10. November 2019 · Comments Off on A reassessment · Categories: Olio

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter sent me a link to passenger lists of Holocaust survivors who came to the US. Not many people know this, but the American people were against the immigration of Holocaust survivors and because of this enmity Congress and Truman heavily restricted immigration. My parents were lucky to come to America. Anyway, those ship manifests were fascinating and they led me down the rabbit hole of my family’s history.

I’d never been interested in constructing a family tree before. Given the war-devastated nature of my family, I didn’t think I’d find very much. Plus I was young and as is typical of young people, I didn’t care much about the past. But now I’m old and, surprise, history seems more important. Plus there are all kinds of online tools available to make finding info – even Polish and Ukrainian records – about my family a snap. Plus it turned out that unbeknownst to me other relatives I’ve never met and just plain curious genealogists had already posted major branches of my family tree online.

It took me an obsessive week to put all the online branches together and add some fresh info I found along the way. I found out exactly how I was related to the late congressman and Federal judge, Abner Mikva (second cousin once removed). I found my great, great, great grandparents’ marriage certificate and, more or less, how my grandparents were cousins. But maybe most importantly I found out about a somewhat mysterious cousin in my family, Fela.

Fela survived the war because of my father. When war broke out in September 1939, my father, who was living in Warsaw, fled immediately and went to his home town. He told his entire family that it was time for everyone to flee east, that Hitler would come and kill them all. Everyone thought my father was crazy except for his Cousin Fela. She was the one member of his family who went east with him to the Soviet Union. She was the one member of my father’s family who wasn’t murdered.

They ended up in Tashkent. My father joined Anders’ Polish Army and was almost killed by his own troop-mates during training because he was a Jew. Then my father was conscripted into Stalin’s Polish Red Army. After the war, he found Fela in Germany in a DP camp. She moved to Israel, my father moved to the US.

Fela had a hard life after the war. She married, lived in poverty and adopted a kid. Her husband died young, and then her kid grew up and cut ties with her. I met her in Israel once and she talked about marrying a rich American. I thought she was manic – mood swings and worse run in my family – and delusional. But no. She really had found, in middle age, a rich American living in Israel. She did marry him. It didn’t stick and she soon was back in poverty.

Through it all, my father would send her money, clothes and whatnot. She was the sad sack of the family in my estimation, the one who, in a family of strivers, lacked essential grit.

A few years ago, someone asked me online if I was related to Leon Rojstaczer, who he had met at a wedding or bar mitzvah (I can’t remember which event he mentioned) in 1968 in Chicago and who his father said was a cousin. I was amazed this person could remember an event and a family introduction from 1968. Leon was my father. The man’s own father, who was born and raised in a tiny town in Ukraine, also lived through the war, We texted a bit and tried to figure out how we were related. Somehow he mentioned Fela. It turned out that she was the likely connection. He, too, had met Fela in Israel. His father, too, had sent her money and whatnot for decades.

We still didn’t know exactly how we were related, though. There are no official records of Fela’s birth. I didn’t know her maiden name. I’d forgotten her married name. Last week, I woke up one morning and thought, “Maybe she gave testimony at Yad Vashem about her murdered family.” I went online that morning and, sure enough, it was there, individual documents about her parents, brothers and sisters murdered during the Shoah and signed in 1999 by Felitzia X. Fela = Felitzia, obviously. The name X matched the name on the back of the wedding photo below, a photo from 1952 that I found in my parents’ house and kept.

The names on the Yad Vashem documents were of Rojstaczers except for one. Fela gave the maiden name of her murdered mother. That name was the same as the last name of the man who contacted me online. Fela was a first cousin to both my father and his father. They were the closest relatives she had after the war.

In my old age, I think about Fela in a different light. I think of her in 1999 toward the end of her life. She felt compelled to take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and then take another bus to Yad Vashem. Fela took several sheets from a stack of forms and one by one unburdened herself of her profound loss. My father never did this. Fela did. One by one, she gave testimony about her murdered family. Hers was a life filled with hardship and worse. I don’t know how Fela got the emotional strength to make this trip. I think of her on that day filling out those documents by hand and am overcome with a strange mix of both sympathy and pride.


