“Won’t You Be Kind? And Please Love Melvin Brooks”

Written by Raina Scherer

Illustrated by Nina Scherer (@nuheyenuh on Instagram & Twitter)


Mel Brooks is best known for his campy style of comedy that often features outrageous productions and provocative themes. He is a master of using satire, parody, and vulgarity to comment on human behavior and philosophical dilemmas. His work reflects aspects of his upbringing and early life, as he insists on putting his Jewish identity and inheritance at the forefront of his comedy. He does this by demonstrating Jewish themes and characters, and making allusions to Jewish culture. Although some may say his satiric treatments of sensitive historical events, such as the Nazi rise to power or the Spanish Inquisition, are in bad taste, Brooks uses his bold comedic style to ridicule those who committed atrocities as a way of reclaiming the Jewish historical narrative.

Early Life

Many aspects of Mel Brooks’s works are influenced by his childhood and early life. Mel Brooks was born as Melvin Kaminsky on June 27th, 1926 in his family’s sweltering Brooklyn apartment. His father, Max, died when Melvin was only two years old. Melvin carried the pain of never getting to know his father for his whole life, which later influenced the relationships between his characters in his films. Brooks explained, “Maybe in having the male characters in my movies find each other, I’m expressing the longing I feel to find my father and be close to him.”1 These relationships between characters, such as Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock in The Producers, or Bart and Jim in Blazing Saddles, mirror qualities in father-son relationships: one party acts as the knowledgeable mentor while the other seeks their guidance.

Being the youngest of four boys, Melvin was regarded as the baby of the family. As a toddler, he was often doted over by friends and relatives and grew used to receiving attention from a broader audience. Because of this, Kaminsky developed a need to keep his admirers entertained in order to remain in the spotlight2, and his need for attention only grew with age. Additionally, Melvin would spend his afternoons with his friends out on the street corner in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where, as a small and unathletic kid, he was  the prime target for neighborhood bullies. Kaminsky quickly caught on that he could use comedy as a way to evade torment. He lived his childhood with this philosophy: “If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?”3 Originally he turned to comedy as a means of social survival, but he soon found his calling within it. 

Kaminsky’s love for theatrical entertainment began at a young age. His fondness for movies was conceived when his family would visit the silent movie theater during trips to Coney Island.4 He would also frequent his local theater in Williamsburg to watch new talkies, movies with sound, with his friends. His appreciation for theater came from his Uncle Joe, who took him to see his very first Broadway show, Anything Goes. After being dazzled by the thrill of live performance, Brooks thought, “The real world stinks. This is the world I want to live in, the world of imagination.”5 Brooks’s desire to live in this “world of imagination” has been evident in his outrageous and campy productions.

 Around the time he was 13, during a brief period of time when his family moved to Brighton Beach, Melvin learned how to play the drums from the great Buddy Rich. He caught on very quickly because he had a natural knack for rhythm. He commented on why he pursued percussion: “I think I became a drummer because it made the most noise. Obviously, I wanted attention. I could have become a flutist, could have played the flute. Nobody pays attention to you.”6 The skills he learned from Rich would prove to be handy later on when he set off into the Catskills for a summer gig not too long after. 

Like many teens in the 1940s, Melvin trekked up to the Catskills mountains to work at a Jewish resort for the summer. His jobs were not glamourous and he was severely underpaid. After taking on many odd jobs around the resort, he landed the gig of being a pool tummler, essentially the equivalent to a court jester, for the guests. Being a natural entertainer, he took his seemingly minor role with the utmost seriousness. One of his shticks involved walking off the end of the diving board while decked out in a full suit and coat, holding a briefcase. Brooks did not know how to swim and had to be saved numerous times by the lifeguards at the pool, proving that he had an unwavering commitment to his craft.

After his stint as a tummler, Kaminsky auditioned to be a drummer for the house band at the Butler’s Lodge. Nightly entertainment called for comedians in the Catskills resorts to be in high demand (or the “Borscht Belt Circuit” as it was often referred to). Brooks lucked out one night when the resort’s usual comedian fell incredibly ill and Brooks was asked to fill in. His first night, despite his nerves, was an overall success and inspired him to continue. He experimented with different material, and often it was not well received— especially his more obscene humor. According to Brooks, “I wasn’t a big hit, not at first… The Jewish ladies with blue hair would call me over and say ‘Melvin, we enjoyed parts of your show, but a trade would be better for you.’”7 Although not all of his jokes resonated with the audience, Brooks was not discouraged and persisted on with his comedy career. At this point in his life, he rebranded himself from Melvin Kaminsky to Mel Brooks— Brooks being a derivative of his mother’s maiden name, “Brookman”.

 At the time, although many entertainers with ethnic names changed them for more ambiguous ones in an effort to conceal their identity, Brooks never hid his Jewishness from the world. He described: “I was never religious, but always terribly Jewish… I would say socially, societally I was always very Jewish— I love being Jewish.”8 Growing up in Brooklyn surrounded by Jewish culture built up a strong Jewish identity that existed independent from the religious aspects of Judaism. 

Engulfed in Jewish culture with his Brooklyn roots and Catskills summers, Books was kept away from a lot of antisemitism at the beginning of his life. According to him, “[In Brooklyn] we didn’t feel any antisemitism or any strangeness. Had we been transported to Nebraska or Kansas or Abilene, Texas, Yes, we would have felt.”9 Antisemitsm became a much more prominent part of his life when he departed from his familiar Brooklyn and headed off for the army.

Shortly after graduating highschool in 1944, Brooks enlisted in the U.S. Army. While in basic training, he experienced a great deal of antisemitism and harassment from his peers. In one interview, Brooks recalled an incident: 

Oh, I was in the army. ‘Jew boy! Out of my way, out of my face, Jew boy.’ This guy called me Jew-something and I walked over to him. I took his helmet off. I said ‘I don’t want to hurt your helmet, cus it’s GI issue.’ And I smashed him in the head with my mess kit.10 

Bravely, Brooks was not afraid of the consequences that would come as a result of him standing up to antisemitism. His experiences caused him to not only refrain from concealing his Jewishness, but actually infuse it as a main feature in all of his work so his audiences were unable to ignore or overlook it.

Brooks was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat group and sent overseas to fight in Germany during World War II. He arrived just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Although in a literal war zone, Brooks managed to let his true personality shine through into battlefield antics. In one instance, Brooks responded to German harassment by singing to them over a bullhorn. He often behaved this way on the front in an effort to break the tension from the looming fear of death that followed the soldiers around. After the war ended, Brooks was offered a position as a comedian to follow around the U.S. troops and entertain them. He was promoted to corporal status and enjoyed his life on the road, indulging in the pleasantries that 19 year old boys love the most: alcohol and women. Eventually, he was relieved from duties and shipped back to America.

Much of Mel Brooks’s work is influenced by his experiences as a Jew in the US army in World War II. When reflecting back on his time in the army, he said that he was “grateful”11 His experience in the army motivated him to retaliate against Hitler on behalf of the Jews through his comedy. Through ridicule and mockery, Brooks aimed to belittle Hitler and the Nazis into laughing stocks and take away any inkling of dignity. This was a common theme throughout his career.

Upon returning to America, Brooks tried, and failed, to attend Brooklyn College before finding a job with a producer named Benjamin Kutcher. Kutcher proved to be a failure, and was unable to ever produce a hit play. In order to collect funding for his productions, he seduced old women and collected checks from them. This employer was the obvious inspiration for the Max Bialystock character in The Producers. Brooks then left this job for a summertime stagehand position with a theater group called the Red Bank Theater. After the head of the company quit on account of an unsuccessful season, Mel seized the opportunity to direct their productions. He thrived in his new position and it reaffirmed his love for theatrical production. This experience boosted his confidence and inspired him to use his chutzpah to continue pursuing his dreams.

The life of young Melvin Kaminsky is ever present in the works of the older Mel Brooks. Being coddled as a child instilled a hunger for constant attention, a hunger that  he has strived to satisfy his entire career. Growing up as a small, meek kid required him to adopt a powerful command of comedy in order to avoid getting pummeled by bullies, and the  Brooklyn street corner gave him a stage to practice his material. The tragic loss of his father shaped the relationships and dynamics of his film characters, and being a drummer contributed to his musical tendencies, ensuring that he would be the loudest in the room. As a teen, his time performing stand up in the Borscht Belt provided him with his first experiences in front of a proper audience, the opportunity to hone his craft, and imbue within him a keen sense for live performance. 

Finally, his time in the army tuned him into how Jews are seen in the world outside of Brooklyn. This perspective affirmed his sense of identity and provoked him to make it a primary aspect of everything he did. He also assumed a responsibility to ridicule antisemites like Hitler and the Nazis through comedy in order to strip away any legitimacy or dignity from them.

The Sid Caesar Years

Mel Brooks’s career took off when he joined forces with the king of slapstick, Sid Caesar. Like Brooks, Caesar also performed standup gigs at Catskills resorts. However, being older and more experienced, he had honed his craft to a deeper and more unique level than Brooks. Brooks looked up to Caesar as a role model, but he also felt inadequate compared to him because of his sophisticated humor and dashing good looks. The two were introduced to each other by their mutual friend, Don Appell, after a show Caesar had at the Copa in 1947. After Caesar gained more popularity through his series of live shows at the Roxy Theater, he was offered to produce a weekly television revue show for NBC called Admiral Broadway Revue

Although Brooks was not a part of the production at the time, he hung around backstage at the studio often; Caesar described Brooks as “sort of a groupie”.12 One day, Max Leibman, the producer of the show, came to the studio to chat with Ceasar. Caesar asked Brooks to perform his signature opening song for Leibman that he often sang before his shows:

Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks

I’ve come to stop the show.

I’m just a ham who’s minus looks

But in your heart I’ll grow

I’ll tell you gags, I’ll sing you songs,

Just happy little snappy songs that roll along.

