Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gee, Ms. Bacall, You Don't Look It

"If you ever forget you're a Jew there will always be a gentile around to remind you." - Isaac Bashevis Singer

This lesson was forcefully brought home to a few hundred thousand assimilated German Jews in 1933. Adolph Hitler was around to remind them that, in spite of their best efforts to blend into the Arian nation, they were still "strangers in a strange land." 

Lauren Bacall, on the other hand, didn't need anyone to remind her. As hard as she tried to live as a gentile among gentiles, she couldn't forget her birthright.

Betty Joan Perske was born in the Bronx to a Jewish couple who divorced before she got to know her father. Her mother then reverted to her maiden name, Bacal. When Betty broke into the movie business, at the age of nineteen, she adopted the name Lauren  and added an "l" to her surname (which sounded too much like "bagel.") 

She didn't tell her Hollywood mentor, director Howard Hawks, that she was Jewish because she suspected (correctly) that he was an anti-Semite. Even Humphrey Bogart, her forty-five year old co-star, didn't discover her ethnicity until shortly before their father/daughter love affair blossomed into a marriage. Bogie didn't ask and Betty didn't tell. 

They had two children, a boy and a girl, whom Bogie, a non-practicing Episcopalian, thought should be baptized. Betty had no problem with that. She enrolled her children in Sunday school, and brought them up as Christians.

When Bogie died, his young widow, still in her early thirties, was already romantically involved with fellow Rat Packer, Frank Sinatra. They became secretly engaged but when the secret was leaked to Louella Parsons, by their common agent, Swifty Lazar, Frank blamed Betty and dumped her.  So she had to settle for Jason Robards Jr., another pedigreed gentile, who made his hard-drinking predecessor look like a teetotaler. 

In her autobiography, By Myself, and Then Some, Lauren Bacall describes herself as a "nice Jewish girl." She didn't even drink socially. Yet she seemed to favor the stereotypical "shicker goy" as a life partner.

She and Robards had one child, a boy they named Sam, whom they also brought up as a Christian. After a few years of putting up with her second husband's binges, Bacall showed him the door. It was an amicable divorce and they remained friends. She was upset with Robards but tried not to be too judgmental. Alcoholism was an illness. Her ex-husband's one unforgivable sin was showing up one Christmas without bringing Sam a present.

Betty's next love interest was the co-star of her 1st Broadway musical Applause; a local boy whose name will be familiar to readers of this journal. In addition to sharing a birth sign (Virgo) Lauren Bacall and Bill Marantz have only one degree of separation: Len Cariou. 

With a growing family Betty was prepared to settle down with a sober gentile, for a change, but her new love interest had other plans. A few months before the end of the show's two-year run (for which Betty would win a Tony Award) Len headed for greener pastures.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Len Carriou was married three times (once, I believe, to a "nice Jewish girl") but Lauren Bacall never remarried. She filled the void in her personal life with her extensive network of showbiz friends. Thoughtful mentors like Katy Hepburn, Spence Tracy, The Oliviers (Larry & Vivian), The Nivens (David and Hjordis); the luminaries she worshipped as a star-struck girl had become intimates. 

She was also friendly with pedigreed gentile politicians like Adlai Stevenson and Jack Kennedy. Reading Ms. Bacall's autobiography you would think there were no Jews in show business.

The only one she mentions is Kirk Douglas, whom she had a crush on when she was a teenager. Betty and Kirk were roughly the same age but the other people in her inner circle were Bogie's contemporaries. As the years passed, so did virtually all of the colleagues and friends she loved and admired.

As her life drew to a close, Betty/Lauren/Bacall/Bogart/Robarts, who chose to live as a gentile among gentiles, claims the only thing she was left with was her Jewish identity.

Seriously, Betty?

According to tradition, and the State of Israel, Lauren Bacall qualifies as a Jew because her mother was Jewish. But that doesn't explain why a woman whose favorite holiday was Christmas, whose favorite food was Mexican, and whose three children were members of the Christian church would still feel Jewish.

