Tag Archives: American Jews

Seven cool books

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My top 7 for 2013. What were your favorite books that you read this year?

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012) American immigrant stories from the Dominican experience.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  (2012) To hell with Henry. Give us more Cromwell!

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman  (2013) Memory and artifice among North African immigrants in 1970s Cambridge. I’ll never think of Walden Pond the same way again.

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen (2013) The rise and bellyflop of the greater-than-we-realized musical parodist Allan Sherman.

War Over Lemuria by Richard Shaver (2013) I’ve written about this chronicle of the pulp science fiction craze and what happened when a writer insisted that his stories were really true.

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934) Leftist New York intellectuals, struggle and seduce each other into the modern age. I learned about this book on an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan of a different book.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930) I’ve known about it since I prepared my bar mitzvah speech. But this is the first time I read it through. One hundred years later, poverty is still poverty.



Filed under books, reading

Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Filed under books, Judaism, music, popular culture

The journalist yells ‘fire’

I used to know Andrew Adler. When I worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times, he was the newspaper’s former managing editor. He’d come to our office periodically to have his start-up Jewish newspaper designed by our art department. It was an odd arrangement, and it didn’t last long, as he positioned his Maccabiah Press as a competitor to the Jewish Times.

Like the name of his publication, Andrew’s journalism was a bit tone-deaf, a touch parochial and essentially superficial.

Along with these fairly harmless sins I now suspect he has one that can be crippling for a serious journalist: an inability to see the big picture.

That could be why Adler, as  publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, wrote a column last week in which he suggested that Israel might want to consider assassinating President Obama. The text of his “Publisher’s Letter” is here.

Adler subsequently apologized and explained that he wrote what he wrote “just to see what kind of reaction I would get from readers.”

It turns out the reaction has been “overwhelmingly negative,” Adler told JTA.

If there’s a learning moment in any of this, it might be in the overwhelming revulsion Adler’s column caused. Most people, regardless of their politics in the U.S. or Israeli contexts, still have their heads screwed on the right way.

That’s a cause for hope as American Jews as a group move to the right on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as their position hardens on what Israel must be willing to do for a negotiated peace, and more often people are willing to demonize those they disagree with.

In the American context, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, Andrew Adler’s column is part of a larger movement which seeks to delegitimize Obama as president.

Adler’s crazy and criminal suggestions are not the ranting of some loony-tune individual. They were not taken out of thin air. Rather, they are the inevitable result of the inordinate volume of repugnant venom that some of Obama’s political rivals, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been spewing for the last three years.

In such an atmosphere murder may seem to someone as the only possible course to take. That’s what happened in 1996, back when Andrew Adler was launching his Maccabiah Press,  when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Yes, this may be a learning moment, and we may become better for it. It may also be a reminder why we don’t shout “fire” just to see the reaction.

Jan 24 —

Following Andrew Adler’s resignation, J.J. Goldberg wrote this fine piece in the Forward. What made Adler “wander so far off the reservation?” Goldberg writes. “The answer is, he didn’t.”

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Filed under Judaism, presidents, writing

Murray’s Boswell. An interview.

The Book of Murray by David M. BaderDavid M. Bader writes quiet, spare, funny books. His newest, “The Book of Murray,” was published last week.  Its subject is the until-now lost book of the prophet Murray — part Moses, part Elijah, part Shecky Green. A man who draws a blank when the people put too much pressure on him to prophesy. So he grabs the first topic that he can think of: doom.

God, he warns the people, “hath had it up to here, and the day of reckoning is nigh.”

Bader is the dry wit behind “Haikus for Jews,” “Zen Judaism,” and a couple more. He brings his less-is-more style to the tale of Murray, a man who answers God’s call only to find that He never picks up the phone or even checks His messages.

Murray is a modern man in late-Bronze Age clothing, and his concerns are those that beset contemporary Jews, rendered in pitch perfect King James Bible English, poetic redundancies included:

And it came to pass that one day, when tending a small bush, lo, a sheep appeared before him. And the sheep was ablaze and aflame and also on fire.

That’s how Murray’s ministry begins. And through his prophetic words, we see the problems that have bedeviled Jewish theology ever since the days of ancient Israel:

And though thou wilt be enslaved, persecuted, and downtrodden for centuries, look on the bright side. For though the Lord will destroy you, later he will redeem and bless you.

