A writer's writer

Meet Chayym Zeldis, an author and teacher who practices what he preaches.

By
September 3, 2006 12:06

 
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Internationally acclaimed author Jerzy Kosinski called him "a masterful novelist." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes said his novel Brothers was "monumental." Elie Wiesel, discussing his novel The Brothel, said that "his knowledge of history is as amazing as his skill in using it" and that his novel The Geisha's Granddaughter sings "with a melody that seems to come from new depths." American novelist Henry Miller said his writing has a "magical quality…very strong, very compelling." Author Cynthia Ozick has compared his poetry to that of Thomas Hardy; memoirist Harry Golden said it ranked with that of Carl Sandburg. Critics have described his writing as "sumptuous," "spellbinding," "astonishing," and "profound." And hundreds of young writers gratefully thank him for having been their teacher, mentor and inspiration. Best of all, this venerable American-Israeli author does not spend his summers hiding out in the Hamptons, partying on Martha's Vineyard or living in sullen seclusion on a remote New Hampshire farm. On most days, Chayym Zeldis can be found teaching writing and literature at Tel Aviv University's (TAU) Lowy School for International Students or holding court at a caf near his home in Ra'anana, where he lives with his wife, Nina - his longtime soulmate, critic and muse. "Let's just say that I'm somewhere in my 70s," Zeldis says. He grew up in Detroit and first came to Israel in 1948. He lived through the War of Independence and the country's first very difficult decade. "People today don't realize how tough it was here in the 1950s. A lot of the problems that people associate with the present era existed back then as well: the violence, the bloodshed…you can't imagine. And I was here before Israel had an economy. We didn't know what an 'economy' was." He returned to the US 10 years later to accept a scholarship in creative writing at the New School for Social Research in New York, now the New School University. Zeldis remained in the US for the next two decades, lecturing, writing and publishing some of the novels and poetry that have earned him a worldwide audience. Zeldis returned to settle in Israel with his wife and two daughters in the early 1980s. He has one grandchild. At TAU's Lowy School, Zeldis attempts to convey to his students not only an enormous respect for literature but also their responsibilities as writers. "The Talmud says that anywhere you look, there's something to see," he tells them. "I think that's what's at the core of a writer. Everywhere he looks, there's something that interests him, something to see, something to figure out, something to first share with himself and then share with other people." Zeldis is particularly adamant on the subject of a writer's need to find some time to write every day. "Long ago I worked on a kibbutz. My job was to milk cows. And I learned that if you milk every day, you get more and more milk. If you stop milking, the milk dries up. It's the same with writing. If you don't milk your subconscious every day, you're not going to get anything." He tells his students that they must set aside some time every day for writing - to think, feel, wonder and, most importantly, keep the words flowing. Zeldis credits his wife, Nina, a rehabilitation specialist for the disabled, as the person who sees to it that he makes time to write every day. Overall, he does not believe that one can actually 'teach' writing. "You really can't teach someone how to write. What's in him is in him. The teacher's job is to try to bring it out." As for his self-proclaimed dual status as "son of Israel" and "son of America," Zeldis says, "As soon as I exited the womb, I was part of a people that is 5,000 years old. Being Jewish is the primary factor of my life. There's a great divide between us and other people, a divide that I often think is very difficult to span. But in addition to being that son of Israel - which colors my entire life - I'm a child of America. I grew up in America, and all the stuff that comes with America came to me as I was growing up." Zeldis has written seven novels and two volumes of poetry. The difficulties of trying to reconcile two very different cultures that are often at odds with each other is a theme that runs through much of his work. It is particularly evident in the novel The Geisha's Granddaughter, in which the protagonist, a Japanese Nisei growing up in California during World War II, must struggle to live in two cultures - traditional Japanese and wartime American - while unable to feel at home in either. The same sense of cultural conflict drives Zeldis's most important novel, Brothers, one of several of his books with a story set in First Century CE Roman-occupied Israel. That was a time, says Zeldis, "of Jesus and Judas, Pilate and Herod," a time in which "Rome clashed head on with Jerusalem, twisting the compass of Western civilization for the next 2,000 years." He says that he wrote the book as a form of emotional catharsis, resolving issues begun in his childhood growing up in a violently anti-Semitic Detroit, where he was mocked, beaten and brutalized for being a 'Christ killer.' First published by Random House in 1976 to almost ecstatic critical reviews, Brothers was almost chosen as a main selection by the Book of the Month Club. Almost, but ultimately not, as Book of the Month Club editors finally decided that the novel's sensitive subject and controversial characters were likely to offend many Southern and Mid-west American readers. They may have had a point. In attempting to chronicle the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Zeldis was working a field already plowed and cultivated by many authors before him, including the great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, and indeed many authors since. Zeldis's unique take on the subject, however, depicts a Jesus unlike any other in contemporary fiction. Almost 30 years before author Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code presented us with a normal, flesh-and-blood Jesus with a wife and child, Chayym Zeldis drew a portrait of a dysfunctional, almost lunatic Jesus with a psychotic, sociopathic older brother. Jesus is seen as the delusional underachiever; the older brother - a wealthy, politically powerful arch villain in the service of Rome - eventually launches his younger brother on the road to godhood. Possibly due to the commercial success of The Da Vinci Code, or perhaps finally aware of the treasure it let slip though its fingers 30 years ago, the literary world has decided to take another look at Brothers. The book has been reissued by Toby Press and will be available in bookstores and online in September. As Zeldis says in the forward to the new addition, "I wrote the book to assert that absolute, unredeemable evil exists in our world; to shatter the mummy-case of myth that stifles, suffocates and stunts us; to demonstrate that morality is a glue that scarcely holds civilization together; to maintain that betrayal of the self inexorably leads to the betrayal of others; and to reclaim with burning pride the kinship of my brother, Jesus Christ of Bethlehem and Nazareth, unequivocally, irreversibly and irrefutably, for the Jewish people. For when all is said and done, it is from the ancient soil of this Land of Israel that Jesus sprang into the sky. And then, of course, I wrote the book out of my undeniable and irresistible need: I wrote it because I had to." This, ultimately, can perhaps be deemed as good an explanation as any for why writers write.

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