American Jewish University’s Celebration Of Jewish Books Festival

Sunday 9 a.m. I step outside and call my friend who’s supposed to be picking me up now.

I leave a message.

A minute later, he calls me back. "Your call just woke me up. Let me jump in the shower…"

He shows up at 9:40 a.m.

We get to the American Jewish University by 10 a.m. and park on the dirt beside Mulholland Drive.

Though it is sunny, the crowd is about one-third the size of last year’s event.

I rush inside to catch Vincent Bugliosi speaking.

He says how sad it is that such a small crowd showed up because he had such important matters to discuss.

I then learn his latest book is "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder."

Oy ve!

Bugliosi talks about how fair and non-partisan he is. Yes, he’s a lifelong Democrat because he’s always for the little guy…

I scurry out and catch Sharon Waxman in the AJU boadroom speaking on her new book on the looting of antiquities.

She’s so animated and smart and cute it makes me wish I gave a damn about art and museums.

I have a strong no-looting policy for myself but I don’t want to impose my morality on others, unless they’re gay.

Afterwards, as she’s walking to sign books, I nod at her. She looks at me blankly and turns away. Though we’ve met half a dozen times, she doesn’t recognize me with my beard.

A woman comes up to Bugliosi with tears of earnestness asking, "Can we really prosecute George Bush for murder?"

Joey Kurtzman says (listen): "He kept going on and on about how despicable these people were. ‘People said I should take murder out of the title, but I think ‘murder’ is too good for them. It should be ‘skinned alive.’

"He lambasted Bush for saying what a great day it was during the Iraq war and this just indicates how pathological he is.

"So I said that Alice Walker just wrote a letter to Barack Obama advising him to take care of himself no matter how tough things got. What good would it do for George Bush to put on a sad face in public all the time?

"He said, ‘You’re asking me what George Bush should think or do?’ He acted like it was ludicrous.

"Then afterward I told him about my uncle Mel Albaum. He said, ‘Oh Mel, I hope he’s alive.’ I said, he’s not."

Mel was a defense attorney on a case Bugliosi was prosecuting.

Joey asks me if I want anything from the food stand.

"No, I don’t trust the kashrut," I say. "The Conservatives are half goyim."

"The Reform know they’re goyim," says Joey. "The Conservatives are the real threat."

The second speaker I catch is Nathan Englander. He’s interviewed by Beverley Seehoff. (Listen)

When I hear her described as graduating from college in South Africa in 1983, I’m expecting a crone. Oy, to have to look at all that age for 45 minutes. It’s too much. Then she comes out and she’s totally hot. She has gleaming black hair and shining white teeth and long legs. She gives an adulatory introduction to Nathan Englander. She’s all quivering with excitement over him.

He shambles on stage with his hands in his jeans. He’s short with stumpy legs.

She has him read a section of his book. He does for five minutes with feeling.

"I love that you chose that scene," she gushes.

She loves it! She loves it! She loves it!

She asks him questions like he’s God Almighty and she’s HaShem’s number one cheerleader.

I fear she’s going to hurt her neck the way she nods so vigorously whenever Nathan completes a phrase. It’s like his words are nectar from the gods and she’s slurping them up and asking for more.

"Yes, yes," she sighs and flashes her white teeth and shakes her black hair and stretches her long legs and sighs again in sheer Nathan Englander-drunk ecstasy.

Nathan says he moved to Israel [circa 1993] to "make peace."

"I began to understand that there are multiple realities in this world and governments create their own reality."

"Bibi worked out at the same gym I did. George Bush has his own treadmill. Not for long!"

"We all choose stories. I got interested in good and evil and black and white and all the gradations in between. I chose Argentina [for his novel The Ministry of Special Cases] because it was extreme. It was pure evil. We made up the war to invade Iraq. We made up facts that were sold to us… Argentina declared war on themselves. They didn’t even pick an enemy. That to me was supreme."

"There’s a middle class in Argentina which there isn’t in many South American countries. People want to move up, they don’t want to move down."

Beverley asks him about symbols in his novel.