It's almost as puzzling as the fact that a tribe of dessert nomads, too insignificant to be mentioned in history books, would not only outlive the Greek, Roman and Babylonian empires but give birth to a religion that is practiced (in modified variations) by 1/3 of the world's population. What are the odds that a tiny nation of former slaves would rise from the ashes, after thousands of years, and survive an endless war being waged by genocidal neighbors who outnumber her 100 to 1? 

How could this insignificant dot on the world map, in a little over half a century, become a world leader in internet technology, agricultural innovation, medicine, physics, etc.

It's almost as miraculous as the fact that the Nobel committee would award 22% of it's prizes to an ethnic group that constituting 0.2% of the world's population, in spite of the fact that everyone hates them?

Well, not everyone. A handful of admirers, in every generation, actually join the club.

"It's hard to be a Jew," the saying goes, but its not impossible.

Judaism isn't an evangelical religion, but the study house door is always open. Converting to Judaism is the opposite of qualifying for the Catholic priesthood: no one is called but anyone can become one of the "Chosen."

The Nazi characterization of the Jews as a "race" ignores the fact that "Jewish blood" (one drop of which is enough to pollute the stream) is indistinguishable from gentile blood. Ditto "Jewish noses." Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors of the rainbow.

Judaism has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with ethics. Being born a Jew does not entitle you to special status, like "white privilege." Rather it burdens you with special obligations and responsibilities. Keeping kosher, wearing a skull cap, not eating bread on Passover, is not the essence of Judaism; the Ten Commandments are the essence of Judaism.

When a rich businessman asked Rabbi Akiva to sum up the talmud, while "standing on one foot," the learned sage said: "Don't do to anyone else what you wouldn't want them to do to you. All the rest is commentary."

Compassion and tolerance are so integral to being a Jew that when the Sanhedrin (Judaism supreme court during the Roman era) imposed the death penalty, once in 7 years, it was called "a court of murderers." 

Surrounded by fanatical theocracies, that stone young women to death for refusing to wear a veil, the State of Israel has just defeated a motion to impose the death penalty on terrorists by a vote of 96 to 4.

Yet Israel is singled out by the UN as the Middle East's chief perpetrator of "war crimes."

The same old movie has been playing, at a theater near you, for five thousand years. The besieged and vilified Jewish state is determined to follow the biblical admonition to be "a light unto the nations." But when you shine a light in a dark theater it disturbs the patrons. 

So they do their best to snuff it out. 

There's an old joke about the Jew who prayed to God: "Do us a favor; choose someone else." 

The only special status "The Chosen People" are entitled to is priority seating in gas chambers and extermination camps.

Yet we miraculously survive.

Right, Betty?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Boys Will Be Boys (a true story)

Israel Cohen and Ali Ben Ishmael were high school classmates and mortal enemies. Izzy occupied the desk in front of Ali, at the back of the room, and was a thorn in his side. Pollyanna Du Goodeur, a fresh-faced exchange teacher from Venice, California, was their homeroom teacher and fair-haired, freckle-faced Izzy Cohen was the apple of her eye. He was at the top of the class, captain of the wrestling team, and editor of the yearbook. One of only half a dozen Jews at Omar Khayyam Academy, this pushy newcomer acted like he owned the place. When he wasn't in the library, hogging all the books, or showing off his virtuosity with the school orchestra, he was in the gym, flexing his abs.

Ali was slightly bigger and rougher but Izzy was a black belt so Ali gave him a wide berth in the schoolyard. He vented his spleen by trashed him to anyone who would listen. He made sure Izzy was within hearing distance when he hurled his favorite epithet ("son of a pig") but it rolled off Izzy's back like a water droplet. The arrogant Yid obviously thought he was too high and mighty to pay attention to a lowly "raghead." So, one day, while the teacher was writing something on the blackboard, the raghead decided to make the son of a pig aware of his existence.

"Cut it out," Izzy said, turning around.

Ali smirked.

Izzy sighed, shook his head, and turned back to the front.

Ali slapped him in the back of the head again.

Izzy turned around, scowling. "I said cut it out!"

Ali laughed.

When Izzy turned his back again, Ali slapped him in the head twice, forehand and backhand.

Then the bell rang.

