The Holocaust Museum: Origins

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part iv.  In 1993, the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., opened its doors.  The history of that buildout has never properly been told.  Really, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation waiting for an ambitious and brave scholar.  Brave because that researcher would be up against the lion of Holocaust narrative, Elie Wiesel. 

     In The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), I dove into the first half decade of that buildout.  From his appointment to the presidential commission, in August 1978, until his resignation from the presidential council in December 1986, Wiesel absolutely dominated the museum project.  His reach touched every aspect, with tentacles spreading from subcommittees to staff offices to the Capitol Rotunda to the East Room and the Roosevelt Room of the White House, even into the Oval Office.  His dominance continued in the way the history has come down to us.  A few years after the museum opened its doors two key sources chronicled the history of the museum.  Edward Linenthal’s Preserving Memory reached for broad strokes.  The records, documents and artifacts hadn’t yet been codified.  He didn’t have access the way a researcher would today at the Holocaust Museum archive in suburban Baltimore.

     Linenthal relied heavily on one source.  While he interviewed many of the key players involved in the project, he found his guide in Marian Craig.  An office manager who ran a doctor’s office before joining the Carter White House – according to one source, that doctor was a known Quaalude pusher – Craig joined the project at its inception.  Originally, she came from Georgia and she was part of President Carter’s Georgia group.  She became Wiesel’s personal secretary.  She developed an intense loyalty for Wiesel.  In fact, she placed him high atop a pedestal.  Linenthal’s work has Wiesel’s footprints all over it.

     Wiesel followed Linenthal’s book with his own chronicle of the era in his second volume of autobiography from the 1990s, And The Sea Is Never Full.  In that chronicle Wiesel built the story arc of a Spielberg movie.  What began with hope and excitement soon devolved into quarrel, dissension, and, ultimately, treachery and deceit.  The central character, a pristine figure, became increasingly swept up by the many feuds.  How did the wrangling impact his virtue?  How did the ugliness of partisan politics color his purity?  

     Those questions formed the arc of Wiesel’s story.  The ending came straight from E.T.  Rather than playing politics, rather than sullying his core values, the central character walked away.  He turned his attention to wider causes.  Maybe Wiesel’s version of events will be Spielberg’s next movie project?

     How accurate was the portrayal?  In GAEW, I dove in.  Here, let’s concentrate on the museum’s origins, for in microcosm that initial period set the stage for the total morass that would follow.

     A thorough reshaping of the American landscape began on May 1, 1978.  On the 30th anniversary of the State of Israel, in a commemoration ceremony at the Rose Garden, President Jimmy Carter had the Holocaust on his mind.  He declared, “Many nations have memorials to the Holocaust victims.  There is no such formal memorial in the United States.  To ensure that we in the United States never forget, I will appoint immediately a Presidential commission to report to me within 6 months on an appropriate memorial in this country to the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust.”

     Note his statistic: 6 million.  Carter’s first reference and he used a number that defined the Holocaust as a Judeocide.  The records show that he will reconfigure that statistic in later speeches and executive orders.  Wiesel will go ballistic.

     Note the pace.  It wasn’t until November 8, some six months later, that Carter announced the commission members.  It wasn’t until February 15, 1979, some nine months after Carter’s original announcement, that the commission first met.  Seven months after the first meeting the commission handed over its recommendations to the White House.  The date was September 27, 1979.  The slowness suggested a harbinger.  It took 15 years for the Holocaust Museum to open its doors.

     White House records indicate that Wiesel was not the administration’s first choice to lead the commission.  In the days following the ceremony at the Rose Garden, a White House staffer, Ellen Goldstein, outlined a “rough agenda.”  Part of that agenda suggested commission members and, importantly, the commission chairman.  Goldstein first suggested Arthur Krim, president of Orion Films.  She listed his attributes: “keen political skills, articulate moderator, Democrat, consummate fundraiser, and he is highly regarded and respected.”

