Less than a decade later, he was a pariah, after the United States Atomic Energy Commission revoked his security clearance following allegations about his left-leaning politics at the height of the anti-communist McCarthy era.
Christopher Nolan’s biopic, “Oppenheimer,” which opens in theaters on July 21, will star Irish actor Cillian Murphy as the famous scientist. But it will also feature Robert Downey Jr. as a lesser known real-life character, Lewis Strauss (pronounced “Straws”), the chairman of the AEC and one of Oppenheimer’s chief inquisitors.
The clash between the scientist and the bureaucrat was a matter of personalities, politics and the hydrogen bomb (Strauss supported it, Oppenheimer was opposed). But according to amateur historian Jack Shlachter, the two represented opposites in another important way: as Jews. Shlachter has researched how Oppenheimer’s assimilated Jewish background and Strauss’ strong attachment to Jewish affairs set them up for conflict as men who represented two very different reactions to the pressures of acculturation and prejudice in the mid-20th century.
Shlachter is in a unique position to explore the Jewish backstory of Oppenheimer: A physicist, he worked for more than 30 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the New Mexico complex where Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project that developed the bomb. Shlachter is also a rabbi, ordained in 1995, who leads HaMakom, a congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as the Los Alamos Jewish Center.
“A hero of American science, [Oppenheimer] lived out his life a broken man and died in 1967 at the age of 62,” The New York Times wrote last December, after the secretary of energy nullified the 1954 decision to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Lewis Strauss died in 1974 at age 77; his funeral was held at New York’s Congregation Emanu-El, where he had been president from 1938 to 1948.
When I asked Shlachter what drew him to the story of Oppenheimer and Strauss, he told me, “At this later stage of my life, I realized that things are not black and white. The common narrative that I think I have heard in town puts Oppenheimer at 100 and Strauss at zero. I just tried to balance that a little bit, and I thought that their Jewishness was one way to see that there’s some nuance in the relationship.”
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
There has been a lot of talk about Oppenheimer in anticipation of the Christopher Nolan film, but I haven’t seen much on his Jewish background. I guess as a rabbi and a physicist at Los Alamos this was a subject you couldn’t resist.
I am speaking as a private citizen, not on behalf of Los Alamos National Laboratory or anything like that. Oppenheimer was the first director of what is now Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project. And it was really his doing that the laboratory ended up in northern New Mexico. He has been out here as a late teen and really fell in love with the desert Southwest.
His Jewishness is a bit complicated. His father was an immigrant from Germany in the late 1800s. And his mother was a first-generation American but her parents had emigrated to the United States. And in their approach to religion, they became enamored with the Ethical Culture Society of Felix Adler.
That’s the non-sectarian movement that had roots in Reform Judaism and is based on the idea that morality does not need to be grounded in religious or philosophical dogma.
Correct. Samuel Adler, Felix’s father, was brought over from Germany to serve as the rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, then and now a major Reform synagogue. They sent Felix back to Germany to study and he got his PhD in Heidelberg, and the plan had been for Felix Adler to succeed his father at some point. He came back in his 20s and gave what was his first and last sermon at Temple Emanu-El. He had adopted and absorbed some ideas while he was in Germany that were completely anathema to the Reform community, and he spun off the Ethical Culture Society.
Julius Oppenheimer, Robert’s father, was a trustee of the Ethical Culture Society, and Felix Adler conducted the wedding ceremony of Julius to Ella Oppenheimer, Robert’s mother. J. Robert Oppenheimer was educated at the Ethical Culture school. It was supposed to be non-religious and yet it was clearly dominated by Jews. It was one of these things about being American through and through, and somehow not having Judaism stand in the way. I think that really shaped Oppenheimer’s approach to Judaism.
Was there an ethos that he might have absorbed from the Ethical Cultural school that would have been important either in his left-wing politics or in his approach to the Manhattan Project?
My suspicion is yes, because Felix Adler in his training in Germany had become quite interested in Karl Marx and in the plight of the working class, and it seems impossible to me that that didn’t get somehow transmitted at the Ethical Culture school. It does not surprise me that Oppenheimer’s politics were left leaning.
As an adult, did Oppenheimer ever talk about his Judaism publicly or explain what his connection was to either the people or the faith?