04. November 2019 · Comments Off on Bye, bye (mostly) social media · Categories: Olio

When I was fourteen, I figured out something about myself. It was not of any value for me to chase after the popular, the hip or anything the mass public viewed as desirable. I loved the obscure, the uncool, and the stuff that made you think hard. If I wanted to be happy (or at fourteen, not be unhappy, which is how most fourteen year olds are), I needed to ignore all the art and entertainment that the news and most of my peers told me was great. TV? Nothing on the glass box engaged me (although TV had been a great tool for me to learn English and understand American culture a bit as a kid). Best selling books? Forget them. Arena-filling  musicians? No way.

I needed to raise the bar. Mass art and entertainment was almost always at best mind-numbing for me. I needed art, entertainment and books of ideas that didn’t scream at you, but instead forced you to slow down and come to them. For most of my next fifty years, I happily followed the obscure. Obscure musicians. Obscure books. Obscure movies. If I entered an auditorium and it was half empty or pulled out a book that had been gathering dust on a shelf, I was in heaven.

My own art and work was happily obscure, too. I got a Ph.D. and taught in a subject area, geophysics, that most people had never heard of. I helped launch earth observing satellites that the public knows nothing about but have been used countless times in environmental assessments of our planet. My music charted in the low thirties of the top forty of a national chart. My novel was in the low thirties of the top forty of the American Booksellers Association bestsellers list. This Goldilocks-land was exactly where I wanted to be. I was not too hot, not too cold, I was just right.

My encounters with popular culture have been, at best, boring. I fell asleep at a Frank Zappa concert a friend dragged me to (his girlfriend, who didn’t want to go either, followed my lead; the girlfriend is long gone, but we’re still good friends). Two years ago, I desperately needed a nap before an evening event and I knew exactly what to do: I went to a movie theater, bought a ticket for a Marvel superhero movie and began to sleep like the dead two minutes after the opening credits.

There has been one major exception to my “if it’s popular, run away as fast as you can” rule: social media. About nine years ago, I was working on my first novel and I read an article by a novelist who praised Facebook for helping him make contacts essential for his career. I thought this praise was odd. I only knew Facebook (whose first office was just four blocks from my home) from its beginnings as a site for gossip and flirting for teens. But lo and behold, it had changed! It had real people on, real novelists and real readers of novels. I signed on and one of my first friends was the novelist who had written the Facebook-praising article.

Then about five years ago, my editor asked me to join Twitter. I barely knew what it was. She said it might help me sell a few books. Of course I wanted to sell books! I signed on.

Social media requires you to be or pretend to be an extrovert. I’m not. I’m a science/math geek who happens to love music and literature. In my crowd, I’m considered outrageous and wild, but that’s only on a science/math geek scale. In comparison to your average American, I’m a classic introvert. I don’t like loud parties. I love spending hours alone thinking about projects I’m working on or reading. I’m pretty damn good at performing in front of a crowd, but I’m absolutely happiest socially when I’m with four or fewer people. I am wholly unsuitable for social media.

Still, I did try. I made “friends” with one thousand or so people on Facebook. I’ll never meet the one hundred people I interacted with regularly, but they were perfectly nice and thoughtful. I posted regularly. So did they. It was almost all superficial stuff, but it wasn’t awful. I liked these people I’d never meet. Ultimately, though, it was a waste of time to be on Facebook. Then Mark Zuckerberg turned fully evil and let Russia and Cambridge Analytica screw up our 2016 election. Then he decided to let everyone screw up our upcoming 2020 election. Why was I helping Zuckerberg, a democracy destroying s.o.b., make money? I decided to get off Facebook.

