Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Good Reads, or The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden go Walking Home

As a copy editor working in the trade fiction and genre fiction industry, I have an opportunity to do a lot of reading. As an English major in university -- all those years ago -- I had an opportunity to do a lot of reading. And unfortunately, due to both the school and work reading, I don't have the "cheshek" to do much reading after hours. Of course I love children's books and always will -- it's a pleasure for me to read to my three children and put on animated voices or act out scenes that I read. But in terms of reading books for my own pleasure, that's a rarity.

And for that reason, I'm more than thrilled that I can recommend two excellent reads that caught me and held me captive. They are each rather different from one another, but in the end they're both about the same idea: the human experience and the interaction with others to form that personal experience.

The first book is called The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden. It is categorized as young adult historical fiction, but the story is appealing to anyone from age nine to however high you can count. It was written by Robert J. Avrech, an award-winning Orthodox Jewish Hollywood screenwriter -- he co-wrote Body Double with Brian de Palma, and was the screenwriter for A Stranger Among Us. More recently, he won an Emmy Award for his adaptation of the YA novel The Devil's Arithmetic by author Jane Yolen.

The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden is the first release from Seraphic Press, a publishing house started by Robert and his wife, Karen, in memory of their twenty-two-year-old son, Ariel, z"l, who passed away in July 2003 as a result of a long bout with cancer. The publishing house is committed to publishing quality fiction for Torah-observant young people.

I'd love to go into details about the book, but I'd rather you check out Robert's site or refer to or Just believe me when I say it is a worthy read, and Robert Avrech is a lovely human being -- a true mensch who has undertaken a very valid, time-consuming and life-altering project to help honor the memory of his son. Ariel lives on in the character of the Hebrew Kid. And his spirit lives on in every new literary project that Robert and Karen are planning for Seraphic Press.

Another book that I've had the good fortune of reading and enjoying immensely is called Walking Home, by Gloria Goldreich, and published by MIRA Books, January 2005. Again, I refer you to or for story details. But in short, the book is about a young single Jewish woman who reaches a crossroads in her life regarding her job, her family situation, her social life. She has to make some decisions that will change the course of her life, and becoming a dog walker helps her to see things more clearly. It is a very moving story and some readers might recognize pieces of themselves and their friends and family in among the pages. It gets gold stars by me!

I hope that you will take my recommendations and seek out these titles.

After all, quality books by quality writers deserve quality readers as yourselves!

"Adon Olam"

[I'm more than annoyed. I just spent about 15 minutes formulating a blog entry, and somehow it got lost...and is now floating around in cyberspace. If anyone finds it -- there is NO REWARD.]

Earlier today I found myself humming "Adon Olam" and was hit by a recollection from my junior high school years.

I attended the city's largest Jewish day school, a Talmud Torah school, and by grade 6, the boys and girls were separated for most of the Jewish studies classes, including Tefillah.

While in junior high, we had shlichim come from Israel to be our teachers in Jewish studies. They were lovely people who, with their families, had to adjust to their three-year tenures in a new country, in a new climate, in a new school. They also had to adjust to the trials and tribulations of teaching teenagers.

Teenage girls, being hormone-induced, can be downright cruel between the ages of 12-16, and can be very trying on an adult. Such was the case with our Tefillah class in grade 8, I believe it was.

One day, while waiting for our teacher to get to the classroom and lead us in Tefillah, one of the girls started singing "Adon Olam" -- but not to one of the two standard tunes. She sang it to "Jesus Christ, Superstar"! And the words fit to the tune! Other girls started to join in. Now imagine: it's a Jewish day school, a moderately Orthodox Jewish day school, and "Jesus Christ, Superstar" is being sung when the teacher walks in. I recall her yelling at the girls to stop, and having to say it more than once to get them to shut their "pisks". But these girls found it a challenge... And in a Tefillah class the next week, one of them piped up with "Adon Olam" sung to the tune of "Rock Around the Clock" as done by Bill Haley & the Comets. Somehow the teacher managed to control the class, but I can only imagine what an earful her husband would get at night when she came home after teaching.

Having witnessed these "new" versions of "Adon Olam," I tested out the theory that you could sing "Adon Olam" to the tune of nearly any song -- I sang it to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"; to "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack; to " Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles. Somehow the theory hasn't failed me yet.

Why not try for yourself. Find a favorite and familiar R & B tune, pop song, Broadway showtune, or Hassidic melody and adapt "Adon Olam" to it. And if doesn't work...? [shrug] ....well, at least you'll have made some beautiful music -- to your ears!

A Mitch Albom Story

Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2005 /22 Shevat, 5765
He was alive, but saw ghosts
By Mitch Albom

A few years back, a friend named Sonya told me about her father, who survived the Auschwitz death camp but lost everything else, including his young wife and 2-year-old son. He had come to America after the war, started a new life, a new family, worked into his old age as a sign maker in Detroit.

"He reads your column," Sonya said. "He'd like to meet you."

I promised it would happen, then, of course, never followed up. Now and again, she would mention it, and I'd say, "Oh, sure, sure, let's make the time," but again, I fell short.

Last month, in the empty days between Christmas and New Year's, I finally went to see Sonya's father. At this point, he was in a nursing home, having broken his collarbone after falling on the way to the bathroom. His body was thin, almost skeletal, a boy's body under the sheets, but his face, round yet bony, thin lips, narrow eyes, revealed the weariness of a tortured life.