Almost not at all, although there are some quite interesting quotes from other people. The Nobel laureate physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi and Oppenheimer were quite close, and Rabi testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf at the security hearing in 1954. According to Ray Monk’s massive biography of Oppenheimer, Rabb says that “what prevented Oppenheimer from being fully integrated was his denial of a centrally important part of himself: his Jewishness.” And Felix Bloch, who was another Jewish physicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize, said that Oppenheimer tried to act as if he were not a Jew, and succeeded because he was a good actor. You know, when you can’t integrate yourself and you’re trying to distance yourself from your roots, you can become conflicted. That’s Rabi’s assessment of Oppenheimer’s connection to Judaism.
But you also found a few instances of Oppenheimer positively engaging with Jews and Judaism.
In 1934, when Oppenheimer was a professor at Berkeley, he earmarked 3% of his salary for two years to help Jewish scientists emigrate from Germany. I think the fact that they were scientists was the important thing, and of course they were Jewish, because they’re the ones who were trying to get out in 1934. I don’t know that he was doing this because they were Jews or because they were scientists. Supposedly, Oppenheimer sponsored his aunt and cousin to emigrate from Germany, and then he continued to assist them after they came to the United States.
And then in 1954, at the security clearance hearing, Oppenheimer said that starting in late 1936, he developed “a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany.” I don’t know if you had gone back to 1936 that you would have found any evidence of him saying that at the time. I doubt it. But one thing to remember is that in Oppenheimer’s lifetime, antisemitism was not non-existent. Antisemitism shaped how people dealt with their Judaism and this was the way he dealt with it.
So fast forward, Oppenheimer grew up well-to-do in New York and was educated at Harvard and then in Europe, where he studied physics at the University of Cambridge and the University of Göttingen. He joins the staff at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, and he begins socializing with leftist professors — both communists and so-called fellow travelers, deeply involved in workers’ rights and supporting the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War — in ways that are going to come back to haunt him in the 1950s. In the “American Prometheus” biography, which Nolan’s film is based on, we learn that Oppenheimer’s political activities came to the attention of the FBI at this point, years before his work on the atom bomb project.
That’s correct. He clearly had sympathy for those causes. And I would say understandably. There was a depression going on in this country, and the workers’ condition was not perfect.
There are now historians who are claiming Oppenheimer really was a card-carrying communist despite his denials. He certainly was a fellow traveler, his brother Frank was clearly a card-carrying communist as was Robert’s future wife Kitty.
In 1942 Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Grove was appointed director of what became known as the Manhattan Project, and selected Oppenheimer to head the project’s secret weapons laboratory.
Groves and Oppenheimer seem to have a chemistry which was critical for the success of the project. Why Groves figured that Oppenheimer was the guy to lead it is a little bit of a mystery. Oppenheimer had not led anything even remotely like this. He was a theoretical physicist, and you’re talking about huge experimental facilities for the project. And he wasn’t yet 40. But Oppenheimer rose to the occasion.
You mentioned earlier what Oppenheimer later described as his “smoldering fury” over the Nazis treatment of the Jews. Did working on a bomb to defeat Nazi Germany assuage whatever pangs of conscience he might have had over developing a bomb of such massive destructive potential?
I do think so. And that was probably true for many of the scientists who worked on the project, many of whom were Jewish. There was also a suspicion that the Nazis were working on a bomb as well and then God forbid that they should get there first. I think that was really the driver.
I’vre read that Oppenheimer did not feel guilt over his contribution to developing nuclear weapons or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but he did feel a sense of responsibility for what had been unleashed.
Oppenheimer realized that a lot of people lost their lives as a result of this. But I will tell you, my father was a GI during World War II, he enlisted in 1943 and fought until ’45. He was in Europe when V.E. Day came, and then came back to the United States for leave before he was going to be shipped out to the Pacific. And my father was convinced to his dying day that the bomb saved his life [by ending the war with Japan]. And, you know, that was a widespread sentiment.
After the war, Oppenheimer ends up in Princeton directing the famous Institute for Advanced Study and that’s going to bring him into the crosshairs of Lewis Strauss. Tell us who he is and how these two Jewish figures contrasted.