Out of my mind

Won’t you be kind?

And please love Melvin Brooks13

Brooks sang this crooner song with gusto and passion, dramatically ending on one knee. Unfortunately, Leibman was not impressed and discounted Brook’s potential, referring to him as a “meshuggener”14. Regardless, Brooks was determined to wedge his way into Caesar’s inner circle, so he attempted to show up to more rehearsals. This led Sid’s manager, Leo Pillot, to advise security at the International Theater, where the show was produced, to keep him out of the building. However, Brooks refused to give up despite many ejections. Luckily, the commotion caught Caesar’s attention and he was able to put Mel on the list on the condition that he stayed away from the bulk of the production. Brooks’s tenacity paid off when Caesar and his writing team reached a block in one of their skits.

Caesar instructed Brooks to “Do something. Write!”15 to fix the scene. Proposing that they add a ridiculous animal noise to the scene to elevate it, he succeeded in proving himself to the writing team. Sid allowed him to hang around if he provided insight on skits. Appreciating the struggle of being a poor comic, Caesar took it upon himself to personally pay Mel $40 a week for his work— a stipend which increased to $50 a week, once Caesar assessed Brooks’ squalid living conditions. After the 19th episode, the show was canceled due to a pulled sponsorship, and Brooks found himself out of work. 

By this point, Brooks had been presented with numerous obstacles in his pursuit of a fruitful career. He had followed around Sid Caesar like a puppy for years before he was able to give input on sketches. He had been ignored and invalidated by Max Leibman on multiple occasions and was not taken seriously. Along with his failure to exist in the limelight, these shortcomings caused Brooks to be incredibly insecure. Fortunately, his connections with Sid Caesar presented a new opportunity to express his craft with Your Show of Shows.

Although Max Leibman was adamant about Brooks not joining the original writing team for Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar’s influence over the matter outshined Leibman’s. Once again, Brooks was hired on with Caesar’s personal funds. Max begrudgingly allowed it, but only if Brooks agreed to stay out of his hair unless explicitly asked to advise a skit. For the first few episodes, he was sparsely involved, but in the seventh episode, Brooks contributed an entire scene— earning him screen credit at the end of the program.

After this victory, Brooks became even more motivated to prove himself further. He demanded to become a salaried employee of the show instead of Sid’s beneficiary. Upon winning that, he  pushed further for a full cast screen credit that named him a writer and not just a contributor, which he achieved in 1951. Caesar would later describe Mel’s journey: “He was pushing his way into the writers’ room through a combination of raw talent, inertia and sheer chutzpah”.16 

The writing team of Max Leibman, Sid Caesar, Lucille Kallen, and Mel Tolkin had functioned efficiently, but the new addition of Mel Brooks complicated team dynamics. Brooks’s manic demeanor, chronic insomnia, and secret professional insecurities made it difficult for him to mesh well with the rest of the crew. The eclectic mix of these personalities along with another addition, Carl Reiner, created a hectic environment of cacophonous chaos in the writers’ room— an environment that Brooks was constantly blamed for by Leibman, who continued to disregard him as a comic. One year later in 1952, Leibman finally accepted Brooks’s talent and regarded him as a team player. 

The new addition of Carl Reiner to the team proved to be an amazing compliment to Mel Brooks. The two Jewish men shared the same kind of spunky improvisational humor— the synthesis of which created one of Brooks’s most well known characters. While in the writer’s room one day, Reiner turned to Brooks pretending to hold a microphone and asked him, “I understand you were at the Crucifixion?” to which Mel replied in a thick, Yiddish accent, “Christ was a thin lad, always wore sandals. Hung around with 12 other guys”.17 And with that, The 2000 Year Old Man was born. 

Reiner purchased an audio recorder and used it to record his improvised conversations with Brooks as The 2000 Year Old Man. Brooks regards this character and other improvised characters like him all “challenge his creativity”18 because he was forced to have an immediate response that was witty and would invoke a positive reaction from the audience. Mel’s character is distinctly Jewish because he follows the theme of neurosis that is common throughout Jewish comedy. He kvetches like a Jewish mother and complains about how he has “over 42,000 children and not one of them comes to visit”19 him. The 2000 Year Old Man embodies the aura of in-your-face Jewishness that Brooks’s characters are famous for. 

As Your Show of Shows gained popularity, Brooks developed work related anxiety and would often have panic attacks throughout the day. This anxiety was a direct cause of the insecurities he had developed: he felt like a sham and didn’t feel legitimate enough to be considered a successful writer. According to Brooks when he acquired the title of “writer” he confessed, “I began to get scared. Writer! I’m not a writer. Terrible penmanship… It was unreal. I figured any day they’d find out and fire me. It was like I was stealing and I was going to get caught”.20 Brooks’s mother contributed to his anxieties by explicitly reinforcing his imposter syndrome and constantly ridiculing him for it. Brooks’s poor mental health began to take a toll on his physical health, so he sought out assistance from a psychiatrist. These experiences inspired the subject of his film, High Anxiety.

In 1954, due to drastic changes and the increased accessibility of televisions to less sophisticated audiences, Your Show of Shows aired its final episode. Sid Caesar signed a 10 year deal with NBC and got his own show, Caesar’s Hour. Brooks declined joining Sid’s show and instead found himself writing for Sid’s former co-star, Imogene Coca’s show. He did not fit in well with the dynamic of the show’s writing team and comedic style and was forced to work on his own and interact with the other writers only through writing. The unsuccessful show was pulled off the air and once again, Brooks found himself unemployed. By good luck, Sid Caesar was missing Mel’s companionship in the writers’ room, and the pair was reunited once again on Caesar’s Hour.

While at Caesar’s Hour, Brooks fell back into his tardiness, often barging into the writers’ room while they had already been working on a sketch, only to demand a rewrite. Most of the team resented him for this behavior, even though his insight was integral. According to Carl Reiner:

Because Mel is really one of the funniest human beings in the world, he was able very often to improve on the jokes that were already written. He had proved he could come in late and contribute at least his share or more. Mel at one [p.m.] was a better commodity to have than a bum who came in early.21

NBC canceled Caesar’s Hour in May of 1957 due to a dip in ratings, Sid Caesar’s refusal to comply with the network’s suggestions, and his substance abuse issues. Brooks, once again on the hunt for a new project, signed on to help write a play called Shinbone Alley, but that ultimately proved to be a failure. In September of that same year, he signed on as a producer and writer for The Polly Bergen Show until he was fired. These events contributed more to his already omnipresent anxiety about not succeeding in show business. Brooks was given another chance to write for Sid Caesar with Sid Caesar Invites You, but the show was largely unsuccessful, once again due to Caesar’s substance abuse issues and refusal to cooperate with the network. 

It was clear to Brooks that he has to sever himself from Sid Caesar in order to make a career for himself. However, because of the sudden cease in income and marital problems with his first wife, Brooks fell into very dark times. His fears and insecurities had snowballed and were only proven to be more and more true to him as show after show got canceled. 

Mel Brooks’s Movies

Mel Brooks mastered the art of using satire, vulgarity, and parody in his movies to create a brand of dynamic comedy that presents profound philosophical suggestions about human behavior. He uses satire to make bold criticisms about humanity and vulgarity and to exacerbate those commentaries while also adding comedic relief from otherwise serious topics. His command of parody allows him to use genre as a device to more effectively convey his messages.

When describing a Mel Brooks film, one usually thinks of zany, campy productions dazzled with provocative antics and racy shenanigans. The word “serious” is probably not the first to come to mind, but according to Brooks, that is far from the truth. When interviewed about this topic, he said, “All my films are serious. You examine any one of them and they’re serious because they are passionate and they depict human behavior at given points in history of humanity.”22 His films, while not dramatic, still cover serious themes, such as racial discrimination and mental health. The messages within his films are illustrated through the lenses of the genres they parody. Brooks intentionally uses genre as a tool to enhance the gravity of his hefty themes. In order to balance these themes with comedy and to reaffirm his criticisms , Mel employs vulgarity and chutzpah. Upon examination of four of his most popular films, Brooks’s philosophical insights become more obvious.

One of Mel’s most famous films, The Producers, was the first feature film he ever directed— but it was a total flop at the box office. It was jam packed with satire surrounding Hitler, the Nazi’s and their rise to power, but in 1968, World War II was too recent in the collective memory of the world and people were not ready to make light of it. Nazi humor was highly contoversial for the time, and audiences weren’t ready for Brooks’s satire of this sensitive subject. Additionally, flashy musical numbers and description of Hitler as a laid back beat-nik stoner did not sit well with many, as it was interpreted as insensitive. To Brooks, however, this ridicule was incredibly serious. When talking about Hitler and his treatment to the Jews, Brooks justified his portrayals:

How do you get even with [Hitler]? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule. Because if you stand on a soapbox and you match him with rhetoric, you’re just as bad as he is. But if you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him. And it’s been one of my life-long jobs to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler23

Brook’s goal was to paint Hitler and the Nazis as laughing stocks, thereby stripping them of all power and influence in order to triumph over them. When asked about his feelings about Hitler, he said, “I’m grateful for the army, grateful for Hitler too. The Producers made me the first Jew in history to make a buck out of Hitler”24 He sees this as a method of Jewish reclamation of identity by proving that he, a proud Jewish boy, would be more successful at the expense of Hitler’s dignity.

Brooks’s satire of the Nazis is made more effective by showing it through the genre of “let’s make a show” shows. The juxtaposition of flashy costumes and elaborate choreography— such as a swastika kickline— causes the viewer to see the Nazi’s as silly and illegitimate rather than giving them any sense of dignity. This choice of genre also acknowledges that the depictions of Nazis in the musical would be distasteful to the audience, as it was explicitly rendered in the film. However, the instance in which the audience changes their mind about the play is Brooks’s way of giving his audience permission to start laughing at Hitler too. 