Next day, the performance was repeated, with increasing frequency and force. This went on, day after day, week after week with annoying regularity. Since it was to no avail, Izzy stopped turning around and telling Ali to stop. He merely tried to anticipate the blows and deflect them with his upraised hands. Occasionally he succeeded. Then, one scorchingly hot summer afternoon, after an exhausting football practice, and enduring a series of five stinging slaps, only one of which was partially deflected, Izzy lost his cool.

"Miss, DuGoodeur, Izzy hit me," Ali cried out, in pain and indignation.

Pollyanna Du Goodeur couldn't believe her eyes. Blood was running from Ali's nose and spilling onto his checkered headscarf. "Did you do that, Israel" she asked her star pupil, incredulously.

"I'm sorry, Miss DuGoodeur," Izzy said. "Ali slapped me in the head and I lost my temper."

"I was just trying make him put his hands down," Ali protested, his voice muffled by the headscarf he was now holding to his nose. "I can't see the blackboard."

"He's lying," Izzy said, evenly. "He's been slapping me in the head for weeks. When I ask him to stop he just smiles. I only put up my hands to protect my head."

Pollyanna Du Goodeurbit her lip in frustration. In her gut she knew the solution to this chicken and egg dilemma but didn't want to rush to judgment. When she had arrived at Omar Khayyam, a veteran teacher had told her to never trust the word of an Arab student. But it was her job to combat racism, not succumb to it. If Ali Ben Ishmael wasn't quite as conscientious a student as Israel, who even tutored some of the slower African students in his free time, it was because he hadn't had advantages of a stable middle class upbringing. The poor Palestinian toddler had been orphaned at the age of three. Both parents were killed by an explosive device his mother had accidentally triggered when she was strapping it to the body of Ali's teenaged brother. No, Pollyanna Du Goodeur wouldn't let her emotions color her judgment; she would let each student plead his case before a higher tribunal.

"That doesn't sound like you, Israel," Principal Moon said, quizzically. He tried not to let his face betray his emotions. This might be the straw that broke his back. In the wake the 9/11 disaster Kah Ki Moon had made a midlife decision he had come to regret. The renowned brain surgeon had taken a huge cut in income and prestige, hoping to bring peace to the halls of Omar Khayyam Academy. It was a delusion. His lenient, non-judgmental approach had merely caused the violence to escalate. The schoolyard was a war zone. Several students had actually lost their lives; and no one had been held accountable. Every "witness" told a different (and contradictory) story, depending on his gang affiliation. The students at Omar Khayyam didn't know the meaning of the word integrity. Or industry. Or honor.

With one shining exception. Israel Cohen was a tiny point of light at the end of Principal Moon's long dark tunnel. The new arrival was not only a model student but strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of this nightmare world. When Israel proved that he could hold his own in a fist fight, even against superior numbers, the confrontations had become strictly verbal. The troublemakers kept up their taunting but Israel refused to retaliate. Until now.

"I was merely defending myself, Mr. Moon. Ali has been slapping me in the back of the head for weeks. I've tried to ignore it, but I can't concentrate on my work. And I've developed a chronic headache..."

"A headache," Ali interjected, with a derisive snort. "Poor baby! My grandmother slaps me, maybe I should punch her in the face and break her nose. If he's such a sissy, Mr. Moon, maybe he should transfer to a Yeshiva. This is our school; he has no right to be here."

"My great grandfather built this school," Izzy said, with turning. He was directing his remarks at Principal Moon. "The members of my family were attending Maimonides Torah Institute before Ali Ben Ishmael was born."

"That's ancient history," Ali shouted. "New York used to be New Amsterdam. But you don't see the Dutch claiming it belongs to them. This is a Muslim school; if he can't live with that, he should go back where he came from."

"And where is that?" Izzy said, turning to him.

"Poland! The big bad wolf is dead, you can go home now, little piggy."

"Now, now, there's no call for that kind of talk," Principal Moon said, sternly. "The holocaust is nothing to joke about, young man. It was one of the worst atrocities in human history."

"Worst fairytale," Ali muttered.

Pretending he hadn't heard, Principal Moon rose from his deak, took Miss Du Goodeuraside aside and lowered his voice. "Can't you separate them; move Israel to another desk?"

