I’ve been reading a biography of Mel Brooks, a.k.a. Melvin Kaminisky, born 1926 in the family’s tiny tenement apartment in New York City’s Lower East Side. I’m fascinated by that era of Jewish life, a monumental, tragedy-ridden, rags-to-riches epoch that starts with the migration of Jews eastward out of Spain and Portugal and, in my mind, culminates with the foundation of the State of Israel.
I often find myself making mental timelines of various famous Jewish figures from those days, comparing them to the hazy history of my own family. I think about the small statured, athletically disinclined Mel Brooks roaming the crowded streets, learning to clown, to survive off of a rueful, crude, wit. At that time, my own people were where, exactly? Living, like Brooks, in relative poverty, in cramped quarters, scrimping; but on the other side of the ocean, scraping out a meagre, though rich existence, in the kind of actual shtetl his Galatian clan fled several decades before.
My grandparents, born in a 19th-century of horse and carriage buggies, collective cooking ovens, pogroms, freezing cold cheders overseen by rod-bearing rabbis. Their world was as small as Brooks’ was huge. They were tailors and labourers, Yiddish peasants who dreamt not of showbiz, let alone the Messiah, but mostly of a bit of extra meat in the cholent. Brooks describes himself as happy back then, sharing an oversized bed with his brothers, all of them pitching in to help his mother, left broke by her husband’s desertion of the family. I imagine that my grandparents were happy too, surrounded by noisy relatives—my Bubbe Luba had something in the range of eight siblings—steeped in their traditions, too busy living and laughing and surviving to worry about what storm clouds might be massing on the horizon.
So full was my bubbe’s house, that when she brought home a boy from her class who had become homeless and asked her parents to take him in, her father simply shrugged his assent. What difference would it make, to have nine or 10 or 11 children? I picture Brooks’s indefatigable mother Kitty Kaminsky performing that same gesture when her husband up and disappeared. So be it, she had her hands full anyway, especially with her youngest, only two years old and already an expert at mugging for the proverbial camera.
The tragic-comic arc of Jewish life never fails to move me. My grandmother and the orphaned boy who would become my grandfather lived as siblings in the relative safety of their tiny Polish enclave. They couldn’t have known what was to come. Nor could young Kaminsky have imagined that his street-smart clowning, his jokes hiding a longing to make it big and prove his deadbeat father wrong, would spawn some of the biggest movies of the day.
Increasingly, as a writer, that’s my preoccupation: People caught up in it, unaware, driven by hidden forces of foreboding and need. Who better to represent this fascination than the people of the book? At the same time, I’ve taken the long route. I am about to launch my fourth novel, but it’s the first that I consider to be a Jewish book. (Why so long? I have some ideas about this, but for now I’ll spare you the psychoanalysis.)
It’s a Jewish book, even though its main character—a feckless 20-something waiter who stumbles into a movie set and gets confused for the movie’s star—is not Jewish. Nor is his best friend, or his girlfriend, or his impending love interest, or his co-star in the movie. In fact, as with my previous novels, The Lost Expert didn’t start out as a book meant to have any Jewish themes or characters whatsoever. But, reminiscent of the way the best Mel Brooks movies—with no Jewish characters or plots at all—are now considered classics of Jewish comedy and film, the Jewsiness kept showing up in this movie.
The novel didn’t work until I finally gave in to it. When I did, I discovered that the director of the movie was a lapsed Jew with great reserves of residual guilt. He would be making one last movie—a Jewish movie—though sold to the studios as a cerebral action picture featuring one of the biggest Hollywood action stars in the world taking a role way out of his comfort zone. And then an even bigger surprise: the movie within the novel grew and grew until it became an increasingly fascistic parallel 1930s America. It was the America of the young Mel Brooks, but it wasn’t the one that embraced Jewish culture as no nation ever had before. It was other America, the one flirting with fascism and xenophobia and attracted to the burgeoning possibilities of Nazism. In this America, the Jews keep to themselves, and a shadowy figure seeks the presidency, promising to seal off the ghetto permanently and restore American greatness.
And so, forged out of the fire of my own guilt, anxiety and Jewish appreciation of simple twists of fateful humour, I finally, if inadvertently, wrote a Jewish novel. On book launch night I’m imagining my grandparents and Mr. Mel Brooks (now almost 100) as giant faces floating over the proceedings. Mostly stone-faced, at the end of the night they look at each other and shrug.