     Subtract the last line and none of the attributes outlined Wiesel.  The position called for a clear-minded political force.  Wiesel proved to be volatile, mercurial.  His survivor psychology shone out.

     An anecdote occurred early in the project, questioning Wiesel’s leadership.  This story comes from Siggi Wilzig, a camp survivor turned American entrepreneur.  He had the personality of a pugilist.  After the first commission meeting of February 15, 1979, a participant approached Wilzig.  “That’s the wrong man,” this unnamed man said of Wiesel.  “He’s got no power of operation and administration.  He will never appeal to the public.  He’s not strong enough.”

     Wilzig replied, “Muscles and strength we had with Hitler.  What we need is brain and heart.”  (See council transcript, December 4, 1986, USHMM, Minutes and Records Relating to Council Meetings, May 1980 – April 1993, Accession Number 2000.051, Box 9.)

     White House records indicate that Arthur Krim rejected the position.  The administration then sought suggestions.  Names were bandied about: Morris Abrams, a past president at Brandeis; Supreme Court Justice Abraham Fortas; CBS news president Fred Friendly; billionaire and philanthropist Laurence Tisch.  All power players within the Democratic Party.

     Another power player put an abrupt end to the search.  Arthur Goldberg, former Secretary of Labor (under Kennedy), former Justice on the Supreme Court (appointed by Kennedy), former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (under Johnson), named Wiesel.  Goldberg’s suggestion quickly gained a consensus within the administration.  A June 16 memo referred to Wiesel as the “one candidate who would be undisputed by the Jewish community.”  A month later, another memo classified Wiesel as the “undisputed expert on the Holocaust period” and “his appointment would be without controversy.”

     Wiesel as expert on the Holocaust shows the naiveté of the Carter administration.  He wasn’t even an expert on his own history, at least as he recorded in his many memoirs.  Importantly, the Carter administration named an expert to the commission.  His name was Raul Hilberg.  To students of the Holocaust his name will need no introduction, but Hilberg, to this day, is known as the author of the preeminent history on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews.  Strikingly, Hilberg used no survivor testimony in producing his work.

     To this origin story of the Holocaust museum, Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s chief on domestic affairs, offered more color.  He recalled a conversation he had with Carter.  Asked by the president who should serve as chairman, Eizenstat named Wiesel as the only person “suitable” for the job.  Eizenstat then phoned Wiesel, who was out of the country.  “When I found him,” Eizenstat recalled, “he was very excited, agreed, and came to see the president.”  (Rochelle G. Saidel, Never Too Late To Remember.  See also Stuart Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II.)

     Aside from receiving the phone call on foreign soil, Wiesel’s version of events differed entirely.  As chronicled in And The Sea Is Never Full, Wiesel reacted to the offer with uncertainty and resistance.  He immediately saw the commission as a “public relations game.”  On the phone with Eizenstat, he rejected the offer.  The call ended with Eizenstat’s plea: “Please reconsider.”

     The next day, according to Wiesel, Eizenstat phoned again.  Wiesel’s mind hadn’t changed.  But Eizenstat threw a curveball.  “The president wishes to see me,” Wiesel chronicled.  “This I cannot refuse.  The appointment is set for the following week.”

     Two different versions of events then emerged in the reflections of Eizenstat and Wiesel.  In Eizenstat’s version, Wiesel responded to the offer with excitement and acceptance.  In Wiesel’s version, he had suspicions.  “We must never use the Holocaust for political purposes,” he reflected.

     In that reflection the beginnings of a character took shape.  As depicted by Wiesel, that character distanced himself from the machinations of politics.  That character didn’t get dirty.  The character remained above.

     Notably, the character formed tentacles to an earlier Wiesel-chronicled character.  When describing his own behavior during his Holocaust year, Wiesel developed an image.  The coward survivor.  “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” he reported in his first volume of memoirs from the 1990s, All Rivers Run To The Sea.  “Sickly, timid, fearful, and lacking all resourcefulness, I never did anything to stay alive.  I never volunteered for anything, never jostled anyone to get a tin of soup.  Coward that I was, I preferred to eat less and to let myself be devoured by hunger rather than expose myself to blows.  I was less afraid of death than of physical suffering.”