Three of Strauss’ four grandparents emigrated from Germany/Austria, probably in the 1830s, 1840s. Somebody ended up in Virginia and Strauss grew up in the South. His connection to Judaism is quite different from Oppenheimer’s. Strauss was a valedictorian of his high school and in his autobiography says that he was absolutely fascinated by physics. But the family had no money so rather than go to college Strauss became a traveling shoe salesman. And even though merchants he sold to would be closed on Sunday, he insisted on [also] taking Saturday off because of his Judaism, and he took the financial hit. He ended up volunteering to work for Herbert Hoover, the future Republican president, who was organizing European relief efforts after World War I. Hoover becomes a lifelong friend, advocate and supporter. Strauss managed to push Hoover — no friend to the Jews — to lodge a formal complaint when some Jews were slaughtered by the Poles.
He had a pretty meteoric rise. He gets connected to the Kuhn, Loeb investment firm, marries the daughter of one of the partners and he makes money hand over fist. But he stayed connected with his Judaism through all this, eventually becoming the president of Temple Emanu-El for 10 years from 1938 to 1948. So just like there are political differences between Oppenheimer and Strauss, there are religious differences: Oppenheimer grows up in the Felix Adler breakaway and Strauss is mainstream Reform Judaism.
Strauss was a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Studies when it hired Oppenheimer. What else came between the two men? I’ve read that Strauss was a proponent of the hydrogen bomb, and Robert Oppenheimer was hesitant because he felt the astronomically greater power of the H-bomb was not necessary.
The H-bomb was physicist Edward Teller’s idea — he called it “the super” — and Oppenheimer appropriately sidelined Teller at Los Alamos, saying “this is a distraction from what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The animosity between Strauss and Oppenheimer had probably several different dimensions. But I think Strauss also had to navigate being Jewish in an American society that didn’t totally embrace Jews, and I think it was somewhat of a threat to him to have somebody like Oppenheimer whose approach to dealing with his Judaism was to hide it, basically. Here’s Strauss, you know, president of Temple Emanu-El, he’s clearly not hiding that he’s Jewish, and he’s trying to survive and thrive in a Washington establishment that’s not so embracing of Judaism. So that was another dimension. I’d even read that Strauss was offended by Oppenheimer’s alleged marital infidelity.
The animosity also includes the fact that Oppenheimer could be mean. Generally, people who worked at the laboratory loved him, but he could also be mean, and he made Strauss feel like a fool in a public hearing in 1949 — sort of like, “You’re an amateur physicist. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” and that really cut to the quick.
Whatever the reason, Strauss is not a good enemy to have when he becomes a trustee of the Atomic Energy Commission. It’s Strauss who in 1953 told Oppenheimer that his security clearance had been suspended, and led Oppenheimer to request the hearing that led to his security clearance being revoked.
Strauss was appointed one of the five members of the original Atomic Energy Commission. The chair at the time was David Lilienthal, also Jewish by the way, and there’s a photograph of the five members of the Commission that’s absolutely perfect because there are four people on one side on the left, and one person sort of off by himself on the right — and it’s Strauss who’s off by himself. And there were apparently a few dozen votes of the Commission in its early years, mostly having to do with security matters, where the vote was four to one and Strauss was the lone dissenting voice. He was focused on security and was probably very anti-communist.
I want to shift gears and talk about your background, and how a physicist becomes a rabbi.
I was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and my thesis advisor sent me to Los Alamos for the summer of 1979 to learn a certain piece of physics. My connection to Judaism at that stage in my life was almost nil. I had done the classic sort of Conservative American Jewish upbringing of post-bar mitzvah alienation. When I came to Los Alamos I didn’t know a single person in town, so I thought I could go to the synagogue and meet some people. And because my training was reasonably thorough in the liturgy, I started leading some things at the synagogue while I was here.
Instead of going back to UC San Diego, I ended up continuing my graduate studies at the laboratory and completing my PhD while I was still here, and then got hired as a staff member at the laboratory. And all that time there was a rabbi who was coming up from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, and would teach an adult education class and I got interested. I had the arrogance of a newly minted PhD physicist that if you can learn physics, you can learn anything. So I started doing a lot of self-teaching in Judaism.
And what I discovered, which is my passion in the rabbinate, is that adult Judaism is not taught to kids because kids are kids. And most people reject Judaism like I did because they don’t know that Judaism is much richer than what most people reject. I spent my entire physics career here at the lab and in parallel, as I became more knowledgeable in Judaism, I came to know that I didn’t know anything. Then it turns out that there was a rabbi, Gershon Winkler, who moved to New Mexico and took me on as a private student, and that process led to my private ordination through him.