"I've tried," Miss Du Goodeur whispered. "But I had a revolt on my hands. The other students refused to come to class, if they had to sit anywhere near him."

Judge Moon heaved a sigh and turned back to the two defendants. "Okay, gentlemen, it's time to grow up and face reality. Regardless of what this building was in the past, it is now a public school. And you are both entitled to attend. So you're just going to have to learn to get along. Ali, if Israel promises to never raise his hand to you again, will promise never to raise your hand against him?"

"Only if he returns my pencils."

"Your what?"

"He stole my pencils. Now I have nothing to write with. And he doesn't even need them; he just keeps them locked up in his desk."

Principal Moon frowned. "Is that true, Israel?"

"I didn't steal his pencils; I confiscated his weapons." Izzy stood up, turned around and raised his shirt.

Principal Moon stifled a gasp. Izzy's back was pitted with tiny bloody scabs; he looked like a small pox survivor. Principal Moon turned to Ali. "Are you responsible for that, young man?"

Ali didn't reply, merely smirked.

Principal Moon made a conscious effort to speak calmly. "Why on earth would you do such a thing?"

"Because he's sitting in my desk," Ali said, sulkily. "My older brother sat in that desk. And my cousin Mohammed before him. It's a family tradition. We all have our initials carved in it. Then this newcomer waltzes in, in the middle of the term, and the teacher gives it to" he pointed his forefinger at his classmate, thumb cocked, simulating a handgun "him."

Miss Du Goodeur flushed. "That's not completely true, Ali. I assigned Izzy to the last desk in the row. But you said you didn't want him to sit behind you. That you didn't trust him."

"And I was right," Ali shouted. "He stole all my pencils. He's a thief. And a pig..."

"Alright, young man, this name-calling has gone far enough," Principal Moon said, sternly. He turned to Izzy and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "Will you return Ali's pencils, if he promises to only use them to write with?"

"I did return one of his pencils," Izzy said. "Weeks ago. And as soon as I turned my back he stabbed me with it."

"Because he wouldn't return the rest of them," Ali protested. "Confiscate," he snorted, breaking the clot in his nose. "What right has this Jew got to confiscate anything?" he continued, as fresh blood began to gush down his lightly bearded chin. "I've been going to this school since kindergarten. He got here the day before yesterday. And now he's trying to run the place. Editor of the yearbook, self-appointed substitute he'll want to take over your job, Mr. Moon."

He's welcome to it, Kah Ki Moon said to himself. He heaved a resigned sigh, "Recrimination will get us nowhere, young man. Besides, there are more urgent matters to attend to. You have to see the school nurse." He turned to Izzy. "Can we agree to a truce while Ali gets his nose attended to?"

Izzy nodded. "As long as he doesn't bother me, I won't bother him."

"And you, Ali. Do you agree to a truce?"

Ali scowled. "Only if he returns my pencils."

"Oh, for goodness sakes, we'll worry about that after you get your nose fix. Okay?"

Ali nodded, grudgingly.

Principal Moon smiled. "Fine. Now you two scallywags get out of here and let me get back to work." He turned to Miss Du Goodeur. "Please don't leave, I'd like to talk to you for a minute."

Izzy and Ali turned to the door. Izzy opened it and stood aside.

Ali didn't budge. "You first."

Izzy heaved a sigh, and walked out.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Ali slapped Izzy on the back of the head, with all his might.

As he surveyed the horror in front of him, Kah Ki Moon felt like pulling out what was left of his hair. Ali Ben Ishmael and Israel Cohen were sitting in two chairs, placed several feet apart, facing his desk. Ali had two black eyes, a broken nose, and a swollen lip. Israel had abrasions on the knuckles of his left hand. Miss Du Goodeur had fled back to the classroom, in tears.

"Alright, gentlemen, it is time to take off the kid gloves," Principal Moon said, frowning. "You are obviously determined not to live together in peace, so I am forced to teach you a lesson you will not soon forget. You aren't naughty children; you are young men on the threshold of adulthood. To have any hope of succeeding in the real world, you will have to learn that actions have consequences." He turned to Ali. "Young man, you have a week's detention. Go back to your room."

