A Bad Jew
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
I found out I was a Jew when I was thirteen. My Dad told me. I never knew until then. It was kind of a shock.
Two thoughts struck me at once:
1. If my parents have been keeping this knowledge a secret from me and my younger brother all this time, they must really be ashamed of being Jewish.
2. I myself, through thirteen years of regular-kid U.S. life, had acquired a helluva dose of anti-Jewish prejudice. In other words, I was prejudiced against myself.
I remember thinking, “Me Jewish? There must be some mistake.” I peered at my face in the bathroom mirror. Holy cow, I am Jewish! How could I have missed it all these years?
A week of shell shock and denial followed. When I emerged, I made a decision.
I decided I would get with the program.
If I’m a Jew, I’m gonna be a Jew.
I started going to temple. There was none in my hometown so I hitchhiked to the next town. My Mom and Dad refused to drive me.
The weird part was, the real Jews at the temple rejected me. To them I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. I was the new kid from the next town who couldn’t speak Hebrew, had never had a bar mitzvah, didn’t know what Hannukah was and, to boot, had a bad attitude about being Jewish.
After about two months I realized that this new regime wasn’t working. I reverted. I went back to being a regular American.
I know how crazy all this sounds, but, trust me, scenarios like this were not that unusual in the late 50s, the heyday of the Assimilation School of being Jewish in America. Being a Jew was a secret that some parents kept even from their children.
But back to me being a regular American. I still knew I was a Jew. I began casting around for role models. What Jews or Jewish images existed in the culture that I could relate to and be proud of?
Borscht Belt comedians? Molly Goldberg? The Holocaust? I didn’t even want to think about it.
I’m thirteen years old. I want Chuck Yeager. I want Audie Murphy. I want John Wayne.
When I began encountering anti-Semitism in my own life, my confusion deepened further. I just couldn’t get any purchase on the idea of being a Jew.
Then came June 1967.
The Six Day War.
Israel kicks ass on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
All of sudden the TV was wall-to-wall with images of Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, Jewish tank commanders. And they were major-league studs. My mind was blown. I thought, Now we’re talking! Finally: some Jews I can relate to.
But best of all was Moshe Dayan. I had never heard of him before. What a guy! The black eye patch, the take-no-prisoners attitude. Dayan was the Warrior Jew par excellence. Every Jew in America fell in love with him and so did I.
I loved his name. I loved his charisma. I loved his wit (which was apparent from his wry comments during televised press conferences). His humor was not “Jewish humor.” It was not self-deprecating—or worse, self-loathing. It was the wit of a winner. Of a man who knew who he was and was proud of it.
Fast-forward to 2010. I have grown up, become a novelist, a writer of historical fiction, war stories. I’ve written about the ancient Spartans and Athenians, about Alexander’s Macedonians; I’ve written about British commandos in World War II. Critics have been kind enough to call me “the finest military writer alive, bar none.”
Then one day I’m thinking about the Six Day War. What a saga! A military achievement on a par with Thermopylae or Gettysburg, and it’s even deeper than that because it’s about a people’s reclaiming of their ancient heritage, liberating their holiest sites. It’s the capstone to two millennia of exile.
I say to myself, “Steve, you’ve written about half a dozen warrior cultures, but never about your own people. Don’t you think it’s about time you came home?”
That’s how The Lion’s Gate started. That was its genesis.
As I promised last week, I’m launching with this post today a new series—about my experience conceiving, researching, and writing The Lion’s Gate. Two journeys will be happening in this series. The first is the artist’s journey: the struggles of a writer to find his subject, engage it, master it, and bring a work forth, not just as a creative enterprise, but in the hard-knocks world of commerce, marketing, publicity, and so forth.
The second will be my own personal journey. What happens when a secular American Jew who can barely find Israel on a map gets on an El Al jet and immerses himself in a land and a history that are his birthright, but that he has never known?
Does he change? How? What happens to him?
What inner evolution takes place in that man’s heart through 400 hours of interviews with Israeli fighter pilots, paratroopers, tankers (not to mention wives and female soldiers) who are unlike any Jews this Yank has ever met?
I was an infantryman in the Marine Corps Reserve in June of 1967 when the Six Day War happened in Israel. How does it feel, now, after this experience, when I see the flag of Israel? Should I have been there in ’67?
