy” actually referred to psoriasis, eczema, and “any fungal infection of the skin,” and the disease that we call leprosy may been unknown to the authors and first readers of the Bible. He even devotes a chapter to “Baths in the Year One,” a crucial concern for people who “would have had to deal with lots and lots of filth.”
But each one of these mundane details is the occasion for a widening of the lens and thus sheds light on historical, political and theological issues, too. Thus, for example, Korb tells us that there were coins minted in Jerusalem in the first century that started over again with the year one, but the occasion was not the birth of Jesus; rather, it was outbreak of the war of national liberation that the Jewish people fought against the Roman army of occupation. But the calendar as marked on coinage ended in the year four with the defeat of Jewish resistance and the destruction of Jerusalem: “t became perfectly clear,” Korb points out, “that there would never be a ‘Year Five.’”
Some controversy about Korb’s footnotes can be found in the reviews posted at Amazon.com. To be sure, you will find an abundance of marginal asides at the bottom of the page, but I found them to be so full of interesting facts and observations that they constitute a kind of parallel narrative. Or, as the author himself puts it, “the footnotes offer a running commentary on the lessons we have and have not learned from our past.”
“Life in Year One” will endear itself even to those readers who are afraid of footnotes. The author is chatty, witty and well-informed, and his book is a kind of revelation about real life in the time and place that we read about in the Bible. Indeed, the biblical text itself will never seem quite the same once we know the facts of life in the Year One.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 1, 2010 | 9:57 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Not long ago, I reviewed “A Wall in Palestine” by French journalist René Backmann (Picador: $16.00, 264 pps.), an account of the security barrier that is nearing completion between Israel and the West Bank, in the pages of The Jewish Journal. My original review is archived here.
One reader of the review, Richard Blutstein, posted a comment that gave quite a different perspective on the wall, and I am taking the liberty of re-posting his message below.
Richard Blutstein wrote:
My son, Benjamin Blutstein, was having lunch while waiting to take an exam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on July 31, 2002 when he was murdered. A Hamas cell with the assistance of the Palestinian Authority detonated a bomb next to him in the cafeteria. This bomb had been smuggled from Ramallah to Jerusalem twice, because the first attempt a few days earlier did not work. There were celebrations in Gaza. Arafat suppressed the celebrations on the West Bank because he was concerned about bad publicity.
If the wall had already been built then Ben might now still be alive.
The Palestinians are certainly suffering as a result of the wall, but they brought it on themselves. They voted for both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and have showed their support for mass murder by terrorists time and time again.
Peace will come to Israel and Palestine as soon the Arabs accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Until they do, Israel needs to defend itself.
Mr. Blutstein’s comment also prompted a communication from the author of “A Wall in Palestine,” who has given me permission to share his thoughts with the readers of The Jewish Journal.
René Backmann wrote:
Thank you for your very extensive and fair review of my book in The Jewish Journal. And thank you for thinking – and writing – that it is ‘A book that cannot be ignored.’ It was my aim, when I wrote this book, to bring to the readers the truth – whole truth – about the wall’s history. I read the comment that came after your post, written by a man who lost his son during a terrorist attack against the Hebrew University. I understand and share the sorrow of this father. I also understand what is in his mind when he writes that the wall, if built a few years sooner, could have saved the life of his son. As you probably know, after reading my book, I am not against the idea of building a wall (or a fence, or anything else) to protect the Israeli civilian population against terrorists coming from the West Bank. But such a wall should have been built inside Israeli territory, and along the Green Line, instead of meandering in large loops, inside the territory of the future Palestinian state, to annex the main blocks of settlements. I hope that this book — among a lot of others — will help Israelis and Palestinians to understand that there is only one solution to the problem: good faith negotiations and two states, living in peace and security side by side. But is seems that everybody — on both sides — is not ready to accept this solution and this future.
I, too, share the sorrow of a father who has lost a cherished son, and I know that no words can heal those wounds. On one thing, however, all of us seem to agree: There is a terrible human price to be paid when it comes to geopolitics, a price measured in blood and heartbreak. But there is another lesson here. Surely it will take vision, wisdom and courage on both sides of the wall to achieve some version of peace.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.