When Ali was gone, Principal Moon turned to the shining light that had gone dark, and softened his tone. "I'm sorry, Israel, but you've left me no choice. You are expelled from school."

To be continued (unfortunately). 

William Marantz is author of the mystery thriller Christmas Eve Can Kill You and short story collection The Convert, both available at

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the New Snobbery

I have to admit that I'm not a fan of J.R.R. Tolkein, Commander James Kirk, Luke Skywalker or any of the other comic book heroes who have invaded the cultural marketplace in the last few decades. Does that make me a snob? 

So how come I love Glee?

Don’t confuse good taste with snobbery, folks. A mayvin doesn’t prejudge any book, movie or TV show; he gives them all an equal opportunity to bore him. Even if it’s only for five minutes—my Harry Potter limit.

I forced myself to sit through the first Harry Potter flick, but it wasn’t until this summer, when I found it sitting on my grandson's bookshelf, that I read the first few chapters of the novel. And discovered that it isn’t Bill Marantz who’s the snob but J.K. Rowling.

Unlike her life story, former welfare recipient Joanne Rowling’s blockbuster isn’t a rags-to-riches saga. It’s a gender-bending fairy tale with a spoiled stepbrother standing in for Cinderfella’s ugly stepsisters. Harry Potter doesn’t have to marry a prince; he is a prince. The thing that distinguishes the young Harry from the middle class multitude is his birthmark. The sign of the “wizard” (i.e. artist) is branded on his forehead.

The invisible mark of the “Muggles” (people who work for a living) is branded even more deeply on every member of his adoptive family. Lest any young reader be labouring under the illusion that there’s nothing wrong with being a productive member of society, the author paints them as crude, stupid, greedy, mean-spirited and obese. (In Ms. Rowling’s fairy tale world it’s apparently still politically correct to make fat people objects of derision.) 

In addition to making Harry’s uncle physically and morally repulsive Rowling sneers at him for taking pride in his work.

If she had made him a stockbroker, or moneylender, it might be easier to share her contempt But what’s so shameful about selling drills? In terms of usefulness, the drill is right up there with the wheel and the screw. Without drills modern industry would grind to a halt. Children’s books might have to be hand written by monks, and Ms. Rowling would have to walk to the bookstore to sign both copies. Her gifted brainchild might even have to give up wizardry and get an honest job—sweeping out stables—to support her.

Ironically J.K. Rowling is as much businesswoman as artist. Artists don’t use their gift to beat rival “wizards” to the pot of gold. A true artist doesn't think of his calling as a competition. Even an egomaniac like Pablo Picasso didn’t think he had to paint better pictures than Henri Mattisse. As much as he enjoyed his wealth and fame Picasso didn’t build a “cubist franchise” and milk it dry. He was constantly pushing the envelope of his craft.

The anonymous creator of the drill was more of a wizard/artist than Harry Potter, or his female alter ego, who keeps selling the same product in a different package. Like most snobs, Ms. Rowling would do well to stop looking down her nose and look in the mirror.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Up The Amazon Without a Paddle

A decade ago the former editor of The Jewish Post gave my debut novel, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, an extremely gratifying review. Unfortunately the late Matt Bellan’s words did not go to the ear of the Almighty but were written on the wind. After a short burst of enthusiasm from local book buyers my “hilarious, readable murder mystery” fell off the radar and I couldn’t give it away. (I tried handing out copies at the Polo Park Mall, in a Santa hat and beard, and a security guard stopped me.) But you can’t keep a good thriller down, right?

Someone said the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Well, I haven’t done exactly the same thing—the new edition of Christmas Eve Can Kill You, published by Outskirts Press, has a nicer cover, no typos and is POD (Print On Demand). If sales fall short of expectations (and prayers) I won’t end up with a truckload of copies sitting in my garage.

Still, according to my marketing guru, even attractive books don’t sell themselves—I have to create a “buzz”.  So I surfed up the Amazon, in search of buzzers, and found the following invitation at the bottom of my book’s web page: “Mystery Readers Café: Come On In And Join The Conversation!”  So I did.

And had the welcome mat pulled out from under me. 