     In his chronicling of the museum building era, Wiesel developed an offshoot of the coward survivor.  “I’m not a political person,” he wrote, when describing his initial rejection of Eizenstat’s offer.  “I have no desire to become one; all I want is time to write and study.”

     What got lost in that character?  According to a White House memo, Wiesel accepted the position by August 7.  There was no mention of a hesitant Wiesel, no mention of a meeting with the president.  Rather, Wiesel the politico took shape.  The opposite of the coward survivor formed.  The rough elbower.

     The record of the rough elbower began immediately upon accepting the position.  According to another White House memo, Wiesel immediately began a push back.  He received a phone call from Ellen Goldstein, who detailed her office’s recommendations for the commission, including a list of appointments.  Wiesel objected.  He didn’t like the official title.  He didn’t like the names on the list.  He was unfamiliar with a series of people.  He wanted to know why a certain person, the notable Irving Greenberg, was “kept off.”  

     If his word choice implied accusation, suspicion, even paranoia, Goldstein set the record straight.  Greenberg made the request himself.  But to counter his objections, Wiesel proposed a considerable increase to the size of the commission.  In fact, he wanted to add his people, or as he chronicled in his autobiography, “to gather as many survivors as possible.”

     Stuart Eizenstat responded to Wiesel’s push back.  In a handwritten note in the margin of a memo, he asked for a meeting with Wiesel “asap so this can be wrapped up.”  That meeting was scheduled for the morning of September 5, 1978.  The date proved pivotal, as the negotiations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat began at Camp David.

     Did Wiesel meet with Eizenstat that September morning?  Wiesel’s version of events spun in a different direction.  He went to the White House.  He met with President Carter in the Oval Office.  A negotiation took place.  Wiesel had a list of conditions for accepting the position.  He wanted the memorial, in whatever undefined form it took, to be educational in nature.  He wanted the commission members, as part of a fact-finding mission, to travel to Holocaust sites in Europe and Israel.  He also wanted the commission to organize and administer a national Day of Remembrance (DOR) for Holocaust victims.  Up to this point in time, there were local commemorations, with the largest at Temple Emanu-El in New York City.  There was no central DOR commemoration.

     Wiesel had a scene in mind for the first national DOR commemoration.  He wanted a joint session of congress.  He would address the full body.  Notably, the scene positioned Wiesel along the lines of a president or a consequential dignitary.  There would be Wiesel, like FDR after Yalta, like Churchill in 1943, like Sadat and Begin who would address the Congress one month later.  Wiesel held onto the scene even though no president had the authority to determine congressional ceremony.  In the ambition of Wiesel, he brought the Holocaust to such hallowed ground.

     According to Wiesel’s version of events, President Carter agreed to his conditions and the work of the commission began.  To this chronicle, there remains great contention.  For the full story, please see GAEW, but here’s what we know.  From the outset, and throughout Wiesel’s tenure as chairman of the project, perpetual turf wars played out.  Never did the culture of the project mellow into healthy compromise, negotiation and reason.  Even the very first meeting of the commission included some nastiness, bordering on deep-seated prejudice.

     The first turf war occurred over the definition of the Holocaust.  When President Carter spoke at the Capitol Rotunda during the first national DOR commemoration in April 1979, he began with a recollection from his recent trip to Yad Vashem.  “I walked slowly through the Hall of Names,” he said.  “And like literally millions before me, I grieved as I looked at book after book, row after row, each recording the name of a man or woman, a little boy or a little girl, each one a victim of the Holocaust.  I vowed then – as people all over the world are doing this week – to reaffirm our unshakable commitment that such an event will never recur on the Earth again.”  

     His attention then swung to the “awesomeness of the suffering involved” during the Holocaust years.  He put a statistic on that “awesomeness”: “11 million innocent victims exterminated, 6 million of them Jews.”