This was a great decision. I was no longer wasting my time posting trivialities. I was no longer pretending to be an extrovert. I was happily following the rule of thumb I discovered when I was fourteen: if it’s popular, run!

From there, it was an easy step to walk away from Twitter, which is full of nasty people insulting everyone on the planet and not much else. Plus I’m certain Twitter doesn’t sell many books. Twitter is so filled with sourpusses that participation is a good way to kill your mood and faith in humanity. Plus it’s popular. I’m happy to avoid it now.

If I have a new book in the marketplace, I’ll of course go back onto Facebook and Twitter to tell a few hundred people that it’s coming out. It’s free (very minor) advertising. But I’m off the social media train. Social media is like Lady Gaga or Marvel movies or Las Vegas or the tipping point author. I understand that these products and destinations give many people joy. But they aren’t for me. As for promoting my work, I’ll stick with what I enjoy and do best: standing (or sitting during a Skype or Facebook session) in front of a group of 10-100, telling jokes, reading out loud and answering questions.



25. October 2019 · Comments Off on The Yankees, me, Trump and God · Categories: Olio

It’s been a glorious decade for baseball. Not a single Yankees World Series appearance. Makes me ecstatic. A Yankees hater’s dream. But if God (who I don’t believe exists, but I’m going to ignore that complication) were to meet me on Mt. Sinai, I can well imagine the following conversation.
God: Psst, Stu.
Me: Huh? I must be hearing voices in my head. Need to check that out when I get off this mountain.
God: Dummy, it’s me, God.
Me: Oh f*%k, I’m thinking God is talking to me. I’ve really lost it.
God: You are thick. Guess I’m going to have to make some lightning and thunder on a cloudless day for you to believe me. (lightning and thunder)
Me: Nice trick. It must be you. What’s with the Exit 9 New Jersey accent? Why don’t you sound like, you know, God?
God: That accent is acting. It’s just for the movies. Anyway, I’ve got a deal for you.
Me: What? Ten more commandments? No way. The original ten are already impossible to keep.
God: True that. No, I can make sure Trump is never re-elected and goes to prison for the rest of his life.
Me: Wow. You must really be all powerful.
God: I am. But there’s a catch, Stu. There’s always a catch. I can make Trump lose and end up in prison, but it’s gonna cost ya.
Me: I’m open to deals, sure.
God: A decade of Yankees World Series wins.
Me (instantly): Yes!
God: Then it’s a deal. Nice doing business with you.
Me: Why do you want the Yankees to win, anyway?
God: Because I’m a Yankees fan, of course!

02. October 2019 · Comments Off on Abraham, Isaac, my father and me · Categories: Olio

My dad’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death, is today. Here’s a photo of him as a young man in Germany after he survived the war. The rest of his family were murdered.

By Jewish law, I’m supposed to, in remembrance of my father, light a candle and pray with at least nine other people on his yahrtzeit. As long as I don’t go to a Reform synagogue, I can always find far more than nine. My father died on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. At just about every Conservative and Orthodox synagogue, I can find hundreds who celebrate Rosh Hashanah (most reform synagogues only celebrate the first day of Rosh Hashanah) and read the Akedah: the Genesis story when Abraham takes his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed. It’s a gruesome tale for many. I know of a few rabbis who have found alternative chapters to read. Human sacrifice is just too loathsome for them. But I take a different view. I believe in the Biblical interpretation of great scholar, Rashi: God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice his son. For me, the Akedah (The Binding in English) is an allegory about father-son relationships. It is in fact the ultimate father-son story.

If I didn’t believe that life is mostly random, I might think my father willfully picked to die on this day of the Hebrew calendar because he hated Reform synagogues and our relationship was sometimes Abraham/Isaac-esque. I miss him every day. His memory is indeed a blessing.

Every father-son relationship has some expectation that the son be dutiful to the father. Occasionally or maybe frequently, the father has ridiculous expectations of what this duty or fealty means. Abraham had such a ridiculous expectation. Isaac went along with it without question. God ultimately intervened. My father had ridiculous expectations of me. Ultimately he put them aside. Let me explain.