"Hello, I'm — "

"I know who you are," he said, smiling, his voice weak.

He was 91. Or 89. No one is sure. It really doesn't matter. Once I heard his story, it was clear that the remarkable thing about Harvey Vinton wasn't how long he lived, but that he lived at all.
He was born Chaim Weinstein in a small Polish town, and his real first name, in Hebrew, means "life." Yet from birth it seemed that name was to be tested. Three days after he came into this world, his mother died. He grew up poor, raised by his grandmother. In time he married and had a son of his own. He was a fine artist and found work as a sign painter and monument carver. Thanks to beautiful penmanship — today you would call him a calligrapher — several shops in his hometown welcomed customers beneath his handiwork.

Then the Nazis invaded Poland. Jews were rounded up, humiliated, forced to wear yellow stars, earmarked, by Adolf Hitler, for murderous extermination. One evening, Chaim was returning from work when his train was stopped by German soldiers. He never made it home. Never saw his wife or son again. They were butchered in one concentration camp, he was taken to another, then another, then another. Before the Nazis were done with him, he was a prisoner in 11 different pits from hell.

Auschwitz was the last.

There he slept inches away from other Jewish prisoners who, like him, were kept so hungry and filthy you could scrape lice from their arms as if rubbing off sand from the beach. At night, he might whisper a few words to someone, and in the morning, find that person stiff and dead. Corpses were everywhere; no one hurried to take them away. To reach the toilet — which was only a piece of wood — he had to waddle through ankle-deep human waste. He was weak to the point of collapse, every day, because there was no real food, only rotted scraps and potato peelings. And these were the quiet moments, before the sun woke the Nazi guards and their daily torture commenced.

The purpose of the death camps was to wipe out the Jews entirely, and Chaim was put to work on various tasks, sometimes digging ditches for the bodies of his slaughtered camp mates. Dead Jewish corpses were stacked everywhere, women, infants, old men, waiting to be tossed into a pit. Some of them, Chaim remembered, were still gasping, still alive in a pile of death. He yearned to help them. What could he do? Their minutes were numbered. His, too, he thought.

But Chaim survived. He survived with his hands. The Nazis, having discovered his unique penmanship, used him to write letters. They used him to paint signs or portraits in their houses. He was a possession for the officers, a Jew with a talent, and so, even though the guards would sometime sic the dogs on him, allowing them to chew his legs and chomp on his arms, they didn't let him die. They always pulled him out and used him elsewhere. In this way, he lived when most everyone else died. It was, for the rest of his days, his blessing and his curse.

One winter day in 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Russian soldiers, and an emaciated Chaim found himself alone in a strange village. People were saying, "You're free. Go." He stepped into the street. The sky began to spin. Then he collapsed.

He woke up in a hospital, stricken with typhoid fever. It was a disease that killed nearly everyone who had it. But true to his name, Chaim lived through it. He was sent to another camp, this one for displaced persons. He met a woman there. They married.

A few years later he came to America.

A holocaust, for those who survive it, might be past tense, but it is never the past. Through his years in Detroit, through his 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, Chaim Weinstein — who changed his named to Harvey Vinton out of fear that his Judaism would mark him again — woke up screaming. He had horrible dreams. He had dark, sullen moments. He couldn't help but tell his story to family or dinner table company, often to the point where someone would say, "Enough, stop."
Stop? If only it would stop. He read incessantly about the Holocaust, the death camps, as if studying might yield some answers, some peace. He watched documentaries. He watched "Schindler's List." He retained his skill at drawing and calligraphy, but he never allowed himself to truly practice his talent. His love of art had been corrupted by the Nazis, as had his sleep, his memories, even his name. He was alive, but he saw ghosts.

Last year, Harvey fell into a coma. The reasons are still unclear. But when he came out of it, four days later, he spoke of an epiphany. He said he had been watching a TV program on the Animal Planet network when something came over him.

"The way those animals interact, the intricacies, the details," he told his daughter. "How could there not be a G-d?"

From that point forward, he seemed a changed man. Smiles came more easily. His voice and tone were calmer. He stopped talking about wanting to die, although he insisted he was "ready."
And, as it turns out, he was.

When I saw him, he was terribly weak. He spoke only of his shattered collarbone, his love for books and his mother, whom he never met but whose photograph was on the bedside table, as if to study her face for an upcoming reunion.

"I don't know how much longer I'm gonna be here," he said, not worried, not sad, as if he were simply curious about the schedule. Before I left, he thanked me no fewer than five times for coming.

Chaim Weinstein/Harvey Vinton died this month, on Jan. 5. He was found in a bathroom, unconscious, and expired minutes later on the bed in which I saw him. He missed, by a few weeks, the 60-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps he didn't need the reminder.

But we do. We need to go to the nursing homes, to the senior centers. We need to hear the stories that are slowly being silenced by age and decay. A child of Auschwitz would now be 65 or 70. An adult prisoner would be approaching 90. The mantra Jews recite for their 6 million Holocaust victims is "never forget." But to do that, we must never stop hearing the story.

Be at peace, Chaim Weinstein. I should have come sooner.