Beyond denouncing the legitimacy and power of antisemites, The Producers explores another existential topic that haunts the psyches of many: the failure to succeed in a world where successess is everything. Leo Bloom and Max Biyalstock are both examples of the schlemiel character. Max is a failing producer that can only “succeed” in making money by sleeping with philanthropic old women and scamming them out of  their cash. He has never been able to produce a hit and is going bankrupt because of it. His accountant, Leo, manifests his schlemiel-ness paired with neurosis. He is spineless and is infantilized by the film. These two losers, in an effort to succeed, strive to make a failure— a feat Max had been achieving unintentionally. Ironically, the one time they strive towards the goal of failure, they ultimately have a stellar show, meaning they have failed their plan and are once again losers with success. Even though they chose the most controversial play they could find and produced it with utter insensitivity, they still somehow missed the target. The only place the men become successful producers is in the jailhouse. Biyalstock sums it up pretty well when he laments, “Where did I go right?”25 The moral of this movie suggests that no matter how hard one may try, failure will always find you in some capacity in the world. This idea may have been inspired by Brooks’s past experiences in his early career.

Although The Producers was not an immediate hit, Mel Brooks became a household name with his 1974 Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. This film explores the topic of racial discrimination through a genre that normally relies on consistency and predicatbilty. The notion of having a black sheriff, Bart, in the little, predominantly white boom town of Rock Ridge creates space for critical assessment of racial prejudice. Microaggressions towards Bart are sprinkled heavily throughout the film, despite the fact that he is the best sheriff Rock Ridge had ever known. He is consistently referred to with a slur over the course of the film, showing that his African American identity was always the first thing— and often the only thing— the characters saw. Even one of Brooks’s cameos as a Yiddish Indian serves as a politically incorrect representation of prejudice coming from someone other than the white townsfolk when he regards an African American family in a covered wagon as “shvartz”. 

Brooks’s message behind this film is that if you break from the norm, you will always be seen as an outsider. According to Brooks, “comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong”.26 Bart, although better and smarter than his citizens he was protecting, would still always be “other” to his community.

This film— on top of tackling themes of racial prejudice— draws attention to more of life’s biggest unanswered questions. Brooks’s skillful way of incorporating vulgarity to explain these mysteries is exemplified flawlessly in the scene where the cowboys are eating dinner under the stars. Mel often wondered what cowboy diets were like in regards to flatulence. With beans being a staple in their protein consumption, one can only assume that there would be quite a bit of gas in the guts of these buckaroos. Brooks’s honest presentation of the symphony of toots phonating from the cowboys sheds light on a huge question that no one knew to ask. 

After his success with Blazing Saddles, Brooks was ambitious to create another film that would push the envelope with genre. After being traumatized as a child from watching Frankenstein, Mel developed a recurring nightmare. Growing tired of his night terrors, Brooks thought, “I don’t want this dream anymore. I want him to be a friendly guy. I wanted to exorcise this dybbuk, this devil, from my system”.27 This was his inspiration for making Young Frankenstein in 1974. In order to be true to the genre of old-time Hollywood horror, Brooks insisted that this movie had to be filmed in black and white. In order to use parody effectively, the entire genre had to be genuine in the film’s production. 

Young Frankenstein contains a few existential debates worth analyzing. The first is humanity’s discomfort with the permanence of death and the desire to reverse it, achieving immortality. The second is man’s desire, but inability, to conceive. The Doctor, at first, is very against subscribing to his grandfather’s legacy. Once he comes around, however, he is obsessed with creating his monster. He speaks to him as a parent and cooed over him and his dancing achievements when he taps to “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. This synthesized father-son dynamic is a product of Mel’s hang ups about never knowing his father and never having that kind of relationship. 

After successfully mastering the parody of yet another genre, Brooks decided to pay homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock and make a tribute to him. The 1977 film High Anxiety, is reminiscent of a combination of Hitchcock’s suspense films while grappling with the topic of mental health and the health care system.

 In this film, one of the world’s leading psychological professionals gets a position at “The Psycho-Neurotic Institution for the Very, Very Nervous.” He also suffers from “high anxiety”, a condition many of his patients also had. The neurotic professor is warned that, “if left untreated, high anxiety could cost you your life”28— a statement that foreshadows the resolution of him getting over his fear. Exhibiting this topic through a suspense genre gives the audience the opportunity to feel anxiety along with the characters, enhancing the intensity of the movie experience. 

This movie plays into the neurotic Jewish stereotype, but it is also inspired by Mel Brooks’s own experiences with anxiety and mental health. As a young man, he had depression and anxiety that were byproducts of his insecurities. He also had a profound fear of heights, as does the character he plays in the movie. His character, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, had to overcome his fear of heights in order to run up the bell tower to save Arthur Brisbane from being murdered at the end of the film. This is a metaphor for the effort one must make in order to alleviate their mental health concerns. Otherwise, one’s inner demons will end up engulfing them until they are unable to continue living a full life. 

Brooks incorporates another scene of vulgarity that, like the cowboys in Blazing Saddles, tackles one of life’s biggest unanswered questions. The scene in the park— an allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds— presented another insightful answer to an underasked question. While swarming Brooks, the birds expel their droppings, leaving them subject to gravity. The droppings accumulate rapidly on the Doctor, exposing a reality that many of us know all too well: bird shit all over you. Brooks once again answered the questions nobody knew to ask.  

Conclusion

Mel Brooks’s comedy mirrors himself. Growing up, he used comedy as a means of social survival among his peers and then later as a tool to triumph over the effects of antisemitism. He grapples with existential questions and themes through means of satire, parody and vulgarity creating a thought provoking comedy that is still light hearted enough for audiences to laugh at. Although it’s not religious, his brand of comedy is inherently Jewish because it evokes upon Jewish character tropes and features allusions to Jewish culture. This integration of his Jewish identity and his comedic methods creates an entanglement that is impossible to sever— one does not exist without the other.


Bibliography

60 Minutes. “Mel Brooks On Broadway”. Produced by Jay Kernis. Columbia Broadcasting System. [New York, NY] Columbia Broadcasting System, 2001-04-15. Accessed November 7, 2019. https://video.alexanderstreet.com/watch/mel-brooks-on-broadway.ooks-on-broadway.

Brooks, Mel, and Carl Reiner. “The 2000 year Old Man.” 1967.

Brooks, Mel, dir. Blazing Saddles. 1974.

Brooks, Mel, dir. The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy. Collection of essays, video, and audio.

Brooks, Mel, dir. High Anxiety. 1977.

Brooks, Mel, dir. The Producers. 1968.

Brooks, Mel, dir. Young Frankenstein. 1974.

Brooks, Mel. “The Playboy Interview: Mel Brooks.” Interview by Brad Darrach. Playboy Magazine, February 1st, 1975.

Crick, Robert Alan. The Big Screen Comedies of Mel Brooks. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Dauber, Jeremy Asher. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Parish, James Robert. It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

Trachtenberg, Robert dir. American Masters. Season 27, Episode 3, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.” Aired May 20, 2013, on PBS. Shout Factory, 2013, DVD.

Yentob, Alan, dir I Thought I  Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks. 1981.


Endnotes

  1. James Robert Parish. It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007) 19.
  2. Parish, 17.
  3. Parish, 24.
  4. Parish, 26.
  5. Parish, 28.
  6. Mel Brooks. American Masters. Directed by Robert Trachtenberg. Season 27, Episode 3, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.” 2013.
  7. Parish, 40.
  8. Brooks. American Masters.
  9. Mel Brooks. I Thought I  Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks. Directed by Alan Yentob, 1981.
  10. 60 Minutes
  11. Parish, 49. 
  12. Parish, 61.
  13. Parish, 44.
  14. Parish, 62.
  15. Parish, 64.
  16. Dauber, 163.
  17. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. “The 2000 Year Old Man.” 1967.
  18. Parish, 116.
  19. ibid.
  20. Parish, 86.
  21. Parish, 101.
  22. Brooks, I Thought I  Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks.
  23. Mel Brooks, 60 Minutes. “Mel Brooks On Broadway”. Produced by Jay Kernis. (Columbia Broadcasting System. [New York, NY] 2001-04-15. Accessed November 7, 2019). 
  24. Parish, 49.
  25. The Producers, 1968.
  26. Dauber, 259.
  27. Parish, 27.
  28. High Anxiety, 1977.

Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours

Written and illustrated by Mary Roche

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019, 294 pages.

Jami Attenberg is a contemporary Jewish American author who has recently gained notable recognition for her seventh novel, All This Could Be Yours. Her best-selling novel The Middlesteins (2012) featured her innate talent for capturing the complicated nature of less than perfect families. Attenberg succeeds at this again in All This Could Be Yours, which tells the story of Victor Tuchman, a decidedly terrible person. 

Tuchman, a successful albeit crooked businessman, has not done right by his family. At his deathbed, his wife and children have no choice but to—or at least attempt to—make sense of their relationship to him. The Tuchman family, aside from siblings Alex and Gary, have never been close. Victor and his wife Barbra have managed to endure decades together, much to the puzzlement of their children, who suffered and witnessed Victor’s abuse throughout their childhood. Each family member wrestles with their unique brand of grief and conflicted emotions abound. Recent divorcee Alex persistently questions Barbra about her willingness to stay locked into a dysfunctional relationship. Surprisingly, Gary’s wife Twyla seems to be the only person who is outwardly grieving for Victor; all the while, Gary remains unreachable in California even after he booked his flight home. Barbra remains pensive and somewhat passive during the final days of Victor’s life. Each character reveals their personal struggle to make sense of the powerful, yet toxic nucleus of their family.