     Carter’s initial remarks formed a fascinating juxtaposition.  He invoked Yad Vashem.  That institution recognized the Holocaust as a Judeocide, six million dead.  Carter then pivoted to something greater.  His definition of the Holocaust spoke to pluralism.  It spoke to inclusion.  Carter’s “11 million” spoke to diversity.  Although originally proposed by a non-American, Simon Wiesenthal, Carter’s “11 million” resonated as an American number.

     Here’s what we should know about Jimmy Carter and his relationship to the Holocaust.  To understand the genocide better, he did what many Americans did.  He found a guide.  Carter, in fact, welcomed Simon Wiesenthal to the White House in August 1980.  A ceremony took place in the East Room.  The ceremony recognized Wiesenthal as the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, an award decreed by the congress but bestowed by the president.  Carter appeared reverential.  He placed the medal around Wiesenthal’s neck.  He called Wiesenthal’s appearance “an exciting thing for me.”  The two men had first met in 1976, according to Carter.  “He gave me his good wishes and we exchanged in just a few minutes some memorable thoughts between two men who encountered each other on life’s way.”

     A photograph, taken of Wiesenthal and Carter at the ceremony, displayed Carter’s goodwill.  Not only was he glowing in Wiesenthal’s presence, but, when Carter signed the photo for Wiesenthal, he added to the standard “best wishes” sentiment.  In his neat and tidy penmanship, Carter added “& admiration.”

     Wiesenthal’s “11 Million” definition of the Holocaust was a felony to Wiesel.  Wiesenthal as a righteous man, in Carter’s framing, was even worse.  To Wiesel, Wiesenthal was a competitor, a rival, a combatant.  In his memoirs, Wiesel went on the offense.

     Following the DOR ceremony, he joined the president for the limousine ride back to the White House.  According to Wiesel, he asked Carter “where he obtained this figure.”  Carter named his source: Simon Wiesenthal who “insists on including all victims: six million Jews and five million non-Jews.”  Wiesel corrected Carter, “This figure does not reflect the facts.”  There were non-Jews in the camps but their deaths “did not number five million; they were a fraction of that figure.”  

     That fraction, according to Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, was “about half a million.”  (Yehuda Bauer “Don’t Resist: A Critique of Phillip Lopate,” Tikkun Vol 4, no. 3, May-June 1989.)  Wiesel’s fraction was less statistical and far more emotional.  Among the non-Jews, he told the president, there were “heroes of the Resistance and brave humanists.”  There were also “fierce anti-Semites and sadistic criminals.”  With the last group in mind, Wiesel asked, “‘Would it be just, Mr. President, to honor their memory together with that of my parents?’”

     According to Wiesel, Carter got the message.  He “never cited this figure again.”  The historical record reflects the exact opposite.  In September 1979, the commission submitted its report to the president.  In a ceremony at the Rose Garden, President Carter continued with his wider definition.  While noting the “Jewish people who were engulfed by the Holocaust simply because they were Jews” he also spoke of “5 million other human beings.”  Carter continued, “About 3 million Poles, many Hungarians, Gypsies, also need to be remembered.”  Carter made these remarks with Wiesel standing behind him.

     A month later, on October 26, 1979, President Carter moved the museum project forward.  The commission had done its work.  The successor body, the Holocaust Memorial Council, came into existence by executive order.  That order defined the Holocaust as “the systematic and State-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and some five million other peoples by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.”

     The phrasing had a devastating effect on Wiesel.  He saw the administration as acting in an “unreasonable, even irrational” way.  In his memoirs, he took the framing further afield.  He framed a classic fight between right and wrong.  Like all good classics, he established two competing characters.  The protagonist carried the weight of profound suffering.  Heavy victimization, a geometry of imposition, reverberated.

     The villain, meanwhile, appeared obtuse.  The villain manipulated the process.  He based his decisions on realpolitik.  Realpolitik, of course, ran counter to Wiesel’s ethereal character.