Nathan says writing "is a form of monkishness…. When you write, you have an obligation to the text. When I’m writing, I don’t get to go outside… It’s what the book demands. It becomes all-consuming… I’ll write a 40-page speech that I might crush it down to a single line."

"My next book will be wholly different from first two. I’m always obsessed with boundaries. When you fly around the country, you look down and everything is in perfect squares."

"Every community is based on boundaries. The man in Austria who kept his daughter locked in his basement for 20 years and had babies with her. Why is that a story after day one? There’s no group that’s pro enslavement. Because we’re obsessed with these extreme things, that this is not OK… That’s the line and you’re on the wrong side of it… I’m obsessed with failures in community. I always picture myself as a historical coward. I’m the guy in World War II who says, ‘The Jews are behind the book case.’"

"I’m interested in getting into that mind… The failure of society to keep up… I’m living that. Habeas Corpus [you hear the charges against you] is the most important thing in the world to me and I still went on tour, I still finished my book, I still went to yoga. Our government says, it’s not about us, it’s about terror. We should’ve been flipping cars in the streets and I should’ve been setting fires… The greatest shame we have known, we are living right now. People have a right to challenge their detention."

Nathan says Jews became pimps and prostitutes in Argentina to survive. "There can’t have been a more miserable job. We think of prostitution as like Pretty Woman… It was a crappy job…. These women were Jews. They wanted to go to shul. They wanted to be buried as Jews. And the community says, we’re ashamed to be buried with you. To look at another Jew and say, ‘I won’t be buried with you,’ that to me is a failure of community… For someone to feel so pure and to judge others in that way.

"It’s like when some Russian immigrant to Israel dies in defense of Israel and the rabbis say, ‘He can’t be buried as a Jew.’ He died as a Jew, he should be buried as a f—ing Jew."


Nathan did not visit Argentina until after he wrote the novel.

I ask the first question. "Why do you write first and research later?"

Nathan: "That’s the shortest first question I’ve ever received. Normally when someone shoots up their hand they’ve got a long speech to give over."

At the end, Beverly says to Nathan, "We are so grateful…"

I eat four granola bars and sit with a friend in the sun.

She agitated against Prop 8.

"Do you find two men hooking up aesthetically pleasing?" I ask.

She laughs.

"Two women yes, a man and a woman yes, but two men? No.

"Anyway, you can’t be expected to think rationally about these things because you’re a woman and you’re emotionally unstable. You have the curse every month. You’re ruled by your hormones. According to Jewish law, a woman can not be a witness because they are too emotionally unstable."

"You would do well in Iran," she says.

"They know how to handle their women."

"No gays in Iran," she says.

"They know how to handle their gays. You won’t find gays rioting in Tehran."

"Shut up," she says.

"See how emotional you’re getting? You’re not rational."

"You’re horrible," she says.

"You need a firm disciplining hand… You must be happy that we’ve got a black socialist Muslim for a president."

She giggles. "I didn’t vote for him. I voted for Bob Barr. I was considering voting for McCain until he selected Sarah Palin who’s against abortion."

"That Wasilla hillbilly?"

"I was dating this guy," she says, "but he got mad at me for my political views."

"A real man," I say, "doesn’t care what a woman thinks about politics as long as she’s hot."

At the bookstand, I introduce a friend to Nathan.

Afterwards, my friend says, "I really need to f— someone."

Luke: "You should read Nathan’s first book, ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges‘."

I go to the memoir panel (listen) because I want to lay eyes on Benyamin Cohen. What kind of guy could erupt as he did after our interview in 2004?

I get to the panel and see he looks like a young Larry Flynt — only more Jewish — and all my questions are answered.

After the panel, Benyamin says hi and we shake hands and act all cordial for a few minutes.

David Matthews (wrote the memoir ‘Ace of Spades’) has a Jewish mom — a psycho who left him as a baby and disappeared — and a black nationalist father who was a journalist and raised him in the mean streets of Baltimore. David says ‘The Wire’ is the greatest TV show and that’s what it was like where he grew up in the 1980s.

He says his great grandfather was the leading American Jewish scholar of the 19th Century and wrote "The Ethics of the Fathers."