Attenberg illustrates a rich parallel universe through well-hewn prose. The story takes place in the convivial city of New Orleans, where Attenberg currently resides. In addition to sharply distinct characters, lush descriptions of the city imbue the narrative, a backdrop that beautifully contrasts with a grieving family.All This Could Be Yours was described by Maris Kreizman of the Maris Review as “timely”. There is perhaps no better way to describe this novel, as it hones in on some unsavory cultural traits of male power and toxic masculinity. For this reason, I felt the novel spoke to a culture that is now openly grieving over and finally confronting abuses committed by powerful or entitled men, rape culture, and domestic violence. Some readers will identify more closely with these themes and others, perhaps, will better understand the seemingly passive or complicit attitude of those who have intimate ties to villains like Victor Tuchman.  

Elucidatory Espionage: Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country

Written by Avery Weinman

Illustrated by Cameron Edwards

What makes a great work about espionage? Is it the pulse-pounding narrative beats? The harrowing accounts of close-call brushes with detection by the enemy? The dizzying revolving door of false identities and fake names? The wildly improbable missions? The tragic accounts of doomed love? The inevitable intruding sharpness of death? Or is it the way in which stories about spies and the world of spying feed our deeply human desire to know about more than just what meets the eye? Is it because they assure us that while most of us go about our banal, routine days there are parallel lives filled with intrigue and consequential grand designs? Is it because they prove to us that our world is full of hidden truths, obscured truths, or partial truths that we may not otherwise see? In his third full-length non-fiction book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, Israeli author Matti Friedman confirms that a great work about espionage is all of these things.

Friedman’s Spies of No Country recounts the stories of four Mizrahi Israelis – Jews whose pre-Israeli heritage comes from the Arab and Islamic world – who spied for the Arab Section of the Haganah in a rag-tag espionage unit that ultimately became one of the foundations for the famed Israeli intelligence agency: the Mossad. These four spies – Gamliel Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, Havakuk Cohen, and Yakuba Cohen (no relation between the three Cohens, just a thoroughly Jewish coincidence) – used their intimate knowledge of the Arab world that all of them were born into to collect vital information and execute covert espionage missions to benefit the Zionist project and the state of Israel in the mid-20th century.

Friedman focuses in on two major periods of these spies’ operations. The first, their missions in the industrial coastal city of Haifa in 1947, during the civil war phase of retaliatory violence between various Zionist and Arab nationalist militias in what became Israel’s War of Independence. The second, their deep-cover and operations out of “enemy territory” in Beirut, Lebanon in 1948, during the period of all-out war between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the armies of the Arab world. Over these two years, we come to know these four spies intimately. Which ones are mild, and which ones are hot-tempered. Which ones saw espionage as a solemn responsibility, and which ones saw it as a kinetic adventure. Which ones killed, and which ones never fired a gun. Which ones lived and grew to become old men, and which ones died and did not.

Friedman’s background as a reporter for the likes of The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Associated Press, as well as his previous experience as a long form non-fiction writer and pop-historian are both on display as considerable advantages in Spies of No Country. His journalistic senses are to the great benefit of the book’s readability and pacing. Friedman’s style of writing provides the text with vividly drawn characters, locations, and events that both draw the reader in and create real stakes in the spies’ fates. It also propels the story with the kind of snappy urgency that is appropriately fitting for a spy thriller, but may have otherwise been lost in a text more explicitly geared towards academia. To Friedman’s credit, this accessibility does not come at the expense of an intelligent academic framework. Like his two previous books – The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (2012) and Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016) – Friedman is able to situate interesting stories in greater historical contexts and questions. In Spies of No Country, Friedman uses the stories of these four young Israeli spies to touch upon the Mizrahi experience in Israel and the tensions of Israel’s many precarious identities.

Mizrahi Jews have constituted the Jewish demographic majority of the state of Israel from the mid-1950s through to today, but their stories are generally relegated – often intentionally – to an ancillary footnote in favor of telling the story of Israel through a European-Ashkenazi lens. Mizrahi Israeli lives, stories, experiences, and histories – and the way in which these not only influence Israel’s character, but, as the pasts of the majority of Jewish Israelis, largely define it – are too frequently obscured from the layman’s knowledge about the state of Israel. Spies of No Country provides a glimpse into what feels like a hidden, parallel past in a meta-exercise on the revelatory nature of espionage; this, in itself, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. By complicating the traditionally presented Ashkenazi-centric Israeli history with the presence of four spies whose dark skin, native Arabic, and inherent “Arabness” was precisely what made them such valuable assets, Spies of No Country leaves behind hints for the interested reader to uncover the story of an Israel that they previously may not have known existed at all.

As a first clue – a kind of “your mission, if you choose to accept it” – Spies of No Country provides a gateway to a far larger and more nuanced history of the state of Israel in the guise of a thoroughly entertaining spy thriller. With the narrative and scholarly threads that Friedman introduces in Spies of No Country as square one, the interested reader can continue following the legacy of these Mizrahi Israeli spies by learning about the crucible of Mizrahi immigration to Israel, how and why Mizrahim became (and remain today) the core base of the Likud party, and why taking a five minute walk down the corridors of the Jerusalem shuk feels a lot more like a journey into One Thousand and One Nights than Fiddler on the Roof.

At a succinct and quickly paced 224 pages, Friedman’s Spies of No Country is a simultaneously accessible and rigorous study of Mizrahi Jews who played an indispensable role in the nascence of Israeli espionage and the creation of the state of Israel. With enough spy intrigue and genre-true suspense to entertain the casual reader, enough new insight to engage the dilettante of Israeli history, and enough primary evidence and academic framework to sustain the scholar – Spies of No Nation succeeds as a work of far-reaching value. Friedman’s closing remarks for his opening paragraph ultimately ring true about the book itself: “time spent with old spies is never time wasted.”

Chronicling the Jewish History of Santa Cruz: An Interview with George J. Fogelson

Written and photographed by Amanda Leiserowitz

Amanda: The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was how long it took you to write this book [Between the Redwoods and the Bay] because you began researching the Jewish history of Santa Cruz in 1976, while you were in university. What was so engaging about the topic that you decided to continue researching it until this book was published in 2017?

George: That’s a very good question. I was in a class with David Baile – he’s now with UC Davis, the Jewish Studies department – I took a class called Modern Jewish History. He required us to do a term paper, and we could choose any topic we wanted. It just so happened that one of my non-Jewish classmates had taken me to the Meder Street Cemetery. We went down there and I was just amazed. There was this Jewish cemetery, right near campus, and it had graves dating back to the 1870s. So it kinda clicked. I wanted to write a short paper about the Jewish pioneers to Santa Cruz.

I went to the Santa Cruz Public Library and there was nothing in [the] card catalogues, and the reference librarians knew nothing about [the Jewish pioneers]. So I went back to the cemetery and I wrote down all of the names of the graves from before 1900. I approached my professor and said I wanted to write my paper on that, and he said, “That’s a great idea.” So that’s how it started.

Fast forward, I transferred to UC Berkeley as a history major, and I took a senior thesis class – History 101. The topic I chose was Race and Ethnicity. You had to do primary research and write a paper so I said, “Oh, I’ll expand on my original topic from when I did that term paper.” There was the Jitney Bus, which you could take from McHenry library to Berkeley library and back, free for students, so I figured I could go back to Santa Cruz, see my old friends, and do [primary] research in the library, and interview people. This was the 1970s, so there were people who still had businesses on Pacific Avenue who were born in the 1880s; [it] seems kind of strange, but there were people whose families had come to Santa Cruz around 1800 that were still alive. That’s what prompted me in the early years to do my research.

I went back to Santa Cruz after the earthquake with my family. The archivist at the Octagon Museum said to me, “No one has written about this topic since you wrote about it in ‘78” – when I had my thesis published in  the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly. She said “Your thesis only went up to 1930, would you be interested in taking that up to the present day?” [Then] I applied for and got one of the History Forum awards. I didn’t know where it was going to take me. But then in the next fifteen, twenty years, I started researching the topic again and it ended up in the book.

A: You mentioned that when you began researching, there wasn’t a lot of information for you to find readily, so it sounds like you were very much building the archive rather than going through the archive of Jewish people in Santa Cruz. Did that pose a lot of challenges, or was there anything in particular that took a long time to overcome? Like finding out who to talk to?

G: This was before an internet or computers, so my only resource was McHenry Library. They had the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Santa Cruz Call, and a couple other newspapers that had existed for a short time around 1900 to 1920. I literally spent hours just going through the microfilm, looking for the names to match the graves. When I found them, I hand-wrote down the articles – or you could actually photocopy them, but they were not very good copies back then, they were hard to read. I made a system where I put the different family names together in a folder and then had a tape recorder. [Then], I went to the synagogue, and I looked around the synagogue and talked to some of the people there, and asked who would be good people to interview.

So I interviewed a few – went to a few people’s homes and business, and got to be friendly with two senior businesspeople on Pacific. One of them was Hyman Abrams, whose family owned a men’s clothing store – which is actually one of the only buildings that didn’t collapse during the Loma Prieta earthquake – and he and his sister, Eve Abrams. Their father started the business in the 1880s. They were very nice and talked to me, and I met other people. […] Then someone told about the Judah Magnes Museum, which was on Russell Street in Berkeley – it’s no longer there. I went and there were some scrapbooks of some of the Jews who had moved from Santa Cruz to Berkeley. I was always interested in doing detective work, so this allowed me to do research on a topic that no one knew about which I found exciting. […] And now with the internet, from your computer at home, you can look at the Santa Cruz Sentinel from the 1870s to the present, and you can just put in a name, and you can see every article written [about them]. So when I was writing my book, of course a lot of articles that I had bypassed were easily retrieved, and I was fortunate to have all the resources [and library databases] online, and ancestry.com.

A: I can imagine, that’s  much easier than going and transcribing these articles by hand.

G: Yeah, it’s gotta sound antiquated right?