     Again, the story arc hit the key markers of a Spielberg movie.  Again, maybe Wiesel’s version of events will be Spielberg’s next movie project?

     The real story is something else entirely.  Behind the scenes, Wiesel embraced the realpolitik.  His behavior became pugilistic, chaotic, conniving.  He began a hostile push back.  The record of the rough elbower began.

     The election of Ronald Reagan solved the issue.  From his first public words to the council, Reagan recognized the Holocaust as a Judeocide.  But definition of the Holocaust immediately morphed into representation on the Council.  The Carter administration pushed for “Euro-ethnics,” or a multi-ethnic, pluralistic council.  Wiesel pushed for a Jewish, survivor-dominated body.  Records show that when the Carter administration won the day, Wiesel formed a kitchen cabinet, or a Sanhedrin in Jewish terms.  The Sanhedrin included only camp survivors.  All saw the Holocaust as a Judeocide.

     The Republican administration of Reagan didn’t stop the infighting.  The Reagan White House did what all incoming administrations do.  They began to appoint their own people to council positions.  Wiesel began to lose his trusted people.

     A new fight played out during the Reagan years.  As the U.S. government ceded land to the museum project on the Mall, as specific buildings were identified, and then rejected, a series of wealthy, Jewish-American real estate developers came to the project.  The survivors on Wiesel’s Sanhedrin saw these men as mall developers.  In other words, as schlumps.  They accused the developers of an ulterior motive for their large financial contributions. According to those accusations, the developers wanted to name the museum after themselves.

     The developers saw the survivors as unhinged.  They fired back.  They accused Wiesel of keeping his position on the project until the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize.  That award for Wiesel came in October 1986.  He resigned from the museum project in December.  The timing of his resignation sparked the intrigue. 

     When Wiesel departed the scene, followed by his most trusted lieutenants, the conflicts receded.  The pace of the project jumped.  Such a dynamic posed a series of questions.  Did Wiesel grasp the wider vision of memorialization?  Was he able to downplay his own personal motivation?  Or, did he stoke the conflict?  Did he need the conflict to maintain control of all moving parts?

     To this agent of chaos, let’s circle back to where this profile began.  Had Arthur Krim, or any high-ranking Jewish Democrat, become chairman of the project, the history would have played out in a very different way.  The building of the Holocaust Museum became a fight for power.  Survivor power, with all the distrust, jealousy and paranoia associated with the survivor psychology.  That dynamic would never have been stoked by a chairman like Krim.

     Let’s also note the emergence of Marian Craig.  She became a gatekeeper to Wiesel.  Notably, before her time in the Carter White House, she worked for a doctor who pushed Quaaludes.  As the records show, those sedatives might have been helpful in the push and pull that came to define Wiesel’s time on the project.  

A Pipel’s War Story, part ii

A few weeks ago, I published a difficult story on this board.  I dug into a term known in the concentration camp universe.  A pipel, or a sex slave.  Basically, these young prisoners received privileges – extra food, removed from the grueling exhaustion of the work detail, protected from the frigid climate (except during roll call), and shielded from the selections – for a staggering cost.  Sexual abuse came their way.  For sex – for rape – these prisoners gained a shield.  Their overlords/abusers became their protectors.

     In the story, I documented certain events of one pipel.  His name was Stephan Ross.  His story did not specifically conform to the established definition of a pipel.  Different perpetrators abused him.  Stephan Ross did not serve one boss and that boss did not, in return, protect him.  But Ross did what he had to do to survive.

     Since publishing Ross’s story, I have received some backlash.  I want to concentrate on one reader’s response. Anna P. wrote, “You asked about consent?  You implied pleasure?  What an extravagance of a question!  This man, then a boy, was raped.  What were you thinking?”

