(JTA) — For more than two decades, Mitch Albom has been perhaps the best-selling Jewish author alive — even as his books tend to embrace a much broader and more amorphous definition of “faith.”
But now, Albom says he’s ready to embrace his “obligation” as a Jewish writer: to publish a novel set during the Holocaust.
“The Little Liar,” which comes out on Tuesday, follows an innocent 11-year-old Greek Jewish boy named Nico, who is tricked by Nazis into lying to his fellow Jews about the final destination of the trains they are forced to board. It was written before Oct. 7 but comes at a time when Jews are again grappling with the aftermath of tragedy in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war against the terror group in Gaza.
Albom is a Jewish day school alumnus, and Judaism has featured in his prior books, if less centrally. “Tuesdays With Morrie,” his 1997 memoir that rocketed up the bestseller charts and made him a household name, focused on his relationship with Morrie Schwartz, his Jewish mentor at Brandeis University. A follow-up memoir, 2009’s “Have A Little Faith,” discussed Albom’s relationship with his childhood rabbi, interspersed with his friendship with a local priest. He has also involved Jewish faith leaders in his many charities, including an orphanage he runs in Haiti, to which he has flown Rabbi Steven Lindemann of New Jersey’s Temple Beth Sholom.
In his fiction, though, the Detroit author, sportswriter, radio personality and philanthropist has taken a more ecumenical approach to morality and the afterlife. Sometimes Albom’s characters wander through heaven, which can be a physical place (“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” and its sequel). Sometimes they are granted the ability to spend time with their dead relatives (“For One More Day”), are admonished for turning their backs on Godly ideas like living each moment to its fullest (“The Time Keeper”), or are asked to put their blind faith in figures who may or may not themselves be God (“The Stranger In The Lifeboat”).
“The Little Liar,” by contrast, is a squarely Jewish story. Like the 1969 Holocaust novel “Jacob the Liar,” by Jurek Becker, the story pivots on a Jew lying to his people about the Nazis. But unlike other Holocaust novels, Albom traces the repercussions of that moment for decades following the events of the Holocaust itself, through four central characters who wrestle with the trauma and violence of their past.
Even as it includes a great deal of historical detail — from the descriptions of the thriving prewar Jewish community of Salonika, Greece, to several real-life figures such as the Hungarian actress and humanitarian Katalin Kárady and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal — the book also has plenty of Albom-isms. It’s largely structured as a giant morality tale about the nature of truth and lies, and is narrated by “Truth” itself. Aphorisms like “Truth be told” abound throughout the text.
“I didn’t want to write a ‘Holocaust book’ per se,” Albom told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during a phone conversation earlier this fall. “With each one of my books, I tried to have some sort of overriding theme that I wanted to explore and that I thought might be inspirational to people.”
Yet he admits that, “as a Jewish writer,” he felt compelled by the subject matter to create “a small, small, small contribution to getting people not to forget what happened.”
This interview was conducted prior to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: You’ve written two memoirs about Jewish mentors of yours, but this is the first time you’ve incorporated Judaism so openly into your fiction. Can you tell me about your own Jewish upbringing?
Albom: I was raised in South Jersey and Philadelphia. Growing up I had what I think would be kind of a typical Jewish upbringing of that time, during the 60s and 70s. [At] 11 years old, I was sent to a Jewish day school. Half the day was just Jewish studies in Hebrew. And in fact, it was mostly done in Hebrew, and so for from sixth grade until 11th grade, with the exception of one year where I left and went to public school, I went to that school.
So I had a very deep and thorough Jewish education. We learned everything from not only Hebrew and Jewish studies and Jewish history and things like that, but we learned to read the commentary on the Torah… I had to learn those letters. Don’t ask me to do it now, but I was pretty in-depth: Moses, Maimonides and all that. So I graduated and I went to Brandeis University, which was a still predominantly Jewish school.
At that point, having spent so much time with my Jewish roots and education, I kind of put a lid on it, and said, “OK, that’s enough.” And I wasn’t particularly practicing from that point for a couple of decades. It wasn’t really until I wrote the book “Have A Little Faith,” [when] my childhood rabbi asked me to write his eulogy, I got more drawn back to my Judaism.
Why did you decide to tell a Holocaust story now?
I think as a Jewish writer, I almost felt an obligation, before my career was over, to create a story that hopefully would be memorable enough, set during the Holocaust. That it would be a small, small, small contribution to getting people not to forget what happened. And people tend to remember stories longer than they remember facts. I think people remember “The Diary of Anne Frank” longer than they remember statistical numbers of how many Jews were slaughtered or how many homes were destroyed by the Nazis.