Where do I belong?
Who am I?
I’ll be back in this space with Post #2 in two days, on Friday. Hope to see you then.
Two journeys described in parallel –excellent. Looking forward to the Mon/Fri posts.
Steve, do you keep a journal; how do you process these two aspects of the experience associated with gestating and birthing your creations?
I don’t keep a journal per se, Karen, but I keep very detailed notes day to day.
Wow, I am going to read this one!! 🙂 Enjoyed your post! I did not know my father was Jewish until I was about 9 — only because I asked my mom about his family background after he died. Had some curiosity about my Jewish background, but after a while I lost interest — my mom said I would not be excepted/welcome into the faith.
This sounds like it’s been an intensely personal journey, decades in the making. Your willingness to share it is deeply appreciated. I’m looking forward to reading about your process as much as I am the book itself. I was in high school during The Six Day War and remember seeing the charismatic Moshe Dayan on the cover of Time and on Huntley-Brinkley. His daughter Yael’s first novel, New Face in the Mirror, found its way into our house during the 60’s – probably my older brother because it was, if memory serves, racy, but I remember being intrigued by the idea that women could be soldiers. It must have been amazing to interview her for this book.
Wow! What a fascinating journey you’ve been on.
I can’t wait to hear all of it, and especially, how you conquered Resistance to produce your new “baby.”
I’ve already bookmarked this book as a gift for birthdays and Christmas. 🙂
Much success to you, Steven.
Hmmm? Yes – I’ll be interested to see how an American who cannot find “Israel” on a map convinces himself that this faraway land – already filled with people – is somehow his “birthright”.
I’m not sure *anyone* is that good a writer.
I can really relate to this confusion. My father’s family were cultural Jews (Yiddish and Jewish jokes were okay, the Jewish religion was not). They avoided fighting in World War II, while my mother’s Spanish Catholic family sent two of their children to fight the Nazis. One of them died in Europe.
So I was half-Jewish, but not accepted by the Jews because my mother wasn’t.
Meanwhile, many of my friends were children of people who had survived Auchwitz, and some of them had been born in the camps. I was very, very aware of the suffering of the Holocaust.
When I was in high school a brother and sister from Israel spent a year at my school. They were both in the Israeli army. The girl was petite and blonde, and
we idolized her. It was wonderful to have role models of Jews who fought back. Everyone loved Moshe Dayan.
Steve, I am really looking forward to reading about your journey.
I want this book. Last time you introduced a book on the ‘first look access’ mailinglist there was a hefty discount at the end, but for Europe, the shipping charged were hefty. An ebook was the solution.
I want this one in dead-tree book form, though 🙂 Should I just pre-order through amazon or have you planned something for EU customers? I want you to make the most money, but I don’t want to go broke on shipping charges 🙂
Reinout, we’re trying to work something out for the UK but it’ll be a while. Alas, it looks like shipping charges cannot be gotten round, at least for the moment. Sorry!
cant wait for the book! dayan one of my heroes too. and happy passover.
Intriguing. Can’t wait to read more.
I cannot wait to read this book. Best part is that before we can buy it, we get to learn about your journey. You’re an inspiration to writers everywhere.
I hope you watched the recent show, “Story of the Jews”, with Simon Schama. One of the episodes covered 1000 years of Jewish efforts to become accepted members of European and Russian society. Some hoped to remain Jewish and practice their faith and customs just like their Christian neighbors did. Others hoped that by completely assimilating: conversion, name change, etc. they might “pass”, but NO. What Schama showed was that this dream of inclusion was shattered repeatedly through edict, expulsion, and finally the Holocaust. Yes, Dayan and all of the pictures streaming out of Israel lifted my childhood also with optimistic and strong images of what it might mean to be a Jew. The bent over, weak, introverted image of the Jew was propagated by the European imagination that feared this “other”. In photography as well as writing the question is, who is doing the representing and for what audience? I am not surprised that your parents and many others continued the tradition of hiding their identity and heritage. If you came back and tried the contemporary American Jewish scene, I think you would find it much changed from your childhood. The exclusion that you experienced was likely a product of learned fear. Alas, on the Dell Jewish Community Campus here in Austin,Texas, we still need a fence and a guard at the gate to try and foil the assassins like the one that just stuck in Kansas. For a fresh perspective on your tribe, try this: http://www.tabletmag.com/
Yes, “Tablet” is great … thanks, Naomi.