When I saw the cemetery for the first time […] it was just a really peaceful place and I basically thought [about] how sad it is that people don’t know anything about these people, who were pioneers of the Jewish community and obviously had some social and community standing – they have these large monuments erected toward them. I think it might have stemmed from my mother being a Holocaust survivor from Germany. As a child, I always heard about relatives who had been murdered by the Nazis, and I always wanted to find out more about them, to pass down their stories to my children. I kind of juxtaposed that to these people who were in the Jewish Cemetery [in Santa Cruz], and no one knew who they were or even cared about them, so I made it my mission to document them so their stories wouldn’t be lost forever.

A: I think a lot of people, and especially Jews, are interested in memory, and preserving memory.

G: Yeah, that’s very true. One of the real benefits of doing this research is that I got to become friends with a lot of the people who provided the photographs and stories in my book. I’ve given some [primary sources] to the [Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History], but my idea is to give more of my primary documents to the museum curator and talk to her about having an exhibit about the Jewish Community in Santa Cruz. […] I’ve had a close relationship with the [MAH]. They have this thing called the History Forum, and they have an award once a year. Part of the deal to publish my book – they would publish it but I had to raise all of the funds to actually publish it. I always call it my labor of love because it’s obviously not a best selling topic, I just did it because I felt that it was something I could do for future Santa Cruz Jews, just so they knew from whence they came.

A: I think it’s really great to have a resource like this book, which is so full of pictures and information. I think that the pictures are one of the most fascinating things, aside from the personal stories, because it’s really cool to see the faces of these people from so long ago. […] Are there photographs or scenes which really stick out to you, that maybe when you came across them were really significant?

G: One thing was that it’s not particularly Jewish, but it was really interesting to the audience at the temple when I did my presentation – I had the same scene on Pacific Avenue in downtown starting in the 1860s to the 1920s and you could see how it started with dirt streets with no transportation, to in the 1860s and by 1875 tracks for street cars started to appear, and all during this time there were Jewish businesses on Front Street and Pacific. […] It just seemed like the history of the street also showed the history of the Jewish community, because they were always a lot of business people who were Jewish on the street and some of them existed for close to 100 years. There was the Bernheim Hall – it was the first theater in Santa Cruz, and it attracted the whole community to events. They had opera singers from the time and [other performers]. And it was owned by a Jewish family, [they owned] the department store, and upstairs was this theater. It showed to me how the Jewish Community was integrated into the general community, they had started the community with everybody else in the 1850s and they were all pretty much accepted – there wasn’t blatant antisemitism. The Jews had the Christian community come to their events, like used to have a Purim Ball every year, in the 1870s and 80s, in the Jewish community, and it was open to the gentile community. Everyone worked together to establish Santa Cruz and so I think looking at Pacific Avenue, the pictures there, that really interested me.

A: It’s really cool to see places that are really familiar to me become totally unfamiliar.

G: My friend Frank Commanday was on the staff of the Leviathan in 1978, as a photographer. He was the first person who really took pictures of the cemetery for an article and the picture [on page 16 of my book] is of Amy Steen’s grave, who was the first person buried at the cemetery in 1877. [Now] the temple cemetery committee decided that due to vandalism, it would make more sense to take some of these graves down and encase them in cement so they couldn’t be stolen. […] Amy’s Steen’s grave was vandalized, it was actually removed from the cemetery by someone and a year later was left at the cemetery gate. It’s a little conflicting as a historian to see it no longer standing… your generation will never see how some of these graves actually looked.

The current book I’m writing is about the history of the Meder Street Cemetery. That was actually originally Mr. Meder’s family cemetery, and if you visit there and look at the back of the cemetery, there’s a raised plot and that’s his original cemetery. And when the Jewish community was looking for a burial place, he was friends with some of the Jewish people, he was Mormon, and if you google mormonism and Jews, they’ve always had a special affinity towards each other, and he said that he would give part of his land to the Jewish community for the nominal sum of a hundred dollars, so they bought the cemetery land and started their own cemetery with him in the background, you know. I find that interesting too, so what I decided to do was trace the history of his family and talk to the descendants of Mr. Meder, and then also find out how the Jewish cemetery came into existence, then write a walking tour of some of the graves.

Evergreen Cemetery has it – I got the idea because they have a walking tour of some of their graves. So when I was with Bruce [Thompson], I did a little cemetery tour, he said, “Did you know there’s a Nobel Prize winner buried over here?” And I said no. And so I added him to my tour. And there were some other people on the tour – one person said his four year old daughter died about twenty years ago on Hanukkah, so her gravestone has a Hanukkiah on it, and in Hebrew, a phrase from a Hanukkah song. I tried to choose graves that have interesting historical significance from the 1800s, or ones from present day that had compelling stories. So I asked [the families] to write something for me, and include a picture of their family member, so that’s how the book’s going to be. These families are thinking, “This is something I can do to memorialize my loved one”.

A: It seems like a good way to heal, and share the things of that person’s life with the world.

G: Yeah, so they’re not defined by their tragedy of how they died. And some of the people had written poetry, and some of the people had been featured in the Sentinel, and there’s culinary experts and I’m putting in their Jewish recipes, trying to make it a little interesting.

Luckily the Jewish population of Santa Cruz was never more than fifty families until the university, so that’s one of the reasons it was easier to focus on and to chart. Even the Jewish cemetery is a confined topic, I’m just focusing on this one piece of land. I’m not covering every grave, obviously. I also got the idea that – my cousin who was an actress is buried in Hollywood Forever, and they have a book, a walking guide to the graves there. It had the idea. It would be nice so when people go to the cemetery, they know who some of these people are. To me it was something that I thought was worthy of future study.

A: Was it difficult to stay engaged [over such a long time], motivated, interested in all the things you were researching or was it more intrinsically motivating?

G: I’d say it was more intrinsically motivating. […] I just felt that I was doing something I could look back on and be proud of…we all want to make a contribution to society in some way to be remembered, and so perhaps I’ll be remembered as the chronicler of Santa Cruz Jewery.

A: I think you’ve got a good shot!

G: I do think it’s important, for all communities, to know about their history, and what you were saying about Jews and memory, the importance of memory, and that’s why […] a woman who from the temple she told me about the quote that I used in my dedication – “Judaism does not command us to believe, it commands us to remember. We sanctify the present by remembering the past.” That really struck a chord with me. And that’s basically why I did all this research and am continuing to do it.

A: Thank you very much for your time today!

Writing Through Loss: Jonathan Safran-Foer and Sorrow in Jewish Fiction

Written and Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz

I read the novel, Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran-Foer not long after it came out. I picked it up because I recognized his name from the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and after reading Here I Am, I was immediately drawn to read his first novel: Everything is Illuminated. His skillful writing creates vivid stories in worlds not too different from our own, and all three of these novels moved me to tears.

That gave me pause – all three of his fictions, while containing moments of great comedy and clarity, are, at their core, about suffering and sadness. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows the story of a boy dealing with his father’s death after 9/11; Everything is Illuminated tells the story of a man searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust; and Here I Am portrays a family falling to pieces as a fictional earthquake tears apart the Middle East.

Dealing with suffering is a human condition, and an inescapable one at that. But what struck me about Foer’s novels is that he is a Jewish author, writing primarily about Jewish characters, and about the suffering of those characters – Jewish or not. In a broader context, I realized that Jews have been writing about suffering since the Hebrew Bible. You don’t have to look further than Genesis to find the first example  Adam and Eve lose their right to live in the Garden of Eden. Soon after, Cain murders Abel, losing his only brother, and Adam and Eve losing a son; and the story of Noah’s arc includes most of the people and animals on earth drowning. Death, stolen blessings, the destruction of homes. These authors were keenly aware that sorrow and loss are an intrinsic part of life.

There is no lack of tragedy for Jews to write about; there’s our fundamental humanity, which makes the loss of loved people and places an inevitable fact of life. But we’ve also been victims of countless violences throughout history. Pogroms haunted Jews throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Russia and Eastern Europe; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were traumatically expelled from their generations-old homes in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1950s; and Ashkenazi Jews were devastated by the Holocaust during World War II. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Foer mentions that his grandmother’s family was murdered in the Holocaust, and his mother was born in a displaced persons camp. While he doesn’t share these experiences in his own life, these familial tragedies may be one of the forces that compel him to explore not only relationships stolen by the Holocaust, but hardships such as divorce or natural disasters as well.

The sheer amount of media revolving around  The Holocaust and other human conflicts and losses speak for themselves; tragedy is something we must discuss in order to learn from as a society, and heal both as Jews and as people. One way that we move through the tragedies which reside in our recent collective memory is by writing. We use it to ask the unanswerable questions – why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent people suffer? Why would that happen, and how could it? On a moral and ethical level, and especially a spiritual one, these questions create a huge beast to wrestle with, a fight which can never really be won or lost. The temptation to avoid these stories of suffering and sadness is strong, but in order to grapple with those emotions, we must engage with them. By asking the tough questions and exploring the spaces within them, we can begin to heal not only on an individual level, but as a wounded people as well. Utilizing creative work as a healing tool allows us to wrestle with every experience of every scale, from small grievances to unfathomable losses.

 

Kal-El: Vessel of God The Jewish Tradition of Superman

Written By Avery Weinman

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

It’s a story we all know. A child, the last hope of a doomed civilization, is sent to a strange new land where he must discover his true heritage and his true potential. The child grows into a hero, a leader, a testament to the glorious future that awaits him. For most of us, this would describe the Superman story; that child is Kal-El from the doomed planet Krypton, and the strange new land he arrives in is Kansas, where he would learn to balance his double life as the bumbling reporter Clark Kent and as the first and finest superhero ever to be immortalized in the thin pages of a comic book. But, for as well-known as Superman is today, there is a whole side of Superman that has remained hidden. Superman is, in fact, amongst the ranks of the great Jewish mythic heroes: Abraham, King David, and, of course, his own direct biblical foil: Moses. The story of Kal-El, a name which when translated from Hebrew means “vessel of God”, is one of the great stories that shows the implicit value in a character whose roots are definitively Jewish, and who demonstrates the value and relevance of a nearly four-thousand-year old religion in modern times.