My father was in the construction business. From the time I was two or three, he would take me along in his search for lots to buy. He thought I was his lucky charm. We’d drive around town, look at empty lots and he’d ask me what I thought. If I said the lot was good, he’d buy it. That a four year old could be the key decision maker on such an important financial decision seems strange, but that’s how my father rolled.

The key was that in my family, kids were expected to be part of the family business from the time they were little. I was doing the books for the business by the time I was ten. I was repairing toilets and doors when I was twelve. I was also bribing alderman and zoning officials when I was ten.

OK, that last sentence probably raised eyebrows. Let me back up. Construction in every major city is a crooked business. You have to bribe people to get anything done. Want to get a zoning change on a property? It isn’t going to happen unless you grease the wheels. Want to get a building permit and not wait an eternity? That isn’t going to happen either. Want to get your construction work inspected and approved? Good luck without a bribe. Want to get concrete poured on a rare warm day in the winter? The local mafia controls that.

My father had to bribe people to get anything done. When I was ten, he got the idea that I should do some of the bribing. I’d walk into City Hall with envelopes full of money and place them in bathroom stalls. Someone would come pick them up after I left. I did this without question for about a year. But one day I asked my father, “Why am I doing this and not you?” That was a very un-Isaac thing to do, I know, but fealty for me does have its limits.

“Because I could get arrested, but no one is going to arrest a kid,” my father said.

That statement made sense to me. I continued to bribe for my father. I graduated in my teens to making bribes on construction sites. My father would give me a wad of twenties. Inspectors would come and I’d make judgments on the spot as to how much they wanted. I didn’t like doing this, but I did it because I knew that corruption was inherent in construction and couldn’t be avoided. Still with every bribe, I’d feel more dread.

This continued until I was sixteen, when I went to a construction site for a final approval two days before Christmas. I knew the inspector wanted money. I could also tell that he was irritated that he was dealing with a pimple-faced teen. This was a big construction project. He wanted a bribe and respect, both, which meant that he expected a real man to be out there with him.

The inspector prowled around the site looking for something, anything, that was just a little off. He was measuring stuff down to 1/8”. He couldn’t find a thing and was getting furious. Finally he found one section of the newly poured sidewalk that was 3/8” higher than the other sections. “That’s a hazard,” he said. “One quarter inch is the maximum. Someone could trip and break a leg on that.” He smiled. “You’re going to have to rip out this sidewalk and repour.”

It was the dead of winter. Tenants were moving in on January 1st. There was no way we could get a repour of the sidewalk and a final inspection approval in time.

I looked into the inspector’s eyes. How much did he want? “Will $200 do?” I asked.

“That’s about right,” he said.

“Let’s walk around back and do it,” I said.

“No, I want it right here, right now,” he said.

We were standing in front of a major street. Cars were whizzing by. The inspector was asking me to hand him ten twenties in broad daylight with fifty or so Milwaukee citizens as witnesses. I didn’t understand why he wanted to do the bribe this way, but I didn’t have a choice. I pulled out the cash, gave it to him and he went on his way.

I was shaken by this encounter. I drove home and my father could tell something was wrong. He asked me what happened. I told him. “I could get arrested doing this stuff, dad. I can’t do it anymore.”

My father looked at me. I didn’t know how he’d respond to my lack of fealty. In the story of The Akedah, an angel provides Abraham with a ram for a sacrifice. No angel was going to help me.

“You’re right,” my father said. “This is a rotten business and you’re not made for it. You’re a smart boy. You need to do something else. You need to go to college. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

I was relieved. A huge weight had been lifted from my conscience. My father never asked me to bribe anyone again. He definitely wanted me to go to college and better myself. He even put together an application for me to go to West Point and forged my signature. But that’s another story, one that has no relation to Abraham and Isaac. I do miss the old man every day.