Great introduction to this marvelous story about evolution.
Great post. I also remember being thrilled by Moshe Dayan when I was little; my father had a cousin named Moshe who lived in Israel, whom I didn’t meet until I was older, and I imagined they were one and the same.
Wow – this is gonna be good! I can’t wait for your posts & the book. You have also perfectly illustrated the point of how much better information can be when it is told as a ‘story’. Looking forward to more.
I must echo others’ comments–I cannot wait to read this! Your willingness to open your guts and openly share is so brave, and so helpful. I have such deep respect & gratitude for what you do. Thank you.
Please, forgive this. Am reading/savoring Virtues of War and every time I envision getting on the 17 hhs Bucephalus, I come ‘undone.’ Alexander’s story is one of my lifelong passions. I ride and train horses. Virtues sent me first looking for no, tell me it is a no — the ancients didn’t have saddles — correct (albeit reason given, no buckles had me LOL. Western saddles don’t need buckles, just a ring and the Greeks knew how to forge. Interesting omission amidst the war tools.) Here’s my undone and my guess that you made the choice for Bucephalus to be huge for dramatic effect & for a rider, the very thought of riding a horse that big bareback is totally dramatic: “beside the tall Nisaeans, probably as big as modern chargers, Bucephalus must have look like a thickset pony.”
You have no idea how much I am looking forward to these posts. AND the book. 🙂
This speaks to something we all have to question: our identity. Those who have identity multiple crisis throughout their lifetime tend to be unable to hold onto jobs, relationships, gain financial footing etc. But everyone must go through the crisis and adopt their true identity eventually (see the works of psychologist Erik Erikson). I am excited to see how you mastered this crisis. I wake up every Wednesday looking for your posts!
Steve, your demeanor and message have that deep, ancient urgency of a prophet. So it’s no surprise you’re a Jew, now I hear you explain it. Yes, you had to write every book you have, and The Lion’s Gate is, as I think Steinbeck said of his East of Eden, “The Big One.”
Before I visited Israel I began sobbing and shaking in daily prayer. I knew I was in for it.
What I want to say is you are a tree, planted by rivers of water bringing forth fruit in your season. Your leaf shall not whither.
Surely we are divinely blessed through your generosity and skilled brazenness. I look forward to your book May 6. The Golan is ever in my thoughts and I recall looking toward Syria.
El Al is a fine airline. I’m so glad you “went forth.”
El Al, true. Though I gotta say, British Airways has the best lie-flat beds … not to mention the best crumpets.
Thank you for sharing the story behind the story.
I know what I will be doing on May 6th, 2014. Reading your story out loud to Pooh.
Pamela and Pooh
I apologize for my English – I use Google Translate.
Steven, you’re lying. Jews would not have won without the support of Britain and the United States. Israel now occupies foreign territory, trying to assign them on vsegda.Everi neither better nor worse than other people, ie they do not have any special rights, on this zemlyu.I not need to tell you about what you “great war” – in Iraq have killed like cockroaches, and you fell to the carpet bombord.Israel will not last a week without the United States. And I hope and budet.Potomu that besides cultural crisis, which has in many countries of the region, adds fuel to the fire infamous policy of Israel, who has decided that he has any special rights to anything. Stupefied Palestinians during the Israeli closure of the one Torons manipulated Hamas, on the other – they are humiliated and destroyed day by day “Israelis.” And it’s not maralizm and attempt at least in such form istirichnoy dispel misconceptions either your or your lies. Jew in the U.S. and Jew in Israel – they are completely different people.
I myself Half Blood (Arab and Belarusian), and I know not by hearsay about racism, I was often forced to fight over it (and, unfortunately, not always won). And I know how they feel the peoples living in Palestine. And I hate the Jews flaunt their “successes and achievements”, they definitely need to tell the world that they have “done something”.
– “Hey, Ishmael! There’s some guy created / made / makes / achieved” something “and everybody likes it!”
– “He is a Jew?”
– “Yes, he is a Jew to 1/512”
– “Urgent! Wikipedia! Fox News! TWITTER! The whole world should know about it, otherwise why did he do it?!”