But it took me until now to find a story that I felt hadn’t already been done. There’s so many books now. And even there’s been a recent rash of them over the last five to 10 years, you know, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” and “The Librarian of Auschwitz,” many other things, all of which are great books and wonderful reads. But I just felt like so much ground had been covered that I couldn’t really come up with an original setting, original idea, until “The Little Liar.”
Something that sets this book apart from the others you mentioned is the setting of Salonika, the Greek city where the vast majority of its 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. What drew you to that as a setting?
Two things. One, I lived in Greece when I got out of college. Through a series of weird and unfortunate events, I ended up as a singer and a piano player on the island of Crete. I could just spend my days in the sunshine and eating the amazing food and being amongst the amazing people. So I’ve always loved Greece. And number two was, I didn’t want to tell a story that began in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto, all the familiar backdrops. I just didn’t want to tell a story that people said, “I’ve kind of seen this before.” So I thought, well, this will be fresh. I’ll be able to at least get people to, if nothing else, when they close the book, say, “I had no idea that the largest Jewish majority population sitting in Europe was Salonika, Greece, and even that was wiped out by the Nazis.”
If there was ever a city that looked like it was impenetrable, it would have been that one. Go back to 300 BCE, and there are Jews. They have been there for so long, and yet the Nazis wipe them out in about a year or less.
Crafting entirely fictional narratives around the Holocaust is pretty fraught territory. I’ve interviewed John Boyne, the author of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” about some of the backlash he’s gotten. What was your own approach to doing this in a sensitive way?
First of all, there’s no such thing as “purely fictional” when you’re coming to a Holocaust story, because you’re setting it during a real event. So you have to rely on real accounts, from people and books, in order to create a world that feels real. I don’t think anybody could write a Holocaust story and never have read a Holocaust book, never have listened to a Holocaust survivor, just sat in a room and imagined what this event might be like — just as you don’t set a book during the Civil War and not study the Civil War.
For me the premise of the book was what came first, and I should point out, I didn’t want to write a “Holocaust book” per se. With each one of my books, I tried to have some sort of overriding theme that I wanted to explore and that I thought might be inspirational to people. And the theme with this one had to do with truth and lies, and that actually goes back to the original inspiration of it, which was a visit to Yad Vashem.
You know, they have the videos on the walls and different people telling stories, and there was a woman who was telling the story about the train platforms, and she said that the Nazis would sometimes use Jews to calm the people on the train platforms and to lie to them to say everything’s going to be alright, you can trust these trains, you’re going to be OK. And that stayed in my mind, more than anything that I saw. Just the idea of being tricked into lying to your own people about their doom. I thought, one day I want to write a story that centers on someone who had to do that, and what would that do to their sense of truth.
You don’t end the narrative with the liberation of the camps; the story continues decades later. There are scenes of a Jewish character trying to reclaim his old home, of America sheltering Nazis after the war. These are the parts of the history of the Holocaust that I think are harder for people today to come to terms with.
Yeah, that was another way I wanted to make the story more fresh. I didn’t want it to begin with the night that the house was invaded and end with the day that the camps were liberated. I wanted to begin it before that, which I did, and I wanted to end it way after that.
I went to Salonika and I talked with people there about what happened when the Jews came back and, did they get their businesses back? Did they get their houses back? No, the businesses were gone and were given away. The houses, most of the time, were already sold off to somebody else. And I thought, sometimes we think the whole story, the Holocaust, the price that people paid, it ends on the day of liberation, and everybody runs crying and hugging and kissing into each other’s arms and now we’re free. We’re free. In many ways, that’s when the problems began, you know, and a whole different set of problems.
I’ve known survivors all my life. I grew up with them in my neighborhood and interviewed many of them over the years, and they’ve told me about their haunted dreams and sometimes in the middle of the night they just wake up, or in the middle of the day, just start crying, or how certain things they don’t want to talk about. And so I tried to be respectful and reflect some of those challenges in the years after the Holocaust, because I don’t think you can tell a complete story, at least not one about survivors, if you don’t talk about what happened to them after they tried to resume their normal lives.
In the book you point out that the Holocaust was built on a “big lie.” You’re framing truth as the ultimate ideal. But of course your Jewish characters are also surviving the war in part by lying about their identities. And we know that’s true of many real-life Holocaust survivors as well. Do you see that as a contradiction?
No, I see it as fascinating. You know, it’s a fascinating interwoven web of truth and deception. There is nobody who has never told a lie on this earth. And that’s why Nico was kind of a magical character to begin with. He’s 11 years old and has never told a lie — he’s almost an angel. And that’s where the parable feel to the story comes in.