In Cleveland, Ohio in 1938, two sons of Jewish refugees published Action Comics #1: the first appearance of the Man of Steel. Those two sons were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who, ostracized for their Jewish identities, turned to the world of fiction to make sense of a world that seemed turned on its head. They devised the perfect allegorical character to express their feelings of fading identity, desire to connect to their roots, and their need to protect themselves from the seemingly unstoppable tide of mounting anti-Semitism four thousand miles away in Germany.

In the 20th century, Siegel, Shuster, and thousands of American Jews faced a full blown identity crisis; removed from their homelands, thousands of miles away from the hearth of their traditions, American Jews faced the prospect of leaving their traditional lifestyles and Judaism behind and adopting a totally new, increasingly secularized American identity. Siegel and Shuster incorporated this struggle into the Superman character through the endless highwire act of Kal-El balancing his lives as Clark Kent and as Superman. The awkward all-American farmer from Kansas represented the new Jewish-American life. Clark Kent has the perfectly unassuming nature that comes naturally with perception of being just an average American with nothing to hide. His graceless disposition has less to do with genuine clumsiness than it does with the fact that when people are looking up in the sky for a bird, a plane, or Superman, the last place they would turn to check is the cubicle of one Clark Kent. With seemingly no exceptional qualities and no unordinary features, Clark hides all traces of his true heritage behind one pair of thick black rimmed glasses. Where Clark hides his superpowers, American Jews were hiding their Judaism. The true nature of their heritage was always there under the surface, waiting to be exposed like ripping open the front of a button down shirt to reveal their ancient legacy beneath, but for reasons of convenience, fear, and necessity the secret remained hidden, confined only to phone booths, alleyways, and other out of sight places.

When crafting Superman’s backstory, Siegel and Shuster made overt connections to the story of Moses. The two have nearly identical backstories: lone child, last hope, doomed civilization, heroic revelation, virtuous leader, inspiration for a nation. Siegel and Shuster, like myriads of Jewish writers before them, felt the reverberations of the Bible in their art. Superman’s connections to Moses are no coincidence, by connecting him to the Bible’s most mythic leader, Siegel and Shuster tacitly packed Superman full of Moses’ best qualities. Dedication, compassion, bravery, charisma, hope; all the qualities that have led Moses to be one of the Bible’s most enduring heroes are the same qualities that have made Superman the most enduring superhero.

While conjuring up the character of Superman, Siegel and Shuster were acutely aware of the putrid anti-Semitic climate infesting the globe. Superman made his debut in 1938; the Nazis already had a firm grip on Germany, and just a little over a year later Hitler would order the invasion of Poland and World War II would be officially underway. It is in this political climate that Siegel and Shuster captured the most brilliant and abstract Jewish imagining of Superman: as a reinvention of the classic folk tale of the Golem of Prague. In the 16th century in the Holy Roman Empire, the Jews of Prague faced expulsion, pogroms, and the constant looming threat of death. To protect the Prague Ghetto from decimation and murder, Rabbi Loew ben Bezazel crafted an enormous guardian out of clay, blessed him with life through ancient rituals and incantations, and produced a champion to protect his community. Superman is a symbolic revitalization of this story. Unlike the Golem, Superman has only ever existed in a fictional context, but his protection is no less important. Here is a Jewish champion who cannot be shot or killed, who cannot be forced to submit to exile, who is a defender of all of the innocent, and who is an eternal guard against the will of evil. When Siegel and Shuster published Action Comics #1, Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels released a statement in the weekly SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, decrying Superman as a Jew and condemning his Jewish creators. The Nazis saw the new golem; ink on a page with life breathed into it in an apartment in Cleveland. A new champion for a new time.

In addition to his historical context, Superman also embodies Judaism in the traits he reveres. He emblematizes all of the best lessons of the Bible. What took Cain & Abel, Jacob & Esau, and Judah & Joseph generations to understand – compassion and forgiveness – Superman embodies in all of his endeavors. Superman is the most ardent follower of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, a principle which means literally “to repair the world”, and which emphasizes that Jews are not only responsible for the welfare of other Jews, but for the welfare of people everywhere. All of Superman’s actions, from his feats of grandeur, catching falling planes and throwing doomsday meteorites out of Earth’s trajectory, to his small acts of love and kindness, rescuing cats out of trees and being there to listen to someone having a bad day evoke the qualities that make Judaism an enduring and beautiful religion. At its core, Judaism is about doing all the good, not just the most good. It all matters; all debates of justice, all moments of compassion, they are equally important puzzle pieces in the mosaic that illuminates why life is worth living.

In a world where superhero movies dominate the box office and the small screen, why has Superman remained a head above the rest? Why, after more than 75 years, does the image of a red “S” on a field of yellow still inspire millions of people across the world? Superman didn’t have to get bitten by a radioactive spider, or watch his parents die in an alley, or get struck by a bolt of lightning to know the importance of doing the right thing. Superman does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Superman endures because he represents the potential in all of us to be capable of great acts of kindness and great acts of love. Superman shows us that in the face of adversity, in the face of losing one’s culture, in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds: compassion and love are still worthy. Tikkun Olam is still worthy.

It’s a story we all know. A child, the last hope of a doomed civilization is sent to a strange new land where he must discover his true heritage and his true potential. It is the story of Superman, and it is also much more.

Q + A: Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Written by Zachary Brenner

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, photographed at their home in Berkeley, CA
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, photographed at their home in Berkeley, CA, courtesy of Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are two Jewish American authors living in Berkeley. Chabon is a Pulitzer prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Ayelet Waldman is the author of Bad Mother, to which she received a spot on the New York Times’ Best Seller list. She has also written about Judaism in her work, such as in her novel about the Holocaust, Love and Treasure. They also happen to be married. I sat down with them in their home to discuss, in part, their new book set to release in 2017 about the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The intention of this interview is to explore the political views of these two authors as well as their respective experiences as Jewish individuals. What is the importance for people with power to speak out against global issues? I aim to challenge what I view as an incomplete conversation in the Jewish American and greater American communities with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I aim to have readers grapple with the harsh realities of the occupation and settlement enterprise. The words published in this interview are the opinions of those involved.

This interview has been excerpted for clarity.

**This interview contains explicit language.

Zachary Brenner: You each have written about Judaism in your books. For example, Mr. Chabon, Kavalier and Clay and Ms. Waldman, Love and Treasure. What aspect of your Judaism did you identify with most when you were growing up?

Ayelet Waldman: My parents raised us to be atheists, to have a disdain for religion. But they were zionists. My father was a pioneer in Israel – he started a kibbutz in the 40s and he was in the Palmach. And then my mother, when she married him, moved to Israel in the 60s. Israel and zionism was their expression of Judaism. I went to high holidays once when my father was a fundraiser for Israel and I feel like I went once as a kid — like a Yom Kippur service. I spent the whole time in the bathroom with the other girls. I did go to Hebrew school. Mostly because my parents wanted me to know my enemy. Growing up, it was a matter of self identifying and Israel.

Michael Chabon: I was raised with a very strong cultural, Jewish identity and a less strong, but still present, religious identity. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which was a planned community. It was a very innovative, experimental city of the future. It was racially and religiously integrated and all the different faiths shared the same facilities for worship. We belonged to a congregation where there was a reform congregation, a conservative congregation there – both very small – and then this third congregation that we belonged to that called itself innovative Judaism. I had a Bar Mitzvah and it was sort of the peak for me. For 15 years or more after that, I completely lost interest in any aspect of religious practice or observance. It wasn’t until after the end of my first marriage, just before I met Ayelet, that I started to do things on my own to try and connect. Religiously, I would have to say my efforts on the whole would have to be accounted of failure.

In the post 9/11 world, the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds… Jewish, Muslim, Christian… It’s become so toxic that it ultimately ended up tainting the whole idea. Being religious has become highly suspect to me. And I feel like even people who are going about being religious in the most tolerant, mindful, progressive kind of way, are, in a sense, kidding themselves. What’s written is really clear. What’s written is really offensive and objectionable.

ZB: Were you involved in any Israel activism in college? If so, what did it look like?

MC: I was not. Were you?

AW: No. Not at all. In college I was involved in Apartheid activism, feminist activism, I was sort of involved in the range of progressive politics.

Z: Was there resistance to Israel activism?

AW: It wasn’t such a thing. We didn’t have a Hillel, but we had a Biet, which was a Jewish identification house, but there wasn’t any analogy of apartheid in Israel. And I went to Wesleyan. That is a campus where if they were going to do it, they were going to do it there.

MC: The big turning point, I think, was the Sabra and Shatila massacres [sic], right?

AW: Yeah, but it didn’t trickle down to the campuses. When I was at college, I wrote a paper. I had a professor who taught a class where we read the book Just and Unjust Wars, and I analyzed the war in Lebanon, specifically Sabra and Shatila, under the rubric of that book. And that was the first time that I had actually reached any kind of… I mean, I come from a pacifist family, many of whom are Israeli military. My brother is one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israeli military history and he’s absolutely opposed to the settlements. As are many of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israeli military history. I had always had progressive politics when it came to the occupied territories, but that was a real turning point for me when I realized just the extent of the problem. And I still, at that age, planned on making Aliyah, anticipated spending my life in Israel.

MC: It also wasn’t until the 80s that we had American governments coming to this position that the Arab world is our enemy. The idea of fortress Israel as this bastion of American power and influence had been building and pieces had been falling into place over the courses of Nixon’s presidency, Carter’s presidency. But it was really in that Reagan era that… suddenly you saw Israel holding hands with the American right. But you start, as American progressive liberals, you start looking, like, why is Israel in bed with those people? Those are the most vile aspect of American political culture and that’s who Israel wants to hang out with? But by then, I was already out of college, out of graduate school.