To pull the threads together, I’m curious how you as a physicist think about your responsibility for the uses of science, and how they mesh or clash with what you are learning in Torah.
I’ll steer your question slightly, if that’s okay. [The medieval Jewish philosopher] Maimonides says clearly that we’re given brains and the ability to do rational thought. Judaism is, it seems to me, inherently compatible with the idea of using your brain to understand how the world works, which is what physics is all about. Physics can help us see the beauty in the universe. And that beauty is part of what we’re given as a responsibility to appreciate in Judaism as well.
But science can also be applied for destructive purposes.
We are in a world that is not perfect. And, you know, there have been wars since time immemorial. Atomic weapons were used to end a war, and that was important. Like I said, my father to his dying day felt that his life was saved because of the atomic bomb, and you know, who’s to say that he was wrong?
In Los Alamos, how does the community process their legacy? Is it one of unmitigated pride or is it always leavened by regret about the destructive forces that were unleashed?
I think Oppenheimer is generally viewed very positively. What happened in Los Alamos was an important part of the history of the world. And it’s inspiring to be here at a place where, 80 years ago, there was basically nothing but a small boys’ school.
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Antisemitism summit in NY expected to draw thousands, from boldfaced names to students
When actor and director David Schwimmer stood up last November to talk about his experience with hate and the importance of building alliances to combat racism and antisemitism, the “Friends” star emphasized the importance of speaking up.
“One of the biggest problems is silence. As I’ve said, silence is complicity, and so I try to urge people to speak out,” Schwimmer said at the annual ADL summit on antisemitism and hate, called Never Is Now. “I think it’s my responsibility. I don’t do enough but I do what I can and what I feel is appropriate at the time. I think we could always do more.”
Now ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) is gearing up for its next big event on the subject: the 2024 Never Is Now summit, which is already open for registration and for a limited time is offering early-bird pricing at a 25% discount.
The annual summit, which has been moved to March from its usual time in the fall, may be the organization’s most significant ever.
Antisemitism in the United States is at its highest level in decades, according to ADL, which closely tracks antisemitic incidents through reporting and antisemitic sentiment through polling. The most recent ADL poll of US antisemitism, conducted last fall, found that 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, up from 61% in 2019. About 20% of Americans believe six or more tropes — a worrisome marker and nearly double the 11% reported in 2019.
“Faced with this state of emergency,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO and National Director, at the last Never Is Now summit, “ADL will rise to the challenge and deliver on its core purpose: protecting the Jewish people.”
The Never Is Now summit is meant to be a place where activists can come together, learn about the problem of antisemitism and share tools to fight hate of all kinds, and take those ideas back to their home communities to implement them in meaningful ways.
Over 7,000 participants attended the 2022 summit in person and virtually, representing 40 countries and nearly all 50 states. Participants challenged each other, engaged in conversations, asked questions and found inspiration. The remarks by Schwimmer, the actor famous for his role on the 1990s NBC sitcom “Friends,” marked one of several poignant moments in the event devoted to tackling the growing problem of hatred and antisemitism in the United States and worldwide.
The 2024 summit will take place March 4-7 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York and will feature an all-star lineup of figures from government, entertainment, media, business, sports, academia and the greater Jewish world.
To accommodate them, the summit is being expanded to four days from one. The itinerary will consist of invitation-only programming at ADL’s National Leadership Summit on March 4-5 followed by programming for the general public on March 6-7.
Longtime summit participant Tracey Labgold of Boca Raton, Florida, said one of the reasons she comes back year after year isn’t just for the sessions but also for the opportunity to network and reconnect with old friends. She has been involved with ADL leadership programs for more than 16 years and credits the Never Is Now summit with enabling her to build a network of friends and colleagues from around the country.
“Fighting hate is important to me, and people who fight hate are really nice,” Labgold said. “Being in the room during Never Is Now with others who care about these issues is very empowering.”
Sessions will focus on such topics as reporting hate on social media platforms, preparing your community for antisemitic threats, and leveraging the law to counter antisemitism and bias.
“Never Is Now is the place where bold ideas are born and change begins,” said Leah Tucker, ADL’s director of marketing and engagement. “Every attendee has a role in bringing the fight against antisemitism and hate home to their own communities.”