Your writing has become associated with the concept of “faith,” and in your fiction you often render heaven as a physical place where the dead are finding ways to interact with the living. Is that a more Christian outlook on the afterlife, even though you say you were inspired by a vision an uncle of yours had about his own relatives? How do you think about your own depictions of heaven?
Well, the books that I’ve written about heaven, there was “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” which was a sequel to it, and “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” which, if you read that book, you know that it isn’t what it seems. You know, I always looked at “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” as kind of a fable. My uncle Eddie, who was the main character — it wasn’t a true story but he inspired the character. He had told me a story that he had had an incident where he had died on an operating table. For a brief moment, he remembered floating above his body and seeing all of his dead relatives waiting for him at the edge of the operating table. So I always had that story in mind whenever I would think of him. It was meant to be a fable about how we all interact with one another.
A lot of Christians have embraced your work, right?
A lot of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists.
I’ve seen evangelical writers refer to your body of work as part of a “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which is a term a lot of Jews have different kinds of feelings about. Do you think about the faith of your readers at all, or how they are perceiving your faith?
I write for anybody in the world who has a desire to read my book. I welcome them. I would never make a judgment on any reader. I’m happy to have someone pick up my book and read it.
The post Mitch Albom enters new Jewish territory with Holocaust novel ‘The Little Liar’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense
JNS.org – As Israel prepares for the strong possibility of a resumption of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Forces is also currently in a heightened state of alert and preparedness along the border with Lebanon, responding to the continuous threats posed by Hezbollah.
Since Oct. 7, the IDF has deployed significant military resources, including artillery, tanks and engineering corps, along the Lebanese border, striking Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads and other terrorists whenever they are detected, either after an attack or preparing for one.
This low-intensity conflict when compared to Gaza has resulted in some 90 casualties for Hezbollah and nine Israeli casualties—six military personnel and three civilians.
Several Israeli homes and military bases have sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah strikes since Oct. 7, and tens of thousands of Israeli residents from areas near the border with Lebanon remain evacuated, displaced from their homes by the threat of the Radwan Hezbollah elite terrorist unit.
In response, the IDF has employed a defensive-responsive posture aimed at protecting Israeli territory from Hezbollah’s aggression but not escalating the situation into a full-scale war front at this time.
Its approach is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive stance. Operations are tailored to respond to specific threats and attacks from Hezbollah, avoiding initiating aggression. This goal remains to protect civilian lives and property, as well as to make sure that Hezbollah cannot surprise the north as Hamas did the south. Still, the decision of any expanded war efforts in Lebanon remains up to the war cabinet.
Hezbollah’s tactics, meanwhile, involve embedding its operations within Lebanese civilian areas; using southern Shi’ite villages as bases of attack; firing anti-tank missiles at Israeli northern homes and military positions; and continuing to pose a serious and persistent threat.
The question of whether the Radwan unit, which has murder and kidnap squads much like Hamas’s Nukhba unit, could breach the Israeli border and conduct attacks has no clear answer at this time, although the IDF is present at the border in large numbers and has proven effective at detecting Radwan unit movements in real-time.
Hezbollah’s terror tactics not only endanger Lebanese civilians but are designed to complicate the IDF’s response—a familiar use of human shielding that Hamas employs as well in Gaza.
In this explosive situation, the IDF currently exercises restraint in its counterstrikes, relying on precise intelligence to target terrorist threats while minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.
UNIFIL ineffective in curbing provocation
The role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in challenging Hezbollah’s flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans Hezbollah from operating in Southern Lebanon, is nonexistent.
Worse yet, Hezbollah has been actively using UNIFIL as human shields, launching attacks on Israel in some cases from tens of meters from UNIFIL positions.
UNIFIL’s ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah’s activities is self-evident, highlighting the limitations of international peacekeeping forces in such scenarios.
Despite this, the IDF continues to remain in contact with UNIFIL and has been transmitting its concern over Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities with no tangible results.
So far, Israel’s policy on the Lebanon border is a delicate balance between essential defense and cautious restraint. But it remains unclear how long this can continue since northern residents will not return to a persistent Hezbollah threat to their lives in the new, post-Oct. 7 reality, and the IDF cannot remain fully deployed in the north indefinitely.
The result is a paradox that appears to suggest difficult decisions in the future by the Israeli war cabinet if the north is to be sustainable and its residents granted a new sense of security.
The post On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense first appeared on Algemeiner.com.
The Determination of Israel’s Reservists
JNS.org – Who is the Israel soldier? They can be of any age and profession. It may have been a long time since they held a weapon. Many of them are at Tze’elim, one of the IDF’s largest bases, just across the border from Gaza on yellow sand.