ZB: Could you describe briefly the book you are both working about the occupation?

AW: Because this coming June is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, we decided, as progressives, as Jews, we needed to mark that horrible anniversary in some way with an act of activism. We’re in our 50s and we have children, we’re not going to go put our bodies on the barricades. We decided that, as writers, what we could do is show the truth of the occupation to other writers without an agenda, in the sense that we’re not telling anybody what to say.

MC: Let them see for themselves.

AW: And then publish what they have to say once they saw for themselves. We ended up with twenty-five writers from around the world, we brought them to Israel and Palestine and we showed them things and their interest drove what they wanted to see. Our partners on the ground were the organizations Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements, and they would help find the things the writers were interested in pursuing. And then each writer wrote an essay and submitted it and we’re publishing it.

ZB: Why Breaking the Silence and not another trip?

AW: Because I think it’s one of the most admirable organizations. It comes from a position of such authenticity.

MC: They know what they’re talking about.

AW: It’s also a narrative organization so it comports with what we were trying to do. It’s an organization that tells stories.

ZB: Was it helpful that they were a group of soldiers who had served in the area?

AW: Do you mean in terms of keeping us safe?

ZB: No, no.

MC: Well that’s where the authenticity comes from.

AW: Because they’re soldiers, they’ve been there.

MC: When Yehudah is taking you through places, he’s like “See that window? I was standing at that window with my gun in my hand and I saw this guy come out over here, like..”

AW: Everything they do is tell stories. And I think more than anything else, their work shows the incredible power of narrative, like they don’t advocate, they simply tell their individual, human truths. And that’s what we wanted to achieve with this book.

ZB: Mr. Chabon, you have said that Hebron, an area with such a connection to Jews because of its significance in the bible, is being dishonored and made less sacred by the presence of the occupation. That it offends you. What would you say to Israel supporters and maybe even settlers themselves to have them come to your realization? Many Jews feel they have a right to the land and that it’s racist for Jews to be kept out.

MC: Yeah, well, except the Jews are free to come and go as they please except in the areas that they forced Palestinians into. The Palestinians were forced into those areas are not free to come and go, so that’s an inaccurate characterization. (Pause). The whole question about who has a right to what is, to me, a smokescreen. It’s not what should be argued about. When people insist on arguing that “we were here first”, “no, we were here first”, then the whole issue of the presumption of that somehow…. primacy gives you greater rights? If one could somehow prove that one had been there first unquestionably, that would decide the matter? I think that’s far from clear. Anyone who makes an argument based on a religious text, loses the argument in my view. It doesn’t prove anything. If you inject the whole question of who was here first, none of those arguments are relevant to the problem. The problem is the illegal military occupation of one people by another people that has been going on for almost 50 years now. That is what has to stop before any of those other endlessly fascinating questions can be debated ad nauseum.

AW: If there were, for example, a two state solution, although I don’t think that’s actually feasible anymore, and every individual was allowed to live where every individual wanted and every individual was allowed to work and do all the things that we take advantage of in this country, to exist as human beings with all the kinds of personal and civil freedoms that we enjoy in this country, then those people could live wherever they wanted. You want to live in Hebron, the city? Go and live there. But the fact that you are killing people, that you are…

MC: It takes how many soldiers per, what’s the ratio in Hebron?

AW: It’s almost 1:1. If you can live in harmony with people? Go with G-d. But, if what it takes for you to feel secure is to oppress and murder and destroy a community, immiserate an entire nation, an entire… you know what? Fuck nations. I’m not interested in nations. If what it takes is for you to immiserate 3 and a half million people, why do you get to do that? Because your ancient, farcical, myth of a book is more ancient than their ancient, farcical, myth of a book?

MC: And not only that, but your interpretation of that is the correct interpretation? To me, the metaphor that occurred to me at the time when we were there is when a house is burning down and there are people in the house that are going to die because the house is on fire, you don’t stand out in the street and argue about whose name is on the deed. You put the fire out. What has to be done is the occupation has to be ended. That has nothing to do with who was there first, what the bible says, or any of the things…It doesn’t have anything to do with any of them. There are no two sides of that issue. if you make it about the occupation, there’s only one side and that’s end the humanitarian disaster that is the occupation.

 

“There are lots of narratives of Palestine. Some of them as mythological as the narratives of Israel.”

 

ZB: Can you both describe, specifically, what you saw in the West Bank for those who haven’t had the opportunity to go?

AW: Catastrophic poverty. In the cities and the countryside. People who live with this incredible fear that at any moment their homes can be bulldozed. There are villages where people literally live in tarps, because every time they build anything, it gets bulldozed. It’s hard for me to imagine that any American, especially a university student that has at least some experience with the United States constitution, could look at a family and children and people trying to, you know, eek out a living from sheep and I don’t know what, and think that it’s okay that their homes are destroyed. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense.

MC: Another thing is the, just, incredible sight, spectacle of the vast, powerful, sophisticated, technologically advanced, highly refined, military bureaucracy, heavily armed, being brought to bare on a daily basis with the mission of humiliating 4 and a half million people. Everyday. Humiliating them with inventiveness, humiliating them with creativity, humiliating them in the most diabolical, sophisticated ways imaginable…

AW: And banal. I mean, talk about the banality of evil, man.

MC: An analogy that any American might be able to just immediately grasp is the thing that African Americans will talk about about trying to hail a cab in New York City and having cabs just pass you by. And the sense of humiliation that that engenders, and anger and frustration. That’s just racist ethos in the air that causes that to happen. Legally, those cabs should be picking up black passengers. In occupied territories, that kind of tiny little indignity… that, “I just can’t even get a cab”, is reduplicated ten thousand times a day. But it’s policy, it’s done on purpose. It’s being done by design with the explicit intention of humiliating people by not treating them as human beings. It’s the massive denial of civil rights.

AW: There’s another great image that really capitulates everything you need to know about the settlers. In the city of Hebron, there’s mesh over the outdoor market.

MC: In the Arab quarter.

AW: In the Arab quarter. So why is there mesh? Because the settlers who live above throw their garbage, and their feces and—.

MC: And rocks. Big heavy rocks.

AW: Big heavy rocks onto the heads of the people going about their marketing. That’s what we’re talking about.

MC: The army came in to protect the populous with these metal screens over the street. And you can just see it.

AW: It’s covered in garbage.

MC: We were walking down the street. There’s garbage and trash and big rocks that are all just, like, sitting on these things and the weight starts buckling after a while and the army has to come and clear it away and replace it. But like, that’s the solution to people dumping shit, garbage, and rocks onto other people.

AW: As children walk to school, as women go to buy their food in the market place.

ZB: That’s remarkable to hear, to say the least. I’m curious, has your perception of the Palestinian narrative changed at all over the course of your life and education?

AW: There are many, many Palestinian narratives, right? And there are lots of narratives of Palestine. Some of them as mythological as the narratives of Israel. So, I think what has changed is that I now have the ability to see beyond “Palestinian” to individual human being. And to recognize this not as a faceless enemy but rather as a group of people.

MC: And for me, it’s just that realization that it doesn’t matter what I think about the Palestinians. It doesn’t matter if I believe their claims or disbelieve their claims or whether I think they’ve been treated historically unjustly, or if I were to accept the narrative that they never met an opportunity they couldn’t blow, or whether I accept the narrative that they’ve just been the victims over and over and over again of various state and governmental and political, imperial entities treating them like a football. It doesn’t matter what I think is true or what I think of Palestinians, all I have to do is look at what’s happening and say “that’s wrong, that’s evil, and it shouldn’t be happening at all.” No one should do what’s being done there to anyone for any reason. It’s not justified by anything, and not only that, I don’t want to pay for it. All Americans are paying for it.

AB: We’re paying for that in dollars and we’re paying for it in blood. I don’t think Israel makes America safer, I think Israel makes American interests and Americans more at risk.

MC: And nor does Israel make Israel safer.

AW: Yeah, exactly.  

ZB: That’s an argument I personally connect to a lot.

AW: There’s a reason that the military leaders, the Shin Bet leaders, say the occupation is killing us. We have to stop it. All those old Shin Bet guys who made that movie, what’s it called?

MC: The Gate Keepers.

 

“We have a relationship with Israel that, from our standpoint, includes being responsible for what Israel does.”

 

ZB: I frequently hear the argument that there is too much attention given to this single issue. That there are other injustices to deal with. Why do you both feel that this one issue requires your attention?

AW: Nobody else gets as much money as Israel does from the American government.

MC: Yeah.

AW: Until it doesn’t get that kind of money from the American government, it deserves all the attention it gets. The next time the United States spends 4 billion dollars propping up the occupation of I don’t know what…

MC: Tibet.

AW: Then we can focus our attention on that.  

ZB: Books have dealt with this topic before… Books such as The Yellow Wind by David Grossman. What is different about this book? What do you hope to accomplish?

AW: To use Trump’s favorite metaphor: I think it’s all about a wall. We’re just building this edifice of opposition to this injustice. And this is another brick in that edifice. I think that our hope for this book is for people who have not read or maybe aren’t going to read the work of David Grossman, but they were inspired by Geraldine Brooks… that those people will just read the essay by the writer they love. And that’s why we didn’t sort of go and ask all the usual suspects. I find what Tony Kushner writes about Palestine and Israel really fascinating, but I think he said that. He’s written that and it’s accessible to those who are already interested in it. That’s why we went to people who don’t come with preconceived notions, [who] haven’t written it before. Ideally, they are in the position of their audience. “I maybe have an idea about this, but I don’t know. What is it? What does it really look like?”

ZB: Ms. Waldman you have said that you are expecting to lose readers and that one cannot “fix the world without personal risk”. I assume, Mr. Chabon, that you have had similar realizations.

