Book Review: The Ambassador

For all my love of time travel and exploration of whether or not we could or should alter the past, I’m surprised I don’t read more fiction in the category of alternative history. Perhaps I will now, after reading The Ambassador (The Toby Press), a novel by the late Ambassador Yehuda Avner and award-winning novelist Matt Rees.

Set mostly in the late 1930s with World War II as its backdrop, The Ambassador imagines the impacts on Europe’s Jews had Israel been established in 1937, as opposed to 1948, when the Peel Commission recommended to the British cabinet to establish a Jewish state. The novel’s main character is Dan Lavi, a young diplomat sent by Ben Gurion to Germany to serve as the fledgling nation’s first ambassador to Berlin. Dan’s there with his wife Anna (an American) and Shmulik, who masquerades as part of the diplomatic team, but is really in Berlin on behalf of the Mossad.

The characters, their dialogue, and even the actions they take that veer from historical events come off realistic and plausible. I was caught up in Dan’s conflict once in Berlin as he struggles between proper diplomacy and his clear distaste for Nazi politics.

“The words of the Old Man, Ben-Gurion’s nasal Polish accent echoed in Dan’s mind, the order delivered in between reports from Shmulik on the first maneuvers of the War of Independence.

You will sup with the Devil, Dan. You will do everything the Devil requires. Whatever it takes, you will maintain the transfer of Jews from Germany to Israel.'”

The transfer of Jews from Germany is, in fact, Dan’s primary goal in Berlin. He is there, as he argues repeatedly, to “secure as many Jewish lives as we can.” He does so by working with and catering to the ego of Sturmbannfuhrer Adolph Eichmann, who serves (in this alternative reality) as head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” offering Israeli visas to Europe’s Jews under the controversial “Transfer Agreement.” In this 1938 Berlin, Jews are permitted to leave the country, hundreds per day, for Israel. The Israeli Embassy’s main purpose is administrative, filling out and processing applications of families requesting exit. On the side, however, Shmulik and his Mossad team are investigating rumors of a “final solution” for the Jews, and recommending plans of action to Ben Gurion.

Most interesting to me — especially as a fan of time travel — was watching the story unfold and witnessing how some decisions in this alternative reality led the Jews to the exact same fate they met in our current reality, and how other actions managed to transform a people’s destiny. Less interesting to me were a few brief distracting side stories (based on some historical truth) of lost love and family secrets; though not distracting enough to take away from the main plot.

Any fiction pertaining to the Holocaust is potentially contentious. Still today, there are debates about who, if anyone, has the right to construct fictional tales set in or during the Holocaust. In the preface to The Ambassador, Avner writes “I fought in the war that established Israel. I worked decades in the highest circles of the Israeli government with every Prime Minister up to Rabin’s second term and as Ambassador to Britain and Australia.” One wonders if Avner is not attempting to stave off those critics of Holocaust fiction with this list of credentials. Whether or not he was, it certainly lends credibility to the story and his right to tell it.

“I sat among the crowd commemorating Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, as then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed us. More precisely, he apologized to them. The ones taken by Hitler. ‘We were 10 years too late,’ he said.

And I thought, ‘What if we hadn’t been.'”

The Ambassador will be available in bookstores September 1, 2015.

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This review was made possible by The Toby Press with an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

 

 

 

After 39

Carl Jung may or may not have said “Life begins at 40,” but a great many people on the internet want to know if it’s true.
I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Just tell me something first: How will I know?
Where shall I look?
What color is a beginning?

Does it smell like Thin Mints?
Does it taste like the Mobil Station near the Woodcrest Shopping Center?

Can I buy two for one and carry them both wrapped up in a paper napkin and stuffed at the bottom of my yellow handbag?

Tell me something.

What makes you think life didn’t begin on the 5th floor of Thurston Hall or on the corner of Prince and Mott or behind the mess hall at Camp Comet?

What makes you think life didn’t begin when you tried on your first bra or learned the meaning of the word lesbian?

It’s possible life really began — if we’re being serious for a moment — the day you understood life on Earth has been destroyed by an asteroid at least four times and will certainly be destroyed by an asteroid again.

It’s entirely possible life began when Stephanie died or when Jodie died or even before them when you were a little girl afraid of the dark and Bruce died and then visited you in your bedroom sometimes at night.

Life begins sometimes in a bowl of fruit. It begins in a pile of leaves left behind last Fall. It begins in a creek bed hidden by shade.