07. September 2019 · Comments Off on New commentary, review and Q&A online · Categories: Uncategorized

On the site for older writers (which would include me), Bloom.

27. August 2019 · Comments Off on Aging cars (and people) · Categories: Uncategorized

My wife’s car, 25 years old, has developed a minor key problem. You now need to jiggle the key for about 10 seconds before it engages and you can start the car.

The number of minor problems with this car is long, but it still runs and my wife likes to hold onto things including, thankfully, me. I would like her to get a newer or new car, but I’m zipping my lip. I did inform her, though, about one important change: “You probably haven’t thought of this, but you can no longer use your Subaru as a getaway vehicle.”

01. January 2019 · Comments Off on The 2018 Stuey Awards · Categories: Olio

Happy New Year. For your amusement (and too long like all awards ceremonies), the transcript from last night’s 2018 Stueys.

Host: The beautiful, charming, genius love child of Liberace and Charo, Liberacha

Liberacha: Here we are at the fabulous Palo Alto Crown Palace ballroom, a hotel built for and once owned by the enchanting Dinah Shore. You can feel her elegance in the air.

Ghost of Ms. Shore: I never liked this place. My husband didn’t consult me and the hotel ended up just like him, tasteless and tacky.

Liberacha: You can’t kill my buzz, Ms. Shore. Just because you didn’t ever win an Oscar doesn’t mean you can be bitter and try to scare us.

Ghost of Ms. Shore: I won two Emmys and one Golden Globe. That’s better than you’ll ever do.

Liberacha: Point well taken. Now please leave.

Ghost of Ms. Shore: You said the magic word. Please. (she vanishes)

Liberacha: Now where were we? Ah, yes! The Stuey Awards, the acme of film accolades. We’re already behind schedule. Let’s hurry. Our first award, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, goes to Jonah Hill for his stellar performance in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Jonah Hill: I want to thank my mom and dad for this Stuey. I’ve always been the bridesmaid, never the bride during awards season. Finally! I also want to thank Stuey, who I haven’t seen since we shared the screen in Moneyball. Next time you’re in LA, call me. We’ll go bowling.

Liberacha: Now it’s time for the Best Supporting Actress Stuey. Jane Curtin in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. You were stunning, Jane. You fully inhabited your role as a literary agent. Plus you were so funny!

Jane Curtin: It’s heartwarming to see the Stueys do what so many lesser awards avoid: award comic performances. That’s why the Stueys are valued more than the Oscars for people in the know. Thank you! How’s your mom, by the way?

Liberacha: Still shaking it. I can’t keep up with her. I’m so jealous. And speaking of shaking it, the Best Original Score goes to Nicholas Britell for If Beale Street Could Talk.

Nicholas Britell: Thank you for this wonderful award. I’ll cherish it until I win an Oscar and then will send it back postage due.

Liberacha: How ungrateful! My mother and father told me never to get involved with composers. Now I know why! Here’s to hoping for civility and class from now on. Our award for Best Documentary goes to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Accepting the award will be the director, Morgan Neville. That film was inspirational!

Morgan Neville: Thank you, Liberacha, and thank you, Stuey, for this award. I’ve won an Oscar before. It was a meh. But a Stuey. I’ve dreamed that one day, maybe, if I was good and true to my art, it would happen to me. And now it has. (breaks down in tears)

Liberacha: That’s so sweet (hands Morgan a tissue). What’s up with all these question mark movie titles this year, anyhoo?

Morgan Neville: It’s an era filled with uncertainty given you-know-who in the White House.

Liberacha: No joke. And speaking of jokes, it’s time for the Best Comedy award. There’s no uncertainty about it. Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Accepting the award is the executive producer and outrageously talented actor, Bob Balaban.

Bob Balaban: Thank you! I hope that this prestigious award leads to a box office surge, because so far the money coming in has been bupkes. Two Stueys so far. Wow. Maybe we’ll run the table.