Here is my conversation with David M. Bader:

David Holzel: The book jacket says you began working on this book after an image of the Prophet Murray appeared to you on a toasted bagel. What happened after that?  How did this book come together, and how long have you spent on it?

David M. Bader: First, I ate the bagel.  I have priorities. Then I spent a lot of time reading the Bible, especially the books of the prophets.  And then I tried to figure out how a book of an ancient prophet could be more modern and entertaining.  Something like the Book of Jeremiah – but funny.

This book shows you as more than conversant with the Bible/Tanakh.  Are you?

I’m no expert, really.  I’ve read it and re-read it, parts of it many times, but I’m not a biblical scholar in any way whatsoever.  For writing humor,
sometimes it’s helpful to be a little clueless.

These days it can be dangerous to treat religious persons and texts with anything less than gravitas.  Do you fear a fatwa for publishing “Murray”?

I didn’t think there would be a fatwa for this particular book.  I was worried about a fatwa for my planned sequel to “Haikus for Jews,” which I was
going to call “Haikus for Islamic Fundamentalists.”  But I decided not to go forward with that when I realized it didn’t rhyme.

With Jews continuing to assimilate and newer ethnic groups taking our place, I’m surprised that it’s still possible to make Jewish jokes. Are you finding it easier or harder than ever?

Interesting question.  For me, Jewish humor is a challenge right now because some of the older subjects are still good targets of satire for Jews of a certain age.  But then there are younger Jews, some secular, some Modern Orthodox, who have a new, very different set of idiosyncrasies. We’re a diverse bunch.  I’ve tried to strike a generational balance in “The Book of Murray.”  Most Jews still share a sense of humor, so I’m hoping people will laugh even at jokes that don’t quite apply to their personal circumstances.

Your earlier work, your haikus especially, was widely circulated electronically. I was amazed and somewhat appalled to receive them in emails year after year. No one appeared to recognize or wonder about the source.  Did you receive those emails?

Yes, I’ve received those e-mails and found chunks of my books posted on web pages without attribution.  It’s both flattering and upsetting.  I once told someone I had written “Haikus for Jews,” and she said, “You didn’t write that, it’s from the Internet.”

Someone else once forwarded me an e-mail containing excerpts from my book “Zen Judaism.”  She said, “This reminds me of your work, but it’s not as funny.”

Some people seem to think that I merely collected my haiku from the Internet, when in fact I started writing them before the Internet even
existed for all practical purposes.

I’m glad that people enjoy my writing, but it’s frustrating that they don’t take two seconds to find the source and mention it when they share passages over the Internet. One Google search usually leads right to the books.

Am I ranting? Ok, I will stop now.

You have enough books out to have an oeuvre. How would you sum up your published works, your style, your themes to date?

An oeuvre? You are too kind.  The books are all pretty short, so it’s really more of an hors d’oeuvre. They are mostly parodies, as whimsical as
I can make them, touching on Jewish themes.  I have also written on topics that are not Jewish.  “One Hundred Great Books in Haiku” has no Jewish references that I can think of.  I didn’t set out to write exclusively on Jewish themes, but they do show up a lot, I suppose.  The Jewish references tend to be more cultural than seriously religious — Jew-ish, perhaps. Possibly it’s a New York thing.

In this book I hear echoes of the younger, funnier Woody Allen, and Allan Sherman. Who has influenced you?

Woody Allen looms large, as do Mel Brooks and other Jewish greats, including Borscht Belt stand-up comics, the Marx Brothers and so on.  But I like lots of non-Jewish humor and satire, everything from James Thurber and Stephen Leacock to British writers – Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse and that sort of thing.  Plus, I’ve watched a lot of bad television.

Will there be a “Murray” movie and, if so, who will star?

That would be fun, but Steven Spielberg and George Clooney aren’t taking my calls.  I do think it’s a fun narrative that could work on the screen or
stage, but I don’t have any plans yet.

What’s next for David M. Bader, writer?

Hmm… I’m thinking about lunch and maybe a nap.  Longer term, I have a couple of book ideas that I’m working on and we’ll see if they end up being funny and publishable.  And maybe I will find another ancient scroll somewhere.


Filed under books, interview, Judaism, popular culture, writing