     Anna’s words have remained with me these past few days, and I want to respond.  Here’s what I was thinking.  In his iconic memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel introduced one boy prisoner as a “pipel” during a hanging scene.  He alone among the multitudes of eyewitness accounts submitted the pipel description.  As I detailed in my new biography on Wiesel, The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), Wiesel framed an outlier.  He alone described the boy prisoner as a “sad angel.”  He alone framed a Christ-like death scene.  Crucifixion 32, C.E., shifted to Crucifixion 1944.  Golgotha met Auschwitz.

     One eyewitness to the hanging, in an author interview, tacitly suggested that Wiesel worked the pipel detail into his scene as a self-referent.  When I pushed him further on the detail, he walked back his meaning.  “You have to ask him,” he said, meaning Wiesel.

     But the question remained with me while I dug into Wiesel’s work.  Why did he alone invoke the pipel referent?

     The question gets a little more gristly.  Wiesel didn’t stop with Night.  This research did not make it into GAEW, but Wiesel didn’t end his framing with Night.  As his literary record indicates, he returned to the framing in his third book, known as The Accident, but sometimes called Day.  Wiesel chewed on sex slavery at Auschwitz, and notably this notion of consent.

     Let’s dig in.  The scene occurred as a set piece in The Accident.  Wiesel introduced a character named Sarah.  Like Stephan Ross, Sarah was not the specific definition of a pipel.  Like Stephan Ross, she did not serve one boss and she was not, in return, protected by that boss.  Sarah, the reader learns, became a prostitute, a playmate for the enlisted men.

     In fact, there were two official brothels at Auschwitz (and officially ten death camp brothels).  The largest brothel at Auschwitz, located near the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in Block 24, went by the nickname “Puff.”  Peepholes in the doors to the rooms ensured that only Nazi-tolerated sexual positions were used.

     Yes, you read that sentence correctly.  The Nazi hierarchy controlled even the most private details of German life.  A Nazified research institute, The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, considered the military position the most clean.  Further, the women were sterilized, and had disinfectant cream routinely smeared over their genitals.

     Today, Block 24 services the IT department of the Auschwitz State Museum.  The peepholes remain.

     The literary record indicates that the first major work to chronicle the Auschwitz brothels appeared in 1953.  The author, Yehiel Feiner, was born in Sosnowiec, Poland.  He entered Auschwitz in 1943.  After the war, he immigrated to British-mandated Palestine.  There, he changed his name to Yehiel De-Nur and began a writing career.  He didn’t use his adopted name as his pen name, but rather his camp number along with the Yiddish term for camp inmate.  He became Ka-Tzetnik 135633.

     In 1953, De-Nur published his most famous novel on the Joy Division, or female Jewish prisoners used by the Germans for their sexual pleasure.  Officially, the Germans did not permit racial mixing with Untermenschen – or sub-humans, as the doctrine asserted – but we all know the hypocrisy of bureaucracy.  The brothels were just another humiliation tactic.

     De-Nur based the book on his sister, ostensibly.  The English version, House of Dolls, using the Nazi name for the brothels, was published three years later.  The novel sold millions of copies. 

     Notably, De-Nur went on to use his brother’s story in the same way.  In 1961, De-Nur published Kar’u Lo Piepel, or Piepel as the English translation appeared in the same year.  The story followed a sex slave named Moni, who longed for his parents throughout his pipel experience.  In the end, Moni made a suicidal run, reflecting the Auschwitz term, “He has gone to the wire.”

     In Wiesel’s scene, his protagonist, eponymously named Eliezer, met Sarah in a Parisian café following the war.  Something about the prostitute stimulated Eliezer and the two ended up back in her rented room.  Eliezer, based so tightly on the young Wiesel, cautioned Sarah of his penury.  “‘That doesn’t matter,’” she responded.  “‘You’ll pay me some other time.’”

     The words suggested purposes for the prostitute outside her purview.

     In Sarah’s rented room, a passionate kiss occurred.  Eliezer chronicled, “Instinctively I had closed my eyes.  When I opened them I saw hers, and in them an animal-like terror.  This made me draw back a step.”

