In the aftermath of the national telecast of Steven Spielberg's``Schindler's List,'' I've reflected on Thomas Keneally's novelthat inspired the much-awarded film; and I've wished that Spielbergor some other genius of world cinema would conjure a movie versionof Leslie Epstein's ``King of the Jews.''
You've heard of ``Schindler's List'' and may have read thenovel, which sold in greater numbers after the movie's 1993 releasethan before. But you probably haven't heard of ``King of the Jews''and that's a shame. ``Schindler's List'' is a fine novel, but Irate ``King of the Jews'' a greater one. I'll try to explain.
Tod Swindellmine own sonin reviewing Terry Kay's novel``Dark Thirty'' some years back, found it more involving thanTruman Capote's much earlier ``In Cold Blood.'' Both worksconcerned senseless murders, and Capote's bookcelebrated as agroundbreaking ``nonfiction novel''was an account of thewholesale slaughter of an actual family. Yet Capote infused hisnarrative with imagined incidents and dialogue.
Tod professed that in reading ``In Cold Blood,'' one cannot tellwhat is real and what is only made up; but because the fictional``Dark Thirty'' is powerfully rendered, all of it becomes real. Sowith ``Schindler's List'' vis-a-vis ``King of the Jews.''
When the former was a just-published workpreceding the filmversion by a decadeI interviewed Australia's Thomas Keneally,who explained that ``Schindler's List'' was conceived asnonfiction, but became a novel to give its author freedom toinvent, to improvise, to orchestrate.
I would have liked also to interview Leslie Epstein, but knowlittle about him. He's the son of one of the screenwriting Epsteintwins who took Oscars for their ``Casablanca'' script, but I don'tknow if Julius or Philip was his father. My main question forLeslie Epstein would be how muchif anyof ``King of the Jews''is true. Accepting it as fiction, as a feat entirely of creativeimagination, I can only honor it as an amazing work of literaryart.
``King of the Jews,'' the greatest novel of the Holocaust formost who have read it, is lost for the general readership.Published in 1979 to superlative reviews, it sold poorly whilemissing out on some major awards it came near to winning. Itcertainly did not help matters that its publisherCoward, McCann& Geogheganwas a lame-duck imprint soon to expire.
A custom of Nazi conquest was to set up in every city a Judenrat_ a council of Jews to govern inhabitants of the walled ghettos.The Judenrats were empowered only to enforce Nazi orders, whicheventually included the drawing up of lists of those to go to thedeath camps. The Judenrat in an unnamed Polish city is the centerof Epstein's novel; and the center of the Judenrat is I.C.Trumpelman, council elder and monarch of all he surveys in theBaluty ghetto.
The flamboyant, larger-than-life Trumpelman is one of the greattragic figures in late-20th-century literature, as outrageous as heis paradoxical. As a doctor he is a quack; as an insurance brokerhe is a cheat; but this king of Jews is a bravura personality,almost a sorcerer in his egomaniacal wheeling and dealing with theNazis.
Trumpelman's driving mission, like Oskar Schindler's, is to savehis Jews. But there's an important difference: Where Schindlermanaged to save almost all of his Jewish workers, Trumpelman couldonly be selective, with the god-playing function of determiningwhom to save. So he'll sacrifice 50 to save a thousand; and by hismethods, his ghetto will outlast all others.
Holocaust fiction is inherently grim but ``King of the Jews'' isleavened by triumphant humor, by the pulsating vitality of theghetto itself. No other novel is quite like this one, and aforthright movie edition could redeem it from near-oblivion. Butwhat king of actors could portray Trumpelman?
(Larry Swindell is books editor for the Fort WorthStar-Telegram. Visit the Star-Telegram's online services on theWorld Wide Web: www.startext.net; www.arlington.net; andwww.netarrant.net)
c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service<
NEW YORKIn a bitter encounter in a federal courtroom, abreakaway faction of the Satmar Hasidim Tuesday accused thedominant group of religious persecution in the way it governs theHasidic village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County. The group said itwas even denied the right to build an adequate synagogue.