When I meet them, they are waiting, as the brief ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding. A short time later, Hamas broke the truce, attacked Israel with rockets, and the fighting began again.
These soldiers are older and more emotional than you would imagine. Their intentions are clear: “Never Again.” The Oct. 7 massacre will never be permitted to reoccur. Israel must be freed from the nightmare of Hamas.
In Tze’elim, rows of barracks and numerous disorderly tents house thousands of soldiers of all kinds. We meet with a group of them from Brigade 252. They are soldiers from the miluim—the reserves. They have completed their three-year military service—or two years, if they are women—but they all keep their “miluim bag” under the bed. If the phone rings, as happened on Oct. 7, they rush to the front, whether they are in Tel Aviv or traveling in Japan, whether they are left-wing or right-wing, professors or taxi drivers. They tear themselves away from the operating room and the shop, the lawyer’s office and the bus they drive.
Commander A. is thin, with gray hair and a kind smile. He is religious. On the morning of Oct. 7, he was in synagogue without a telephone. Someone told him “something never seen before is happening.” A. rushed to his collection point in the south and has yet to return home.
On Oct. 7, the reserves were immediately thrown into the battle to retake the kibbutzim that had been attacked and massacred by Hamas terrorists. They hunted down the Hamas men who remained and collected the wounded and dead Israelis in the fields and on the roads. A. closes his eyes. He has seen hell.
The 252 was then sent into the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, home to 50,000 inhabitants who serve as human shields for what is essentially a massive rocket launching pad. The reservists were trained in a mock-up of a Gaza city. They practiced how to enter, shoot, exit, climb, attack and go through tunnels full of TNT. They trained against ambushes, snipers and RPGs.
A. says that, when they went into Beit Hanoun itself, “We had to quickly learn a lesson: Beit Hanoun’s ambush is in his heart, not its outer circles. The terrorists let you enter easily. There’s a row of houses, two or three more, and that’s where Hamas is waiting for you—where you don’t expect it, in civilian structures.”
A. explains, “If we decide to destroy a structure and there are civilians inside, we warn the civilian population. … There are precise rules for evaluating whether we have to act, whether it’s essential because if we don’t act, the lives of soldiers or Israeli civilians are in danger. We try to stop Hamas’s continuous use of human shields by moving the civilians out completely.”
A. is happy to say, “Of civilians killed in Ben Hanoun, the number is zero.”
Israeli soldiers, however, were killed. Maj. Moshe, a 50-year-old engineer who works in high-tech, explained, “An army generally advances on a territory that, once occupied, is the starting point of your next step. But here, through the tunnels under the ground, suddenly you find the enemy shooting at you from behind.”
Thus, great efforts were made to locate the tunnels. “With the use of sophisticated instruments, and also sometimes suffering unexpected explosions given that Hamas’s specialty is to mine everything with large quantities of explosives, we quickly understood that the tunnels were a very sophisticated network, not holes of various sizes dug here and there, but an enormous spider web that converged on the urban center.”
“The structures used by Hamas, which they protected with human shields, included a mosque, a school, a hospital, a public swimming pool, civilian homes, children’s rooms, even their beds. There were weapons everywhere,” he says.
As a result of the truce, Moshe states, some of the evacuated civilians have begun to return. “We can block them,” he says, “but not attack them or approach them. There is a truce.”
Nonetheless, I point out, three soldiers were wounded two days ago in an attack. “True,” Moshe replies, “and we returned fire. If we are in danger we respond.” He notes that some of the returnees are Hamas terrorists, “but we are in a truce, we act according to the rules of defense.”
“We have two ways of being at war: offensive and defensive,” he continues. “The offensive is much easier: You face the enemy. You can move. Defense is unnerving, even dangerous, especially when there are civilians around.”
However, he says, there is much to do, even during a truce. “For example, we had completely dismantled the explosive systems inside a building, and then we realized that everything had been mined again.”
Hamas, he says, is “easier to deal with than endure while you can’t move. So, we wait for orders. The mission is to destroy Hamas and bring the kidnapped people home. That and nothing else.”
Now that the soldiers are back at war, the humanitarian issue is certainly important to them; not because of what the Biden administration tells them, but because that is what an Israeli soldier is.
First and foremost, however, they are Jews who know exactly what was done to their people on Oct. 7 and will continue their war of justice and survival. One of them tells me, “Yes, I feel when we fight, feel it physically, that our kidnapped citizens are not far away, and I fight for them too with all my heart. This is the most just war of all time.”