It begins
It begins
It begins

And so, tomorrow, I’ll tell you if life begins at 40,
but only if you tell me first how I will know.

What appeals to me about found poetry

One of the reasons why I love to experiment with “found poetry” is that it allows me to make an artful experience last longer.

I just finished reading Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” for instance, and was struck often throughout by meaningful gems I wish I could spend more time contemplating.

In the absence of a classroom full of fellow philosophers or a literature professor, I turn to found poetry, otherwise known as “erasure poetry” or “blackout poetry.”

There is no correct way of digging in, but this is how I’ve been doing it with books. (You can also find poetry in songs or in newspaper articles. Why not?)

Instructions for finding poetry:

1. Xerox copy the page of the book or the document that stopped you in your tracks.

kundera metaphors are dangerous

2. Read it over a few times. Perhaps, out loud.

3. Listen.

4. Circle with pencil the words calling out to you.

When you’re certain (or certain enough) you’ve dug out something new or relevant or useful from the beauty or wisdom already expressed by the author, smudge out the words around those in paint or black ink or, like Mary Ruefle, with white out.

5. There. You’ve found something. A poem, perhaps, or an idea or a pathway.

Something.

Like most creative writing, a first draft of a found poem might only be a writing prompt for something more significant.

At the very least, you got to spend more time with beauty or wisdom … and upcycled it into your own life.

 

 

I know what I know if you know what I mean

I am a reformed know-it-all.

I used to roll around in knowledge like a warm Dunkin Donut munchkin in powdered sugar. I wanted to be covered in it and then I wanted you to lick me.

Because I knew something. And if I knew it, you should know it, too. Then all our lives would be better.

My knowing has always been a well-intentioned sort.

It didn’t matter what the knowing was: At some points in my life, the knowing was boys. At others, it was Judaism or organized religion. At another junction, it was true love. And at yet another, it was friendship.

I knew what I knew and knowing it made me right. Being right made me feel safe. Not just on-the-surface safe — not the kind of safe we feel when we double-lock our doors or put on seat belts. No, a kind of subconscious, impregnable bubble of well-being that convinced me I knew people and I knew the world and I knew what should be done to make things right or better or good.

Then, something happened. Someone convinced me that there were things I didn’t know. Not only that, someone convinced me there were things I could never know — like what it was like to live during the French Revolution or what it felt like to be in the 2004 tsunami — no matter how much studying I did; no matter how much learning; no matter, even, how much listening. Some things are just unknowable because they are unique experiences. Even if, God forbid, I one day faced a tsunami, it would never be the 2004 tsunami. No matter how many videos on YouTube I watch, I am still an observer.  No matter how many poignant blogs I read, I am still only a participant in my own experience. And so therefore, there is a distinction to be made between what I know and what I know.

Once I knew this — once I knew this — I looked at life very differently. My experience of life and people changed when I understood “I know what I know” and when I accepted “I know there are things I will never know.”

There are things I cannot possibly know no matter how loving, how compassionate, how empathetic, how caring, how interested, how hungry I am. And this matters because it impacts my point of view, it affects how I see the world, people, opportunities, challenges, and risks.

My life changed because I stepped out towards life then as a curious observer; the kind of curious observer we are all born as and remain until life teaches us over and over again to be afraid.

Afraid of being out of control.

Afraid of being in danger.

Afraid of looking stupid.

Afraid of being stupid.

Afraid of being unloved.

Afraid of being unloveable.

You know the list … it’s longer than this.

This isn’t to say I am always acting as the curious observer. Today, for instance, as a man walked out into the street directly in front of my moving car, I thought immediately, “idiot!” But the curious observer now sits in the passenger seat and says, “maybe he had a belly ache and was rushing to the bathroom.” What she doesn’t say, but I know is, “Remember when you did that once?”

The thing is: the frightened know-it-all is constantly whispering from the passenger seat. Remnants of her will float up from deep inside me as ego-scented vibrational waves. Usually this happens when I am on social media or in heated conversations with my husband or my mother. The frightened know-it-all is sensitive to emotions, especially rejection and accusation. She is reactive, especially when under duress. She is only, after all, trying to keep me safe.

But she no longer can hang out there ruling like a queen bee on the playground of my life, one that is indeed filled with mines, but probably less dangerous than I perceive. The curious observer is there, too, asking questions; waiting for answers before stepping out.