When Julie Gray submitted her book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev, for publication, she received rejection slip after rejection slip from publishers telling her though they had enjoyed reading her biography of Holocaust survivor Gidon Lev, people were “tired of Holocaust stories.” But those publishers had missed the point.
Yes, part of the book is Lev’s true life experiences during the Holocaust as a child in Czechoslovakia and in the Theresienstadt transit camp. But that is only one part of the book.
The book Gray ended up publishing independently is more than a Shoah story. It is also the story of the creation of the State of Israel through the prism of one man’s life and it hints at Gray’s own search for her Jewish identity as a convert, but mainly it is a story of love – of love of life in the face of adversity, of love after loss, and of love found in surprising places and at unexpected moments.
The partnership Lev and Gray formed – both professionally and personally – was also the process through which they both came to terms with parts of their lives which they had previously not had the courage to explore, and emboldened them to go back and look at periods of their lives they had been avoiding.
Having come to Israel from Los Angeles five years earlier following a divorce and needing a change of scenery, Gray, today 56, had carved out a nice little place for herself as a writer and editor in Tel Aviv when a friend passed her along the name and number of Lev, today 85, who was looking for an editor to make some sense out of the reams of notes and written material he had put together over the years about his life to make a book out of it all.
“Life stories was not something I’d ever done before nor was I really interested in this genre,” Gray says. “It did not seem like it was something I had in my set of skills. There are services that do legacy writing, life stories for your family. It was like trying to hire a plumber when you need an electrician. I was not the right person.” But still, Lev insisted he wanted something more than a legacy book and Gray had been charmed by the octogenarian who kept insisting she was just the person he needed.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Lev is one of less than 100 children survivors of Theresienstadt transit camp which was used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis, and his life has spanned post-war Jewish US and Canada, the establishment of Israel and the establishment of kibbutzim, and all the country’s wars as well as a series of personal life challenges.
“I couldn’t stop thinking of him. He was a Holocaust survivor and whether it was in a legacy book or (other type of book), his story had to be written down,” she says. “He didn’t know who to turn to and I felt responsible. I thought - if the universe plopped this on my door, who was I not to answer? So I called him back. He was so lovely and charming.” So they met again, and again, and at first Gray thought she was establishing a nice friendship with an older gentleman. But it didn’t take long for her to realize she wanted to help Lev write his book, and that their relationship was heading in an altogether different direction than she had expected.
“I had lived in Israel for five years before I met Gidon. I thought I would be here for a couple of years to reinvent myself and then I would go back. I ran a writing salon in Tel Aviv, which I loved but I didn’t really have an emotional anchor. When I met Gidon all the pieces of the puzzle came together,” she says.
A widower, whose wife of 40 years had died of cancer 5.5 years earlier, Lev, she discovered, was her kind of person with his love of spontaneity, playful spirit, and tendency for laughter.
As a writer she found herself taking a step back from their developing relationship and taking a look in only to discover that this may actually be the vehicle to tell Lev’s story from a new angle.
From Lev’s perspective he knew almost from the start that Gray was the right woman for the job: he had spoken with other editors about putting together his book and they all had looked at it from a purely commercial point of view of how much it would cost him for them to complete the project. It had been a difficult process for him to finally get to the point where he was ready to talk to someone about putting together the 60,000 words he had written into book form, he says, and when people right away spoke to him about grammar corrections and cost of what for him was a very personal and emotion-filled endeavor, something did not mesh.
The meeting with Gray was different, he says, and as they began to talk more about the project it became clear to him that he wanted to work with her.
“At 82 I was fairly old and I came to this little café around the corner and there is this pretty, sweet, smiling young woman. Just meeting her already was an uplifting experience,” he says. “The process took place slowly, it evolved. I signed on to the concept Julie presented and created, and it became a project we both worked on. We connected in a very profound physical and emotional level in spite of, and maybe because of, the difference in age and background.” After three months they became a couple and have been together ever since, traveling from Europe and North American retracing Lev’s childhood, riding a zip-line for the first time, delivering flowers throughout their Ramat Gan neighborhood on Fridays before the outbreak of the Covid-19 and attending demonstrations protesting the current government.
“For me Gidon is so fascinating and quirky. I thought that the story of the two of us together fit into his larger life story, somehow,” Gray says. “But I was worried that having this added narrative would be seen as disrespectful or too glib or superficial.” But, in her conversational-style Gray broaches some difficult subjects without making light of them. Her voice follows these historic and life events with curiosity and respect, wanting to learn more and taking the reader along for the ride – providing basic historical and local context for every period in Lev’s life.
After receiving numerous rejections – 50 to be exact – Gray eventually turned to independent publishing because she didn’t want to waste precious time looking for a publisher who saw the value in this unusual story.