AW: Yeah…. If people agree with our work, they can each just buy two copies of our books. *laughs*.

ZB: *laughs*. That’s a good thought. What is the importance for artists and people of power to take personal risk in relation to controversial, important topics? Do you feel others should also do it?

MC: I wouldn’t ever want to say it’s obligatory. The way that we chose to go about doing this may not be the best way or may not turn out to be very effective or-

AW: We don’t even know what effective would mean.

MC: It’s okay to say that we’re saying we are taking a risk here, but when you compare the risk that we might be taking to that has been undertaken by a Palestinian father of four who is just trying to get through the checkpoint so he can go to his job and get paid and put food on his table every day and go through the whole bureaucracy and all the things just to have a semblance of a normal life… It just doesn’t even seem right to talk about risk in that context. I mean come on, look at us.

(a quaint room surrounds us)

ZB: What would you say to college students, or other young Jews, who feel they have a stake in the issue? Or for those who feel uncomfortable or that they don’t “know enough”. How would you motivate them to commit to activism?

AW: Well it’s funny because we haven’t motivated our own children. [The] reaction is “I don’t want to have anything to do with this. We are not interested, we don’t want any part of it.”

MC: All I would say is say what I would say to everyone. Which is, don’t talk to me about this issue if you think you do know about it, until you’ve gone and seen for yourself. Then come back and we can talk about it. If you’re going to Israel, go see. Don’t just go to Masada, don’t just go to Tel Aviv and have a great time and hang out in the cafes, don’t just go to the Old City…

AW: Pray at the Kotel…

MC: Go see. See it. For yourself.

AW: I think that’s the obligation of every Jew. Any Jew who want to have any relationship with Israel is obligated, in my mind, to have a complete relationship with Israel. That means you can’t have an unambiguous relationship with Israel where you ignore the reality. And if you go and you say “Oh my goodness, I want to become a settler because I believe in the primacy of Jewish ownership over this land”, I mean, I guess at least you’ve seen it.

MC: I don’t think Israel is a place that a Jew can just go on vacation. It’s bad enough, we might go as Americans to Mexico or somewhere in Central America and go and have a fantastic, wonderful time and never see anything of like the poverty of the people….

AW: And we’ve done that.

MC: It’s not a great feeling.

AW: We’re not some white knights here. We’ve engaged in that kind of poverty tourism and it’s… we don’t want to do it ever again.

MC: As Americans, we have a political relationship with the Mexican people and everything we do. Every purchase we are making. Our economy is so tied…. it is a political relationship and going to vacation is a political act, but it’s not… I’m not making, as an American, I’m not making the same kind of overt statement of support of the status quo, I don’t feel as I am, as a Jew, going to Israel just having a good time.

AW: Breaking the Silence trips are free. Peace Now trips, are free. Maczon Watch, which is the guard gate watch. Those trips are all free [once in Israel]. It’s really easy. You’re going to go do your Birthright trip, you’re going to take Sheldon Adelson and Bronfman money to go have your free trip to Israel, the “I sent my kid to Israel so they can fuck an Israeli soldier” trip? By all means, go to Israel. Fuck your Israeli soldier. There’s a reason that the ones who guide your trip are cute. They do that on purpose. But while you’re there… go online. Register for a Breaking the Silence trip. Take your afternoon. And then, if you’re unchanged by what you see…

MC: Enjoy.

AW: Enjoy. Be that person. But don’t hide. Don’t, like, float in the waters of the Dead Sea and buy your ahava scrub and pretend that-

MC: You’re not assenting to the deliberate, continual, brutal oppression of 4 and a half million people every single day.

AW: The same is true of Israelis by the way. For many, many Israelis, the only way they get through their lives is by pretending that nothing is happening an hour and a half away…

 

” If you make it about the occupation, there’s only one side and that’s end the humanitarian disaster that is the occupation.”

 

ZB: So on a slightly lighter note… Are you concerned that after this book is released, your readers might impose political interpretations on your work that otherwise might not have been thought of?

MC: No.

AW: Whatever. Have fun. When you write a book… the only thing you can control is the words on the page. The excitement of writing a book is that everybody brings to it something else, and everybody interprets something else. One of the joys is that it stops being your book and becomes other peoples’ book. That’s the great privilege of being a writer.

ZB: Say you had worked on this book years ago. Or that you had possessed the same knowledge you have now about the occupation. Would your previous work have been written differently? Would, for example, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” have been different?

MC: Hmm.

AW: That’s a pretty woke book, dude.

MC: *laughs* Maybe I might have been tempted, but I think… There was no single point I was trying to make in “Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. When the book came out and there were people publicly interpreting that in diametrically opposite ways… some critics saying that “this book is obviously a zionist diatribe. This book is saying look at what a terrible place the world would be for Jews if there were no Israel in it.” And there were critics publicly saying “This book is an anti-zionist book. The author wishes there was no Israel and he’s created this fantasy world where there is no Israel”, ignoring the fact that the Jews in this book where they are living are living this incredibly precarious existence. I would much prefer to have these competing interpretations that are equally justifiable…. you know, all I wanted to sort of say that was sort of analogous to…. directly analogous to the current situation in Israel and Palestinians is that any time you take a large number of people and dump them in an area where there are already people living, you’re going to have some problems. That seemed obvious. And I thought of what would it be like once this plan went through to put European Jews in Alaska? I knew from the point of view of Washington D.C., from the bureaucrats that would be making this decision if it had actually come to pass and would be executing it, they were looking at this place as being empty. But I knew there were plenty of native people living there. Spread out, perhaps, but you would always see this thing about “There are only 15,000 white people in Alaska right now, it’s woefully underpopulated”. That’s what they would say. Well, how many Tlingit people? If they took all these two and a half million, three million Jews and put them in Alaska, what would happen? Well, one thing that would happen is probably there would be sore feelings on the part of the people that were already there. Without even getting into the question of who has a right to what.

ZB: Ms. Waldman, you’ve said that the aim of the book is to speak out about the life of those occupied. Are you afraid this book will be taken as a one-sided telling of an issue with a lot of context and nuance?

AW: No, there are not two sides to an occupation. It’s what Michael said. There’s the occupied and the occupiers. There are a lot of benefits to privilege, but one of the ways you can use privilege – that you can recognize your privilege and also use it to rectify itself almost – is recognize that you have a privileged voice and use it on behalf of people who don’t. And we have lots of writers of color. Particularly women of color. But still, all the writers here are coming from a relatively privileged position. Even the Palestinian writers are people who audiences have heard of. So, to give people the opportunity to use their privilege in a way that serves some kind of higher aim, I feel really proud of that.

MC: You can look at the list of writers, they’re from all over the world. They’re from every possible nature of the major religious backgrounds…From all different continents, different cultures where they had been historically victims of colonial oppression. They come from cultures who are historically colonial oppressors. They come from much different mother tongues. We have seven or eight writers whose first language of writing is not English.

AW: First language is certainly not English.

MC: They were chosen… there was no political litmus test, they were chosen because we were looking for diversity, scope, reach in terms of readers, writers who we thought already had a base of readers that they could reach, and quality of their writing. And not according to us, but general acclaim. These are acclaimed writers either in their countries or around the world. Those are the criteria. And then there was a certain amount of self selection that took place in that we would approach a writer and say “would you like to do this” and some would say no.

AW: There were writers who said “I don’t want to touch that topic.”

MC: And some who we had no idea why they wouldn’t write. They wouldn’t say. Maybe it was political, maybe they were too busy. All we wanted was good, well known writers…

ZB: Ms. Waldman, you are Israeli-American, but moved away from Israel as a young child. Mr. Chabon, you hadn’t been to Israel until you were an adult. Do you both feel at all uncomfortable speaking out about an issue where the immediate repercussions of the occupation directly affect the Israelis and Palestinians living over seas?

MC: Well, no. I think we have a direct, personal involvement in what’s happening in the occupation. We support it financially in our tax dollars, we support it tacitly by not speaking out against it, and whether we like it or not, whether Israelis like it or not, whether Americans like it or not, we have a relationship with Israel that, from our standpoint, includes being responsible for what Israel does.

AW: Let’s put this in a way that Jews understand… It’s 1938… the whole world said “Not our problem. That Hitler guy? We don’t like him. But we’re not going to do anything. It’s not our problem, we don’t have a right…”

MC: The Evian Conference? When was that?

AW: Exactly. I don’t remember what year.

MC: Where they were deciding what to do with the Jews and everyone said-

AW: “Not our problem”. You get to have an opinion about a human rights conference on the other side of the globe. Particularly if you’re paying for it.

MC: You don’t really get to not have an opinion. I think it’s not just a luxury, it’s a crime.

AW: Particularly if you’re paying for it.

 

I think that’s the obligation of every Jew. Any Jew who want to have any relationship with Israel is obligated, in my mind, to have a complete relationship with Israel. That means you can’t have an unambiguous relationship with Israel where you ignore the reality.”

 

ZB: So I guess my last question would be… What is the most endearing trait about one another?

AW: Endearing?

ZB: Yeah, endearing.

MC: Just one?!

ZB: You can list them.

AW: He’s brilliant and sweet and a feminist and an amazing father and a phenomenal writer and his prose is as exhilarating as his body…

MC: Stop, stop stop. *laughs*. You know, Ayelet is my moral compass and she’s so engaged with the lives of people around her – in her immediate vicinity, not just her family but her friends and people that she looks after. Even sometimes when they are not aware that she’s doing so, but also, people all over the world. Her instinct is always to go to the side of the underdog and, first of all, to see the underdog clearly as an underdog even when it’s not necessarily apparent and go to that side and say “What can be done to protect this underdog” from whatever is on their neck. And she’s, you know, incredibly funny. She’s a funny person. She makes things happen. For someone like me, the sediment at the bottom of the glass….

AW: *laughs*

MC: We’re not opposed to the sediments, only the settlements. Thank you.