But the majority responded that the rebels are lawbreakers whoare resentful of their lack of power in the village and are raising``sham'' issues of religious tolerance to conceal their flouting ofvillage laws.
The civil case thus brought into a courtroom a family feud thathas been raging since 1989 and has involved embarrassing charges ofbeatings, tire slashings, car burnings and the torching of anursery within a group that prides itself on its intense piety.
To avoid such a public airing, both sides had moved feverishlyin the hours before the trial began to reach a settlement. But theyfailed, and by afternoon Judge Jed Rakoff of U.S. District Court inManhattan asked lawyers to begin arguments.
The dissident group is seeking compensatory damages of $6million for what it says is ``a consistent and continuing patternintended to disallow the free exercise of religion in the villageof Kiryas Joel.''
In his opening statement, Michael H. Sussman, a lawyer for the500-member dissident group Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel (Congregationof the Devout), pointed out that most of the political leaders ofthe village are the same as the religious leaders of the dominantcongregation, Yetev Lev (Good Heart), and have selectively enforcedthe building and zoning laws to oppress the rebellious religiousminority.
Discrimination was particularly evident, he said, in the villageleaders' refusal to permit the dissidents to open a more spacioussynagogue. So intertwined are the roles of village administratorand congregational leader, Sussman argued, that developers mustcontribute $10,000 to the congregation's yeshiva for each house orapartment they build.
``There was a blurring of lines between church and state,'' saidSussman, who has previously described Kiryas Joel as ``atheocracy.''
But Frederick Hafetz, the lawyer for the dominant Satmar group,which has 10,000 adherents, said the dissidents had occupied asynagogue that was a firetrap, and flouted efforts of the villageelders and a state court to close it down.
``This is not a case about the Pilgrims,'' he said, shruggingoff the dissidents' contention of religious persecution. ``This isa case about a few disgruntled individuals who have taken it uponthemselves to vent hostility and stir trouble.''
The feud has its origins in the death in 1979 of Grand RabbiJoel Teitelbaum, who was the worldwide leader of the SatmarHasidim, including the large concentration in Williamsburg,Brooklyn, and who founded Kiryas Joel (Joel's Village) as a ruralHasidic outpost. A nephew, Moses Teitelbaum, was chosen as hissuccessor over the objections of Joel Teitelbaum's widow. Thedissidents are basically those who are allied with the widow andoppose Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum.
The rebels have challenged Kiryas Joel's leadership over anumber of issues, most significantly the village's decision to setup a public school district for handicapped children. That districtwas declared an unconstitutional establishment of religion by theU.S. Supreme Court.
The dissidents contend that they have been the targets of acampaign of intimidation. Rabbi Joseph Waldman, a dissident leader,said that his car has been torched three times, that the windows ofhis house have been smashed and that one dissident was beatenbrutally. He said that his six children were thrown out of thevillage's main yeshiva, and that dissidents have been barred fromvisiting relatives' graves in the congregation's cemetery.
Village leaders say that the beatings and burnings were done byhotheads and that the other actions were taken by the religiouscongregation, not the village leadership, because of generaldisapproval of some dissidents' behavior. It is not clear whatcharges of violence the judge will allow the jury to hear.
The suit is narrowly about the village's refusal to grant acertificate of occupancy for a large addition to a home at 3 VanBuren Drive that the dissidents had converted to a central place ofworship.
The dissidents say that the village's building inspector andother government leaders took an unusual number of punitive steps,including the imposition of a $25,000 fine, for building violationsthat have been overlooked in structures owned by adherents of themajority faction.
Hafetz argued, however, that authorities closed 3 Van BurenDrive because it was a flammable wooden structure. Far frompersecuting the dissidents, he said, village leaders permitted themto open a dozen home synagogues and provided the same garbage andsnow removal services for them as for residents allied with themajority.<
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