That’s weird. "The Ethics of the Fathers" is a part of the Mishna and was compiled almost 2,000 years ago. His great grandfather must’ve written a commentary.

Also on the memoir panel is Jessica Queller. She’s stunning, all dark and alluring, with a low cut top. I have all these lustful thoughts about her until she reveals that she got a genetic test that says she has a high chance of getting a horrible disease. Then I wonder if she’s still so sexy and are those breasts real, did she cut them off for prophylactic reasons and what a shame that would be, and could I look her in the eye and kiss her knowing that death and decay might be so close, and if I could, could I then perform as a man? Would I want to invest in a relationship with someone with such a high chance of getting cancer?

Here’s an excerpt from her website

At age 34, while writing on Gilmore Girls, Jessica learned she had tested positive for a BRCA genetic mutation, otherwise known as The Breast Cancer Gene. The test gave her up to an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and up to a 44% chance of ovarian cancer. Jessica’s mother had suffered from both diseases and ultimately died of ovarian cancer. Shortly after testing positive, Jessica wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about the burden of knowledge that comes with testing positive for The Breast Cancer Gene. This article was the launching point for her first book, a memoir, called Pretty Is What Changes: Impossible Choices, The Breast Cancer Gene and How I Defied My Destiny.

My friend says her likelihood of dying doesn’t reduce her attractiveness. It makes her even hotter. I disagree. We launch into a passionate discussion.

Friend: "I can date a girl who I won’t stick."

Jessica: "Considering that I spend 90% of my life destroying society by writing for Gossip Girl and corrupting young minds, it was only right that I do something good."

David: "I have not seen anything in common between blacks and Jews."

"It all comes down to women. I’ve had women tell me that their [Jewish] parents would rather them marry someone Catholic [and white] then marry me [who’s half black]."

Last discussion of the day is Rabbi Robert Wexler interviewing Jonathan Safran Foer.

Joel Stein does the introduction in place of some chick on the side of the stage named Abby. (Listen)

We wait to hear how wonderful Obama is.

I swap outrageous comments with my friends and finally tell them: "Tell us how wonderful he is when he’s herding you into camps and sending you up chimneys."

Robert Wexler does his homework and is a superb questioner. He’s funny, wise, and empathic.

Jonathan: "The problem with writing only two books is that they are not representative… I wrote these books at very specific times in my life and surrounded by very specific circumstances… I don’t see how I could’ve written anything else for my first book."

He cites "The rhyme is smarter than the poet" to describe his muse.

Dr. Wexler complIments Jonathan on the believability of his nine year old protagonist in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”’

Jonathan to Robert: "You did not say, ‘This is crap.’"

Robert: "I’m a rabbi. I wouldn’t say that."

Jonathan doesn’t want to give an opinon on the film version of his book "Everything Is Illuminated" except he said he liked the filmmaker Liev Schreiber.

Abby stands on the side for the whole show. She runs through a dozen different types of smiles. Near the end, she waves at some kid.

Jonathan looks forward to Obama’s reign. He’s someone who cares about words.

Jonathan: "For years my writing felt like a correction to Americanism."

"There are people dying of hunger near where I live. I’m a college-educated person. I’m competent. Shouldn’t I be doing something about it? Instead I’m writing, which seems like the most useless thing."

Brad A. Greenberg writes:


“Until now, my identity as a writer,” Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote “Everything Is Illuminated,” said last week, “has never overlapped with my identity as an American — in the past eight years, my writing has often felt like an antidote or correction to my Americanism. But finally having a writer-president — and I don’t mean a published author, but someone who knows the full value of the carefully chosen word — I suddenly feel, for the first time, not only like a writer who happens to be American, but an American writer.”

When a friend sent that quote to me, I thought I was going to hurl. I didn’t realize by American was such a bad thing, that following in the tradition of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Michael Chabon was such a handicap.

Foer’s comment reeked of the same elitism as when the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize committee fallaciously explained the lack of American Nobel laureates in literature by saying: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

Does this blog post illustrate the danger of blogging for journalists? Brad may need to interview Foer one day (or those who are fans of Foer). Where does going out on a limb get him? I understand Brad’s reaction, it just seems reckless to publish it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in AJU and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.