Liberacha: Don’t get your hopes up. Best Adapted Screenplay goes to The Sisters Brothers. Accepting the award is Jacques Audiard, who not only co-wrote the screenplay, but did a marvelous job directing this witty oater.

Jacques Audiard: Merci! I’m honored, especially since English is my fourth or fifth best language. Will I win Best Director, too? If so, I’ll just stay on the stage and wait.

Liberacha: Leave at once! The Best Director goes to Peter Jackson for They Shall Not Grow Old. We couldn’t afford his airfare all the way from New Zealand so we’ve hooked up Peter via FaceTime. Peter, what you did with that archival footage was stupendous!

Peter Jackson: Thank you, Liberacha. If your father was still with us, I would have, no doubt, had him play piano for our score.

Liberacha: He’s up there in heaven smiling. I owe my existence to a drunk night in Vegas and a turkey baster. Thank you, daddy! Gracias, mommy, too. And speaking of Spanish speakers, Best Foreign Film goes to Roma. Accepting the award is the visual genius himself, Alfonso Cuaron.

Alfonso Cuaron: I’ve never even been nominated for a Stuey before. This is beyond my wildest dreams.

Liberacha: Dream big. Our Best Original Screenplay Stuey goes to The Cakemaker. Accepting the award is the writer and director, Ofir Raul Graizer.

Ofir Raul Graizer: Toda raba. I thought these scripts needed to be in English.

Liberacha: Yours was trilingual. You got special points for that. Plus we thought it was Hitchcockian in a good way. Lihitriot. Our Best Actor Stuey goes to the omni-talented Daveed Diggs for Blindspotting.

Daveed Diggs: It’s nice to be back home in the Bay Area and especially nice to win a Stuey. How did this even happen? No one saw this movie.

Liberacha: You carried Blindspotting from start to finish. A mesmerizing performance. And here’s a pro tip. If you want a movie to receive lots of press nowadays put a question mark after the title. Blindspotting? would have been screened in thousands of movie theaters. Those little details matter.

Daveed Diggs: You’re exactly right. That’s why we’re changing the name of the upcoming movie version of Hamilton to Hamilton?.

Liberacha: You and Lin-Manuel Miranda are super smart. And I know just the person who should have the female lead in Hamilton?. Our Best Actress Stuey winner, the talented, young and beautiful, Ms. Kiki Layne for If Beale Street Could Talk.

Kiki Layne: Twenty six years old and I’ve already won a Stuey. I can’t believe it.

Liberacha: You had us hypnotized, dear. Are we ready for Best Cinematography? Movies are a visual art and there is no one better at making us see the unexpected than Alfonso Cuaron. Come back up here and get your second award, big fella.

Alfonso Cuaron (from his seat in the ballroom): I’m shaking too much from joy to even stand, much less walk.

Liberacha: OK, OK, I’ll just throw the Stuey your way (she launches it in the air). This will save us time, too, because we have one more award to give and the ballroom closes at 10 PM, no ifs, ands or buts. The Stuey for Best Drama goes to the truly original and captivating movie, The Rider. Accepting the award is the director and producer, Chloe Zhao.

Chloe Zhao: This was a labor of love. Awards are not why I make films, but a Stuey. Who can resist a Stuey? Thank you!

(fire trucks can be heard approaching the hotel)

Liberacha: I guess the fire alarm and smoke entering the ballroom mean that we have to leave in a hurry. This has been fun. I can’t wait until 2019. Bye, bye and Happy New Year from the Stueys.

06. October 2018 · Comments Off on Throwing America away · Categories: Uncategorized

I grew up in an immigrant home with a profound prejudice. My parents hated Americans. They loved America. But the people born here were a different story. Americans were lazy, stupid, naive, arrogant, thoughtless, soft, spoiled, weak and did I mention lazy? The worst thing my parents could say about my behavior was, “You’re acting like an American.” That’s when I knew I had hit rock bottom. I’ve been around immigrant kids from other cultures and their parents. I don’t think my parents’ attitude about Americans was all that unusual.