Last year’s summit speakers included then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Rep. Liz Cheney, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, ABC News’ “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang, author Abigail Pogrebin, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, and Adidas North America President Rupert Campbell, among others. The summit also included Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi who orchestrated a successful escape from an assailant who had taken him and several congregants hostage at his synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in January 2022. Additional past speakers include Vice President Kamala Harris, actor Sacha Baron Cohen, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.
Jared Lindauer said that the sessions he attended at the last Never Is Now summit were not only inspiring but were a personal call to action.
“It’s not only about how to build a better world but how to take on the work of the ADL with the tools and skills to do it,” said Lindauer, an attorney in Austin. “I believe in their approach to fighting antisemitism as well as all forms of bigotry and bias.”
College students will have unique opportunities to participate in Never Is Now thanks to partnerships with Hillel International, the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and other campus organizations. Among the planned sessions on the college track: opportunities to share their experiences with antisemitism on campus and discussion of effective strategies for fighting hate on campus.
The summit will also include facilitated workshops for high school students and educators. Over 300 high school students attended the last summit. Greenblatt joined them for lunch, sharing his experiences and answering their questions.
When asked what they could do to combat antisemitism, Greenblatt said, “Don’t lose hope. We can cultivate hope in so many ways. It starts with self-awareness and self-love,” Greenblatt said. “So now let’s get to work.”
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A California county calls off ‘American Christian Heritage Month’ after fierce backlash
(J. Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Two months after proclaiming that July would henceforth be known locally as “American Christian Heritage Month,” the board of supervisors in El Dorado County, California has reversed course.
The county’s elected governing body unanimously rescinded the proclamation Tuesday following backlash from local Jews, the American Civil Liberties Union and others who said it inappropriately advanced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation.
“I commend the board for reflecting on and revisiting the proclamation, and I applaud them for rescinding it,” Rabbi Evon Yakar of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe said after the vote. Yakar was one of several local residents who spoke out against the proclamation at the board meeting where the proclamation was rescinded. “I believe they did a good thing in reflecting on the divisiveness this caused.”
Marla Saunders, a massage therapist in South Lake Tahoe, said she was “verklempt” after the decision, using the Yiddish term meaning “overcome by emotion.” Saunders, who is Jewish, had started an online petition calling on the board to rescind the proclamation. The petition had more than 1,000 signatures as of Sept. 19.
“I am definitely teary with joy,” she said.
The five supervisors in El Dorado County, a rural area with 200,000 residents south of Lake Tahoe, voted on July 18 to mark every July as American Christian Heritage Month. The vote passed 4-1, though one supervisor maintains that she actually abstained but was recorded as an “aye.”
The language of the proclamation is taken from the platform of the Constitution Party, a conservative political party formed in the 1990s that advocates for hands-off governance and Christian values. Coming at a time of rising Christian nationalist sentiment across the United States, the proclamation stated that there have been “attempts to change and distort our history.”
The purpose of the proclamation is “to recognize the impact of religious beliefs on America’s history,” according to the text approved at the July meeting. The proclamation cites several prominent references to God inscribed in the country’s national institutions, monuments and founding documents, and states “that the rich spiritual and diverse religious history of our nation, from its founding to the current day be affirmed.”
“Be it further proclaimed, that any effort to remove, obscure, or purposely omit such history from our nation’s public buildings and
educational resources be rejected in the strongest manner,” the document says.
The proclamation was introduced by Supervisor John Hidahl, who said before the vote, “This great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians. Not on religions but on a foundation of Christian principles and values,” according to the Sacramento Bee. The proclamation, he continued, is “clearly stating: don’t forget our history.”
The proclamation’s critics said it violated the principle of the separation of church and state and promoted one religion over others. In an Aug. 25 letter to the board of supervisors, the ACLU of Northern California said the proclamation “conveys that the County supports, promotes and endorses specific religious beliefs and, as such, violates the California Constitution.”
The state constitution contains even more stringent requirements regarding the separation of church and state than the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits federal laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The California Constitution states that “Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed.”
After Tuesday’s vote rescinding the proclamation, Angelica Salceda, the ACLU of Northern California’s director of democracy and civic engagement, said her organization is “happy” about the new vote.