My father was an Arab from Iraq and in his youth he fought against the Baath Party, he is alone with the old Soviet rifle entered into a gunfight with helicopter gunships, unfortunately he was not able to shoot it down, and furthermore, when the helicopter returned fire, his Ranelagh rock fragments (yes, he was on a rock) in poyasnitsu.But he told me it’s only when I was 20 or 21, and he talked about it without any pride boasting like “between business”. And no – he’s not dumb aborigine with Kalashnikov.He has a doctorate in economics, he wrote to the Arab-Russian / Russian-Arabic dictionary of military terms, he wrote oil painting in his spare time, he knew three languages. But I never noticed him pride and “feeling of exclusivity.” He always considered himself a “ordinary” – was not engaged in self-deprecation, but not conceited.
Ultimately, the basic principle of life sounds like a French maxim: “Freedom. Equality. Brotherhood.” Which does not recognize Israel, believing that they have some special rights simply by ethnicity. Ethnocentrism – one of the most vile remnants of the past.
At least from you, Stephen, I was hoping for objectivity.
I just read ‘the war of art’ and decided I want to know more about the author. I was hopefully searching for some comment, a word, something to tell me this without is not a Zionist. I wish he would have replied to your comment. There should be no sense of pride in bringing to a group that supports an apartheid state, such as Israel. In his position, Mr. Pressfield has an opportunity and moral obligation to condemn the practices of the Zionists against indigenous people. Israel should be admonished for sending people to the back of the bus based on ethnicity. Do what’s right, Mr. Peessfield, and denounce racism, denounce the open air prison (Gaza), denounce the inequality in education based on ethnicity, denounce the prison system that hauls none year old CHILDREN!
Cheers for this post, Steven. And thank you for sharing such personal sentiments and memories with us. I think many writers have projects that we avoid or delay working on for years.
Did you wait to work on this until you felt you had enough experience as a writer to do it justice?
Can’t wait to read more of these posts.
Good luck with it all Steven. I’m looking forward to reading it all. The research sounds fascinating, finding the motivation, the expression behind the six day war. What was the final straw, what made that decision. All the other factors that lead up to the final resolution, and then there’s the people.
Appropriately, I read this after finishing the first two days of Passover – the holiday of Freedom and Redemption for the Jewish people. (No such thing as coincidence.) The Lion’s Gate is on many levels a story of Freedom, Redemption – and thus reconnection. (No, I haven’t read it, but from the description, it’s obvious. Really eager for this one.)
Steven, this post goes to the core in so many ways. By the time I’ve properly processed my reaction, you will have shared two or three more posts. I’m not sure I can thus properly express my response. ישר כח – Yasher Koach – is a start, for the book. For the journey – which we are still and always on – perhaps Psalm 121. Or, from a different angle – the power of Ani Maamim.
It resonates. Thank you.
Steve…..your post brought back so many memories. I am around your age and in the 50’s we were living in a small West Texas town. And as in most small towns rumors get passed and like a fart, they get smellier each time they’re passed.
Anyhow, the rumor got to being spread that my family was Jewish. We were not a church going type people and I had no idea what a Jew was or for that matter why the hell my mother was in such an uproar that people thought us to be “God damn Jews”. I was picked on a school and called a Jew boy.
So I grew up with that idea. I had no clue what a Jew was but I didn’t want to be a cursed baptist,catholic, jew, methodist and worse of all a Christian Scientist. They were the worst because my father’s mother was a very active one.
Surprisingly my grandmother was the only one in my family with the sense to educate me on God and a general “cliff notes” education of what was what with religions.
I then changed to almost confirming the rumor as I wanted to get me some of what they had………
Can’t wait for the read, I have it pre ordered on Amazon.
monos en theos……jim
You have already taught me a lot. But I look forward to learning even more when I pass through the Lion’s Gate. Thanks for all you do.
Your new book may very well be my FIRST fiction to read from cover to cover!
Honestly, not joking, I’m 37 years old and have never read a fiction book. I am a non-fiction book worm. Your War Of Art is the most inspiring book I’ve ever read. I wish you had an idea of how many lives you are touching and changing.
Sincerely & Truely,
Tel Aviv, Israel
Thank you for sharing your process in creating this book.