Since then, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev has received numerous positive reviews from trade publications and publications for independently published books including a starred review on Kirkus Review, one of the most respected trade publications in the business indicating that the book was exceptionally outstanding and a five-star review from IndieReader, the highest rating the review publication for independently published books metes out. Gray isn’t allowed to say the name of the trade publication just yet, but “The True Adventures” will be included this December on a list of their “indie”(as independently published books are referred to) books of 2020.
The trade publication Blue Ink said Gray gave “voice to Gidon Lev’s story of resilience and hope in this uplifting portrait of Holocaust survival. Readers will find Gidon’s story an inviting, eye-opening look at an important chapter in Jewish history.” “I see the book as a sort of nesting doll. On the outside it looks like a cute book about a couple, a writer that falls in love with the subject (of the book) but when you read the book it has several layers,” Gray says. “I was afraid some people may think it is a bit cheeky or that it is superficial, but I haven’t had that reaction at all. Quite the opposite. There will be naysayers, and I am prepared for that. That is life. Some people may not like that packaging but then this is not the book for them.” While working on the project with Lev, as a convert, Gray’s own Jewish identity developed and grew, she says.
“When you are a convert you have the unique advantage of having another point of view... things you don’t take for granted and see as just facts. I didn’t have any of that Holocaust trauma, though I am well-read on the subject,” she says.
If before the writing, despite having converted years ago, she had still felt like an outsider, helping Lev recount his story has made her realize that being a convert can actually be an asset, she adds.
“We have a kind of fresh take on things: (we ask) why do we to this? How do we respond to antisemitism?” Gray says. “My outsider status shifted to seeing myself as a part of the tribe with a unique point of view that has value – and that is a wonderful shift.” The work of getting all of Lev’s material into manageable order was a process unto itself, and Gray is grateful to a cadre of local and international writers and editors who responded to her on-line call for help who took it upon themselves to take chunks of the material and put into them into an organized format so Gray could herself begin the writing process.
While sometimes it was emotionally difficult for her to interview Lev about his experiences during the Holocaust, knowing that by doing so she was forcing him to relive the most traumatic period in his life, on the other hand she also knew that she was helping him get the facts that he wanted down on paper, she notes.
“I kept asking myself if he was really okay. Was I putting him through the trauma again? I felt very responsible for Gidon’s well-being and I had no experience dealing with people with this kind of trauma so I was not sure what to do. But it was his book, his project, his impetus, what he wanted to do,” she says. “(I decided) I will comfort him, I will back off, when needed but I will ask the questions that people are afraid to ask him.” The cumulative effect of the interviewing and research process took a toll on Gray with nightmares, feelings of anxiety and fear taking hold as she felt the horror of what Lev had gone through but for Lev it was almost a liberating experience opening himself up to Gray’s questions and allowing himself to be vulnerable, as he revealed to her things that he had not even discussed with his wife of 40 years.
“Julie being Julie is much more sensitive and introspective (than I) and asked the deeper, more profound questions, and I was at a point where I was open to all this, almost as if it freed me from things I had not managed to free myself from even in my marriage to my wife Susan for 40 years,” says Lev. “This was very good for me and I think very good in many ways for Julie too. It allowed her to express some of her deeper feelings and deeper thoughts she had that she had not necessarily faced.” “If you overcome your fear of vulnerability, there are not too many things that imprison you. That is the way I feel today,” says Lev.
Poignantly, the writing of the book finally allowed Lev the opportunity to view his mother who had survived the concentration camps with him and whom as a child he experienced as distant, rigid, and unloving – in a more forgiving light.
It took three years to bring the book to completion, and the process was more difficult than she had originally thought, Gray says, acknowledging the courage it took for Lev to make himself vulnerable in the retelling of various episodes of his life.
“I hope the book encourages other people to be open and honest about their own lives,” she says.
His six children from his two previous marriages have been overwhelmingly supportive of the book, says Gray, and have learned about parts of their father’s life which he had not told them about before.
“His kids are used to hearing his stories, in that “here we go again” way, but when they read the book they read Gidon’s story with fresh eyes and have shown a real appreciation,” she says. “They see their father much more empathetically than before. They are seeing a side of him as a young man, a boy…it has given them a vehicle to see their Abba in a fresh way. It gave them a new perspective.” Though she has been a published writer for most of her adult life, Gray says she finally felt she had found something that was worth writing about, and something which has inspired her own writing.
“It is always easier to write about someone else’s life than your own. I am now back to writing my own book. What a gift,” she says. “Gidon has been a life boat for me, allowed me a life line, and me to him, allowing us both to continue growing.” Initially the age difference between them worried her, she says, and it still does, but Gidon has shown her how to enjoy what they have at the moment wholeheartedly.
“When he passes away I will have been so enriched by my relationship with him and will be so much wiser. So I would rather enjoy this relationship than to push it way because of the pain that will be,” she says. “Who gets this kind of man in your life? Who would want to miss out on Gidon Lev in their life? Not me.”