“The resolution suffered from constitutional infirmities,” she said in a statement. “The county has no business supporting, promoting, or endorsing specific religious beliefs. We think this decision is good for all residents of El Dorado County.”
El Dorado Supervisor Brooke Laine, who said that her abstention in the July vote was incorrectly recorded as an “aye” and that she also “regretted” her indecision, put the matter on the board’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. After 45 minutes of public discussion, the board rescinded it, 5-0.
“I very much regretted the initial vote and my participation in it,” Laine said again on Tuesday, noting that community members used their public comment time to both oppose and support the resolution.
“At the end of the day, it was agreed by the board that there was a reason the Founding Fathers created a separation between church and state, and that we had blurred that line, although it was not our intention,” she said. “It felt like we got it right this second time. I commend my colleagues for recognizing and correcting” the mistake.
Public pressure and media coverage contributed to the board’s eventual decision, Laine said, as did the “threat of litigation” from the ACLU. “We couldn’t afford that,” she said.
In a caveat to his praise of the board’s new decision, Yakar added that the supervisors didn’t correct their fundamental error, which was promoting the idea of America as a Christian nation.
“This was not about celebrating one group’s heritage” in the vein of Pride Month or American Jewish Heritage Month, he said. “This is about the clear use of language in the proclamation that our country was founded as a Christian country, and that is what we are celebrating.”
That important nuance should have been explicitly discussed by the board on Tuesday, Yakar said, adding, “I don’t feel the supervisors went far enough to address that.”
Saunders added a cautionary note too, saying that some opponents of the proclamation wouldn’t have come to Tuesday’s board meeting if law enforcement hadn’t been there. “They wouldn’t feel safe,” she said.
But still, she said, she’s pleased with the result of Tuesday’s vote.
“We beat back hate and division,” she said. “The way the community came together made me more optimistic about our country and the county I live in.”
A version of this story originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California and is reprinted with permission.
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The buzzy novel ‘Whalefall’ offers a modern spin on the ancient Book of Jonah
(JTA) — If one were to imagine what the prophet Jonah saw on his way down into the gullet of the whale, it might be something like this:
He slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of warm slime, the effluvia of a thousand squids past. Tooth sockets above him now, rancid black pits. Teeth passing on either side, yellowed cones, one missing, one fractured, one putrid with rot…The quaking cave of the mouth…His bare foot plants into a cold mash.
The scene, however, is actually a passage from one of the year’s buzziest novels: “Whalefall,” by Daniel Kraus, tells of a 17-year-old diver named Jay Gardiner who is swallowed by a massive sperm whale, in whose innards he is forced to reconcile with responsibility for his late father’s last wishes while desperately trying to escape. The book has already been optioned for a movie by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer’s Imagine Entertainment.
Though billed by its publisher as “The Martian” meets “127 Hours,” “Whalefall” is actually a modern midrash on a very ancient biblical book — one Jews will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The novel is divided into two sections, “Truth” and “Mercy,” the tension between which the Book of Jonah sits. The ancient prophet, after all, is given a commandment by God to warn residents of the Assyrian city of Nineveh to repent, lest they be punished. Identified as “son of Amitai” — that is, “son of Truth” — Jonah objects to the possibility of repentance and God’s forgiveness, taking it to be a compromise of divine justice.
Refusing the order, Jonah flees by boat to Tarshish, a distant city. God sends a storm to toss the boat, yet an unrepentantly defiant Jonah heads to his cabin, content to sleep his way through a watery death. “Arise, call to your God,” comes the desperate cry of the sailors on the ship. “Why are you asleep? Perhaps mercy will be granted upon us by God and we will be spared.”
Jonah, under pressure, admits that he is the cause of the heavenly wrath, and the sailors, hesitatingly, haul him overboard. There, swallowed by a large fish, he cries out to God from Sheol, a netherworldly dark place of despair. Jonah yearns, in the fifth verse of the book’s second chapter, to merit reconciling with God by visiting his holy Temple.
“Whalefall” is also told with a dual structure, jumping between flashbacks to Jay’s childhood and frequent fights with his belligerent, zealous and neglectful father, and Jay’s race-against-the-oxygen-tank attempt to emerge from the whale. At one point, Jay falls out with his father and flees to the home of a girl named Chloe Tarshish, where he sleeps on a futon and watches foreign films.