     Wiesel then used fear to embark upon Sarah’s story.  “She was twelve years old when, separated from her parents, she had been sent to a special barracks for the camp officers’ pleasure,” Wiesel wrote.  “Her life had been spared because there are German officers who like little girls her age.  Who like to make love to little girls her age.”

     If the author Wiesel wanted to shock his readership with that detail – and Wiesel at this point in time in his life was dealing with massive rage issues – he upped the shock value.  “‘Did you ever sleep with a twelve-year-old woman?’” Sarah asked.

     Eliezer did not reply.  “I tried not to scream,” Wiesel wrote.

     Sarah continued, “‘But you have felt like it, haven’t you?’”  And then, “‘All men feel like it.’”

     Sarah then accused Eliezer of not having sex with her because of her age.  Specifically, she was no longer twelve. Sarah then continued with her history at Auschwitz: “‘All the men loved me: the happy and the unhappy, the good and the bad, the cold and the young, the gay and the taciturn.  The timid and the depraved, the wolves and the pigs, the intellectuals and the butchers, all of them, do you hear?  All came to me.‘”

     Notably, Sarah laughed while she spoke.  Wiesel the writer used the laughter for its mirror effect.  Eliezer wanted to scream.  But the scene wasn’t over.  Sarah continued, “‘I want you to know this and remember it: Sometimes I felt pleasure with them…  I hated myself afterward and even while it lasted, but my body sometimes loved them…’”

     The words heightened the fear factor.  Eliezer fled the room in panic.  “Only later, while running, did I notice that my fingers were still clutching my throat,” Wiesel wrote.

     These words attempted an answer of sorts to some fascinating questions.  Even in the most depraved moments did delight creep in?  Did desire?  Could the victim feel passion?

     Notably, the shock of these questions forced the protagonist Eliezer to the street.  Perhaps our reader, Anna P., acted as Wiesel’s protagonist did?  Anna, can I offer some advice when delving into the Holocaust, or any massive and grim history.  Don’t let the shock factor stop you.  Take in the history.  Allow it to live inside you.  Then dig deeper.

     Let’s dig deeper.  Let’s focus on the names in Wiesel’s story.  The protagonist, Eliezer, was of course a reflection of Wiesel.  But, strikingly, he gave the prostitute his mother’s given name, a circumstance the protagonist Eliezer pointed out.  What did that convey?

     Sarah Vizel died some moments after arriving at the Auschwitz depot.  There are no records of her incarceration, unlike extensive records of Wiesel and his father.  As detailed in numerous sources by Wiesel over the decades, the Vizel family was separated during the first selection at the Auschwitz depot and she died, again according to her son, in the gas chambers.  The lack of documentation supports the claim.  Death in the gas chambers meant that the Untermensch wasn’t processed into the camp.

     Wiesel’s youngest sister, Tzipora, went with her mother.  In Night, Wiesel detailed her last moments alive: “Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand.  I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her.”

     One word in the description circled over to Wiesel’s description of the prostitute Sarah.  He gave her “blue eyes and golden hair.”  A bit later in their interaction while in the café, he buried himself in the newspaper, “trying to forget the blond girl and to avoid her straightforward, innocent eyes and the sadness of her smile.”

     The ploy didn’t work and the couple went to Sarah’s rented room, but the description sparked a question.  Did Wiesel use the prostitute Sarah as a reimagining for his sister Tzipora and his mother Sarah?  When he fled the scene, did the panic include shards of his family’s past?

     These questions are incredibly pregnant when considering the psychological development of Wiesel.  As detailed extensively in GAEW, Wiesel wrote The Accident, originally published in 1961, in a state of renunciation.  The future looked entirely bleak.  The protagonist of The Accident suffered from an inability to dream of his future.  Without a perceived future, he had no hope.  Who are we when all hope is lost?