When a stranger arrives in a community that worships the ground Stieg Larsson no longer walks on he should tread softly—and carry an olive branch. Ferdinand bulled his way in bearing a crown of thorns and planted it on Larsson’s headstone. He also hit the “insert product link” too often to suit his fellow mystery lovers, one of whom—after downloading a free “sample” to her kindle—posted a one star customer review (“only because there isn’t a no star option”) to offset the five glowing reviews posted by “the author’s friends and relatives”. Next day “Mystery Girl” apparently had an attack of conscience. Perhaps Amazon deleted the libellous review but we will give her the benefit of the doubt.

Which is more than her cyber friends were prepared to give yours truly. They had no excuse to push the “report abuse” button—my messages weren’t abusive just “abrasive”—so they hit the “ignore this customer” icon. I tried to play nice—fulsomely praising mediocre mysteries written by other Café patrons—but it was too little too late. The Chef finally asked me to email her and when I did informed me that she’d been inundated by emails urging her to “get this %$^# guy out of here!”

So I took the hint.

And pulled another trick out of my marketing guru’s bag.

Say hello to the The Jewish Post's new columnist.  

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Stieg Larrson phenomenon

A few weeks ago I downloaded The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Amazon because I wanted to use my new kindle (for something beside "free" classics) and see what all the fuss was about.

I'm still wondering. Larsson's fictional skills are rudimentary at best. His favorite literary device is the "information dump" - every time he introduces a new characters, no matter how minor, he gives us pages of detailed (and largely irrelevant) back story.

The first third of the book isn't slow; it's stationary. And when Larsson finally gives us something that resembles a mystery, in the middle third of the novel, it's mundane and predictable.

Finally, in the last third of the book, he gets around to the "action" and while it’s slightly more compelling than reading statistics on sheep farming in Australia, and climbing mythical family trees (he even includes a chart) it's overblown and unrealistic.

I can't believe those who praise the novel for its "character development". The characters, who remain unchanged throughout the novel, are cardboard and the dialogue is wooden. The male hero, a "crusading" journalist who will sleep with anyone willing to lie down and spread her legs, regardless of age or social status, is colorless and emotionless. He's kind of a walking libido.

On the other hand, the title character, a five foot, ninety pound social misfit with the computer skills of Steve Jobs, the spying skills of William (Intrepid) Stevenson, and the physical prowess to defeat a gun-wielding serial killer with a golf club, is a comic book superhero.

This mega bestseller is basically a graphic novel without the graphics. Which is one of the reasons it's so popular.

Okay, so if Larsson has given birth to a bloated beast that even those who gave it five stars on Amazon had trouble sticking with through the first 200 pages why is it such a phenomenal best seller?

Because it pushes all the right buttons. Sex, violence and, most importantly, revenge. There is hardly a human being walking the earth who has never felt victimized by a parent, teacher, bully, spouse, policeman, judge, and who has never dreamed of "getting even".

A rare few, like the Mennendes brothers, live out this fantasy.

The rest of us settle for Harry Potter movies and books like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The more helpless the victim, and the more abuse that is heaped on him or her, the greater the satisfaction when he/she exacts retribution. Everyone that reviews Dragon Tattoo Girl, whether they praise it or pan it, agrees that the section where Salander turns the tables on her sexually abusive "guardian" is delicious.

The only complaint I read was that the revenge Salander took on the other sexually abusive pervert - who is also a Nazi - is that it was over too quickly.

Or was that remark in relation to the destruction of the Capitalist pig whom she and her partner-in-revenge...

Well, you get the idea: paint by numbers fiction that's money in the bank!

Okay, full disclosure

The purpose of this blog is to market my mystery thriller Christmas Eve Can Kill You, which has now been published in a spanking new edition. (It may be an exercise in futility - again - but nothing ventured nothing gained.) My marketing guru claims I have to do more than post an excerpt from my book and expect the mountain to come to Mohammed; I  have to create a "buzz" by posting tantalizing tidbits about mysteries and thrillers that will seep into the fabric of the World Wide Web and snag a few flies. Eventually. So I'm holding my nose and jumping right in. Eventually. (My ambition was to become a procrastinator - but I kept putting it off.)

Stay tuned.