I’d not infrequently have discussions with my dad about this prejudice. I’d ask, ”How could such lazy, dumb people produce the America you love so much?” His answer was usually along the lines of, “They got lucky. They’re so stupid that they don’t know how lucky they are and will, one day, throw it all away in a second.” I’d find this answer preposterous. Since 2016, I’ve started to believe his answer has some validity.

It’s not that I think that Americans are stupid and lazy. That was my mother and father’s view, not mine. But they have taken their liberties for granted. They don’t vote in large numbers. They don’t protest in large numbers. They are mostly passive in response to political change and there has been profound political change in America. As Yeats, the Irish poet, once wrote one hundred years ago during the tumult after the end of World War I, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The passionate intensity is coming from the American right. It has been passionate and destructive for over 20 years. The GOP used to be a party of moderates and conservatives who worked across the aisle to compromise and make America better. But in the 1990s, the GOP became radicalized. Its leaders like Newt Gingrich condemned compromise. The other side, the Democrats, became the enemy to be destroyed. The GOP began to game American politics to its advantage. Voters who were poor and non-white were taken off state voting rolls in the name of “protecting America from voting fraud.” Political districts were gerrymandered with the help of computers to make possible GOP minority rule in state governments and in the US House of Representatives. Courts were stacked with GOP operatives. Through this process, decent Americans were complacent. They continued to not vote in large numbers. They didn’t protest.

Then in 2016, the passionate worst won the presidency. A crude, mentally-ill, ignorant man who hated people of color and women began to take America on a crooked and awful path. Immigrants were demonized. Hateful, racist, white nationalistic language was embraced in the White House and in Congress. Courts were packed with even more political operatives. The doors of a country built on immigration were shut to newcomers. I note that my parents would have been denied entry into the US if America had elected such a hateful president in the 1940s. This week, Trump and the GOP have packed the Supreme Court with enough GOP political operatives to turn a once revered and distinguished court known for political independence and decency into just another crooked and corrupt arm of government.

None of this would have happened had Americans widely participated in government in one simple way. If only they had voted, America would be healthy today. If the poor had voted, if people of color had voted, if young adults had voted, we would have decent responsible government. Instead we have radical right-wingers destroying America and our freedoms.

I’ll move from the national scale to the personal to draw an analogy. Once I was at a strange job interview when at the end of the day, the chair of the search committee took me out to dinner. Instead of professional talk, he opened up about his wife leaving him. He told me of his failings to his wife honestly. He’d cheated on her repeatedly. He’d taken her for granted. Now that she was gone, he felt awful. He missed her desperately. “What can I do to get her back?” he asked me.

I told him I wasn’t a marriage counselor and I felt awkward giving advice, especially to someone I barely knew. He said, “But you’ve been married a long time and are happily married, right? Just tell me what you think.”

I said, “Well, from what you’ve told me, you’ve been an awful husband. Truly awful. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance. You can beg her to come back. But from what you’ve told me, maybe she shouldn’t believe you.” I’ve often wondered if I was being cruel that night, but as time has gone on I think I was right to give that man a verbal slap in the face.

Now it’s time for Americans to get a slap in the face. My father was right about one thing. American citizens have taken this country for granted. They’ve been terrible at being responsible citizens. Because of their complacency, their liberties and what makes this country admirable and decent are being stolen. They are, by their lack of action, throwing a democratic America away.

Unlike the chair of the search committee I had dinner with, Americans can get back what they took for granted. There will be an election on November 6th. Vote. Get everyone you know to vote. The passionate worst are going to try to make sure you don’t get a second chance.

24. May 2018 · Comments Off on Philip Roth and the end of the influence of Jewish literature on American culture · Categories: Olio

Children are usually oblivious to the uniqueness of their culture. You can live in the strangest of times or places and to you it’s just plain normal. My father grew up in Volyn, a place in Eastern Europe dominated by Ukrainians, and didn’t think it at all strange that Poland controlled his province. He thought it would be part of Poland for eternity. Stalin and Ukrainians had a different opinion.

