Well, this is the coolest. Aliza Hausman — Dominican-American Latina and Orthodox Jewish convert (or as she says on her blog, a Jewminicana for short) is holding a Chanukah contest. The prize to three lucky winners — a copy of my book, I Love Jewish Faces.
Aliza and I got in touch the new fashioned way — blog to blog. Someone told her she should check me out; someone told me I should check her out. And now she is holding a contest: describe the Jewish face you love in a couple of sentences…whether it’s your loved one, a friend or a movie star. Start with “The Jewish face I love….” And end with “I love Jewish faces.” She’s already getting quite a few responses.
So all evening I’ve been thinking about the Jewish faces I love. Time has taken my husband’s hair but not the deep green of his eyes, nor his smile or high Russian cheekbones. Aliza’s contest has me thinking of my children’s faces: Emma’s mane of ebony hair and those dark brown eyes that laugh and smolder; Elliot’s dreamy hazel eyes and killer smile; the hair that is kind of brown but not exactly, kind of smoky dark but not really. When he was a child there were glints of gold, too.
Can’t remember who said that the book she wrote wasn’t necessarily the book that some of her readers read. I loved that observation because it revealed the partnership between author and reader. We put our work out there, heart, sweat and hopes. In the receiving of it our words are transformed by our readers, who see insights we never intended or imagined. I never dreamed my book would inspire the beautiful reflections that Aliza has prompted. What a wonderful alchemy.
Back in the days when we lived in NYC, we were given front row seats to Nine, a stellar musical whose genesis was somewhat matryoshkan. (OK, OK, I just made that one up; keep reading.) Based on a book by Arthur Kopit (music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) Nine’s plot had its roots in an Italian play by Mario Fratti which had its roots in Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 1/2 about a film director in the throes of a midlife crisis. Have we gotten the matryoshkan link yet? Think Russian dolls.
Jeffrey Toobin’s latest best seller The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court has nothing to do with Fellini, music, or Broadway. But it does deal with existential crises — precisely that of the Supreme Court, which, Toobin said at Sunday’s Patron Event (a spellbound crowd of 750+), is “at a great turning point.”
Contrary to what you might assume, the Court’s identity conundrum is not the result of a shift from Democratic Presidential appointments to Republican ones but instead, according to the author, mirrors the deep shift in the Republican Party. I’m not up to giving a brief on Toobin’s talk. Although I’m the granddaughter, daughter and wife of lawyers, I don’t even play one on TV so instead, I’ll share a few impressions and vignettes.
1. The late 60’s the Court was a liberal institution rendering decisions about freedom of the press, legality of birth control (Griswold v. CT, based on a married couple’s right to privacy), defendants’ rights (can you say Miranda?), and Loving v. Virginia which struck down any laws against interracial marriages.
2. In 1969 four Justices vacated the Court. Richard Nixon (as Toobin wryly noted, “had to leave early”) after only five and a half years, appointed four Justices. The four, though appointed by a Republican President, did not move the Court drastically to the right.
3. In fact the ensuing decade saw a series of liberal decisions on issues as wide ranging as school busing, the death penalty (outlawing it for two years, anyway); the Pentagon Papers, and US v Richard Nixon, the case over the Watergate Papers that resulted in Nixon’s resignation.
4. A shift began in the 1980’s with Ronald Reagan, who set out to methodically change the court, bringing religion into the public sphere and setting the course for a conservative agenda with his appointments of Sandra Day O’Connor (fulfilling a promise he made to appoint the nation’s first female Justice); Antonin Scalia; and the naming of William Rehnquist as Chief Justice. When Robert Bork’s nomination was scuttled in the eleventh hour Anthony Kennedy was named and eventually confirmed. Having one’s surname entered into the lexicon, though small and bitter comfort to Mr. Bork, stands as a perpetual reminder of what the systematic defamation by one’s fellow countrymen can do to candidates up for public office. (That’s me talking, not Toobin.)
5. The 80’s brought about other changes: a reduction in case load from 150 to 80 and the proposal (never happened) to add a Supreme Appellate Court.
7. What was the reason for this shift? Three words: Justice O’Connor changed. Toobin said that the “evolution of the Republican party shocked her, alienating her from her own party.”
8. The clincher was the Terry Schiavo case. At the time, Justice O’Connor, whose husband had developed Alzheimer’s, began bringing him to work with her. Eventually she stepped down in June, 2005 to care for him full time leaving one and then two (upon the death three months later of Chief Justice William Rehnquist) openings on the Supreme Court.
9. With the confirmations of Chief Justice Stephen Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Toobin concluded that there was “a complete transformation of the court as it reflected the change in the Republican party.”
With apologies to William Rose Wallace, it is interesting to note that as the hand that rocked the cradle rules the world, the hand that guided her beloved ultimately changed the Supreme Court.
To hear the women tell it, Joseph Licht, the protagonist in Evan Fallenberg’s first novel, Light Fell, is neither sympathetic nor likable. In fact, during the Q&A one of last night’s attendees put it pretty bluntly, “I didn’t like any of the characters in this book.”
Fallenberg, who is not only likable and sympathetic but was a terrific and engaging speaker (not to mention cute as all hell), stepped back from the podium, took a swig of water and laughed. “Wow. People have told me they don’t like Joseph. But no one’s ever said they don’t like anybody in my book. Let me think about this for a moment.” Earlier in the evening I’d answered a friend who had the same reaction to Joseph. Perhaps Fallenberg wanted the challenge of humanizing an unlikable character. Or perhaps he wanted to try on being an SOB.
Acknowledging the reader’s antipathy, the author said he set out to take people and put them in an impossible position. “I wanted to create a situation… you may not like him but can you sympathize with his predicament?” The predicament? Israeli scholar Joseph Licht leaves behind his entire life — wife, five young children, the religious farming community where he grew up — when he falls in love and has an affair with a man, a famous rabbi no less. Now that’s a predicament. Which, inadvertantly or not, extends to some of Fallenberg’s readers who found themselves enjoying his novel while disliking the driving character.
Opening the folds of his writer’s cape, Fallenberg discussed the ins and outs of writing his first novel. A translator by profession, he was so overwhelmed by the idea of creating a novel that when he sat down each morning (4:30 – 6:00) he would tell himself, “Just write a scene Evan, just a scene.” Once the morning’s scene was done, he’d jot down a sentence or two of what came next, a lifeline of sorts. When 4:30 am rolled around again, he had something to grasp as he made his way.
Fallenberg discussed character development, which included giving one the birthday of February 22, 1922. He then visited an astrologer to learn what a person with a birthday of 2/22/22 would be like. “It was as if the [astrologer] knew my character.” He wrote them letters, talked to them until they became fully formed individuals, completely independent of the author. “I spent so much time with them,” he recalled, “that I could trust myself to run with them when they surprised me.” How often does a writer get that nuts and boltsy with an audience? One more reason why I live for Jewish Book Month.
I mentioned translating above, the work that puts pita and hummus on Fallenberg’s dinner table. He’s the man behind the exquisite translation of Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and Boy for which he received a PEN Translation Prize for 2007. It’s a prize well deserved. I never could have tackled it in the original and the book is pure magic.
So that’s about it for Evan Fallenberg. Look for more on Sunday. Until then…Happy Reading.