In “Whalefall,” Sheol Landfill is on the outskirts of Salinas, California, where — a year before the suicide of Jay’s terminally ill father, Mitt — Mr. Sheol would let a 10-year-old Jay and his eco-warrior dad sift through the junkyard for castoff diving gear. Reassuring an anxious Jay that his father will emerge safely from the trash heap, Sheol comforts him: “This here’s my temple. Nothing happens without my say-so.”
The novel’s title comes from the scientific term for how a dead whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean. There its body is stripped by crustaceans and other sea creatures, sustaining an underwater ecosystem for years to come.
Jay’s own father chose a similar fate, as the novel reveals. A once vibrant and fit man — who would awaken Jay and his sisters with a daily call of “Sleepers, arise!” — he slowly descended into depression. A combination of cancer and melancholy over humanity’s destructive attitude towards nature led him to weigh down his body with diving weights and jump off of the side of a friend’s ship. When the friend, a kindly Jewish dentist named Hewey, informs Jay what happened, Jay can’t even bring himself to cry, so raw are his psychological wounds from his and his father’s quarrels.
Hewey, whose name is perhaps a punning allusion to the four-letter name for God traditionally unpronounced by Jews, embodies God’s moral argument for mercy in the Book of Jonah. And while at no point in the novel is Jonah actually named, it’s Hewey who brings him up: “Let me tell you the lesson of this prophet,” he says. “Truth never outweighs mercy.”
Jay is trapped in the whale during an ill-advised solo dive looking to recover his father’s body. Off the coast of Monterey Beach after dark, he encounters an Architeuthis, a deep ocean-dwelling squid. While sperm whales don’t normally eat humans, they do eat squid, and Jay is taken into the whale’s mouth in a whirl of water. A sequence of dangers compounds his rapidly depleting air supply, including floating sharp objects, the whale’s crushing internal organs and a carabiner that he can’t dislodge from his diving gear while attempting to swim to safety.
As the New York Times put it in its review, “At a certain point he begins to seem less like Jonah and more like Job — the hapless vessel for every bit of bad luck you can think of, and a lot more besides.”
As Jay processes what he still owes his father while desperately fighting to return to shore, subtle allusions to Jonah surface. For every memory of his father’s abuse, there is a recollection of the lives he saved — just as the sailors on Jonah’s boat were spared. The sympathy Jay feels towards the swallowed squid could be an allusion to God’s argument, in the closing verse of Jonah, about the grace he will grant not only to the thousands of Ninevites “who cannot distinguish between their right and their left” but also to the similarly deserving “many animals.”
More explicit is Jay’s internal wrestling with whether we can change our very nature — a central preoccupation of the Book of Jonah and, of course, Yom Kippur. After all, it is Jonah, the son of Truth, who is “displeased” when God spares the Ninevites. Jonah cannot accept that God has changed God’s mind, or that the Ninevites might be persuaded to change their ways. He cannot accept forgiveness of wrongs.
Kraus is a horror writer who worked with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the hit film “The Shape of Water” and created the books that inspired the Netflix series “Trollhunters.” Early in his career, he made documentaries about American workers including Rabbi Jay Holstein, Kraus’ former professor at the University of Iowa whose class “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” he said was among the most formative he took.
Alongside conscious allusions to Pinnochio, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Kraus seems to offer a Christian understanding of Jonah. At one point Jay recalls his father’s noting that “a life of poor choices could be washed from you every time you dipped under,” a clear allusion to baptism. (It’s not a spoiler to say that Mitt’s body, like that of Jesus, is never found.)
Yet Jonah’s message in the Jewish tradition differs from Kraus’ reading. Forgiveness is not to be sought in superseding earthly existence and seeking rebirth through death. The pre-High Holiday custom to dip in the mikvah is a this-worldly charge to repair what has been sundered, in our relationships and in our environment, through our own imperfect individual efforts. We struggle, like Jay and like Jonah, with the obligations foisted on us by our ancestors. At the same time, we hope to find in ourselves the capacity to change and the mercy of God, that ability to forgive even when it feels untrue to our principles, as God did the Ninevites.
At one point, amidst the dark deep, Jay realizes he’s “got time to arrange his final thought. What would he like it to be?” When faced with the same choice, what will be our answer?
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