I grew up in a far more stable part of the world (at least for now): Wisconsin. There was nothing strange or unusual about it except maybe the fact that everyone seemed to prefer brandy over other hard liquor.

But when it came to art it was an unusual time. The literary novel was a dominant art form. That wasn’t always true in America, I’m told. Historically, Americans weren’t big readers except on the East Coast. Bookstores weren’t common. Macy’s was a major retailer of books. The rise of the novel in American culture was a post-WWII phenomenon. I didn’t know that. I assumed America had been reading and paying major attention to literary novels for at least one hundred years.

What was even more unusual during my youth was that many leading writers of literary fiction were Jewish. The big three – Bellow, Malamud, and Roth – wrote bestsellers that were widely admired and imitated. I didn’t know that this was unusual either. Seemed normal to me.

Their writing was unambiguously connected to nineteenth and early twentieth century Yiddish writers from the Jewish Pale of Settlement. An essential part of being raised in Jewish Pale culture is to learn that you never hide your intellect. Even if you make people feel uncomfortable with your intellectual intensity, you don’t ever let up on the gas. That aspect of Jewish Pale culture is the first thing I think about when I try to describe Philip Roth. He was intellectually intense in public and probably in private as well.

He was not close to being a favorite writer of mine, but Roth was someone I admired. He worked like a demon. He thought hard. He had his finger on the pulse of American culture for decades. His writing became better as he got older.

My “normal” of literary fiction being a dominant art form that was dominated by Jewish writers wasn’t normal at all. It was bound to come to an end and it has. Literary fiction still has a following, but it’s a small one nowadays. Devoted, but small. Other art forms, typically visual, have become dominant. Other genres of novel writing have become dominant as well. My daughter began to read when science fiction and fantasy was on the ascent. Fifty years from now, the new normal will favor another genre, no doubt.

And what of Jewish literary fiction? It’s no longer widely read outside of Jewish circles. I note that my debut novel was fairly widely read, but maybe that was the result of its math and Russian culture focus. With the death of Philip Roth, the era of American Jewish literary fiction having major impact socially and artistically has come to a close. Roth was a unique voice in American literature. Brash. Outlandish. Not at all fussy in style.

Why aren’t Jewish writers read widely today? It’s not because they don’t have interesting things to say. It’s not because they don’t have talent. One reason is that literary fiction, as already noted above, has lost its primacy in American culture. But there is another factor that I think is at work. American readers tend to be hungry to learn about new and exotic cultures. In the sixties anti-Semitism was on the wane and it became not only socially acceptable to read about Jews, but fashionable. Fashion, by definition, has a finite lifespan.

After thirty or forty years of reading about Jews, Americans wanted to move on and find something fresh. They wanted to read about the Asian immigrant experience, about the African immigrant experience. There is nothing wrong and everything right about wanting something new. I tip my hat to writers from other cultures who were ignored for decades and are being read today.

04. May 2018 · Comments Off on Fordlandia at the Fort Worth Opera · Categories: Fordlandia, Music

I’ve been working with composer William Susman on an opera with the working title Fordlandia. It’s about Henry Ford and his family, whose lives were full of the stuff of grand opera: self-destructive ambition, love, betrayal and major illness.

It’s one thing to put the music and words down on paper (sometimes the words are written first; other times it’s the music). It’s quite another to hear it all live. Last night after a week worth of rehearsals, we got to listen to twenty minutes of Fordlandia at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers festival. It was glorious to hear this music live for the first time. I cried a little in a good way. It was also valuable to listen to the other operas selected for this festival. It gave me a view of where we sit musically and dramatically relative to other new works.

When I decided to pursue the arts and wind my science career down in my fifties, I had no idea of where exactly that path would lead. I only knew I needed to do somehing new intellectually. It’s been a wild and wonderful ride.