The Moral Bankruptcy of IfNotNow
JNS.org – A few days ago, I attended a webinar entitled “Jews for Ceasefire,” presented by the young Jewish anti-Zionists of IfNotNow. It was hosted by an earnest young woman named Gen (IfNotNow activists often don’t use their surnames), who began by reaffirming what the group calls its main goal: to “end American support for Israeli apartheid.” She went on to emphasize that all the positions taken by IfNotNow are “deeply grounded in Jewish tradition.” To prove the point, she called on Rabbi Monica Gomery, who led a prayer and enthusiastically praised the group’s work.
Next up was Noa, a young woman who said, “I’m going to root us in the moment.” “The moment,” however, did not include Hamas’s Oct. 7 genocidal attack on Israeli civilians. Noa said nothing whatsoever about it. Instead, she presented a litany of alleged Israeli abuses inflicted on Palestinians. Her omission appeared to be deliberate, as it helped portray the IDF’s defensive military operations in Gaza as an unprovoked act of aggression.
Following Noa, there was a testimonial from a young man named Boaz. He made what appeared to him to be a confession that his grandfather helped perpetrate the “nakba.” What he meant was that his grandfather was a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. For Boaz, his father’s participation in Israel’s successful effort to prevent a second Holocaust was a source of shame, not pride. As he explained, he was trying to work through his guilt. A poster behind him bore the slogan, “Palestine will be free,” a popular euphemism for that second Holocaust.
After Boaz’s self-flagellation came the highlight of the webinar—an appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib has been an ally of IfNotNow for some time. In fact, the group’s leadership began collaborating with Tlaib before she was elected to Congress. During her presentation, Tlaib referred to them as her “siblings.”
Sporting a t-shirt that said, “Justice from Detroit to Gaza”—a slogan that falsely connects Israel to police brutality controversies in the U.S.—Tlaib declared that Congress must demand a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and “stop funding war crimes.” Like her IfNotNow supporters, Tlaib conveniently made no mention of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages held by Hamas.
It apparently did not bother the leaders of IfNotNow that the House of Representatives had just censured Tlaib for her genocidal call to free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Indeed, IfNotNow leaders repeat the same call in their training sessions. That training also endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically strangle Israel, as well as the so-called “right of return,” which aims to demographically eliminate the Jewish state.
It seems that IfNotNow leaders are unperturbed that Tlaib has characterized Hamas’s rampage of crimes against humanity as justified “resistance” to an “apartheid state.” These Jews, it appears, are perfectly happy to align themselves with someone who supports murdering large numbers of Jews. They are also unbothered by the fact that Tlaib posted a video on social media that says, “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people”—a genocide that is not happening. One of IfNotNow’s campaigns calling for a ceasefire is entitled, “No Genocide in Our Name.” Having erased Hamas’s genocidal attack, IfNotNow appears to have fabricated one.
In addition, IfNotNow has officially endorsed Tlaib’s statement, “You cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” To them and other young Jews who clasp hands with Tlaib and her compatriots, condemnation of Israel is the sine qua non of being a progressive, and a policy of racist exclusion must be imposed on any Jew who doesn’t get with the program. IfNotNow looks to Tlaib to lead the way, even though, like antisemites throughout history, she is happy to exploit them and eventually discard them once they have outlived their usefulness.
Most tellingly, IfNotNow has been unfazed by Tlaib’s open antisemitism, such as her claim that American supporters of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” clearly invoking the “dual loyalty” libel. She has also engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, talking about the “people behind the curtain” who are exploiting victims “from Gaza to Detroit.”
Worst of all, Tlaib is the only member of Congress to call for an end to the Jewish state. It should not be surprising that IfNotNow is fine with that, as they proudly state that they take no position on Israel’s right to exist.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has perfectly and accurately described such people as “Hamas’s useful idiots.”
The origins of IfNotNow’s ideology are obvious. Like Tlaib and many other “social justice” ideologues, IfNotNow divides people into two groups: Oppressors and the oppressed. Depending on your racial or ethnic identity, you by definition belong to one or the other. There are no gradations, no nuance and only one permissible narrative. Thus, decades of genocidal Arab violence go unmentioned, including the Oct. 7 massacre. There is only Israeli oppression and Palestinian “resistance.”
It would be a mistake to believe that IfNotNow is an inconsequential outlier. They have nine chapters across the United States and an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. The webinar I attended had more than 1,600 attendees.
They also have powerful friends and an enormous amount of money. According to NGO Monitor, IfNotNow has received grants from the wealthy Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the New Israel Fund’s Progressive Jewish Fund and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
All that, plus support from a member of Congress. It seems that racism, hate and support for genocide pay off.