     That question not only formed the basic philosophy for The Accident story, but it defined Wiesel during that part of his life.  The Jewish communities, and beyond, came to know Wiesel as a tremendous energizer.  In fact, the “Elie Wiesel Phenomenon” was born.  That development skirted the lonely years, post-war, when Wiesel lived as a renegade.

     As a renegade, Wiesel allowed himself to wade into some contentious territory – like sexual pleasure at Auschwitz.  Later, he formed a Gospel.  The Gospel according to Elie Wiesel rejected revenge.  The Gospel according to Elie Wiesel rejected anger, violence, hopelessness.  Sorrow became the overarching marker of the Holocaust experience, bereavement.  

     Sorrow and bereavement would not have led to Wiesel’s scene with Sarah the prostitute. 

A Pipel’s War Story

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part iii.  Part iv will take a leap.  With Elie Wiesel, there’s the general framing of a righteous man, known in Jewish traditions as a Tzaddik.  These days, the narrative surrounding Kobe Bryant frames him as a Tzaddik.  It’s a terrible corruption.  Look for “Who was the real Kobe Bryant?” coming soon. 

There were many hangings at Auschwitz.  Many times camp prisoners were forced to watch as a hangman placed a noose around the neck and kicked out the chair.  Many times prisoners were forced to watch the bodies writhe on the rope until last breath.  Many times camp prisoners were then forced to file past the dead.

     “Mützen ab!” the order came down, and the prisoners would remove their caps from their heads.  “Mützen an!” a second order bellowed, and the prisoners would refit their caps.

     In Elie Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night, he chronicled one of these hangings in layers of detail.  He wrote about three males hung at Monowitz in the fall of 1944.  Of the three, Wiesel wrote, one was a boy.  “A child with a refined and beautiful face,” Wiesel described, “unheard of in this camp.”

     The framing, combined with many other details in Wiesel’s description, seemed dubious.  As detailed in The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), I undertook a thorough examination of the hanging.  Were there documents of the hanging?  How did other eyewitnesses remember the event?  And, how did that testimony differ from Wiesel’s?

     To put it succinctly, Wiesel framed an outlier.  He alone described the boy prisoner as a “sad angel.”  He alone framed a Christ-like death scene.  Crucifixion 32, C.E., shifted to Crucifixion 1944.  Golgotha met Auschwitz.

     But Wiesel didn’t end his reconstruction there.  He alone introduced the boy victim as a “pipel.”  Let’s dig into the term as it pertained to the concentration camp universe.

     A pipel was a boy in a food chain.  In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s account of his ten months in the camp, he offered significant size and shape to the “pikolo,” as he altered the name, or “little whistle” in his native Italian. The post of pikolo, Levi wrote, “meant the messenger-clerk, responsible for the cleaning of the hut, for the distribution of tools, for the washing of bowls…”  According to Levi, the pikolo represented “a quite high rank.”  The pikolo “does no manual work, has an absolute right to the remainder of the daily ration to be found on the bottom of the vat and can stay all day near the stove.”

     These privileges – extra food, removed from the grueling exhaustion of the work detail, protected from the frigid climate (except during roll call), and shielded from the selections – came with a staggering cost.  These boys were sexually abused.  In exchange for the privileges, these boys became the sex slaves of their overlords.

     In his memoirs, A Greek Jew From Salonica Remembers, Yaacov Handeli wrote of the threat to himself: “As I was part man and part boy then, there was a danger I could become a pippel.”

     Handeli was 17 years old at the time.  As he noted, he received the protection of a former Greek boxing champion.  According to Handeli, this boxer “let all and sundry in the kitchen know in no uncertain terms that I was under his protection.”  Handeli continued, “He was a mountain of a man; he ate a lot and all the kitchen workers stood in dread of him.”  Handeli felt “protected and secure” in the presence of this boxer.

     Another Auschwitz survivor chimed in.  When asked in an author interview if he knew the term, Ernie Michel replied that a pipel was a “homosexual” who “became involved with a kapo or blockältester” to “save his life.”

     Those details would be corroborated, in part, by another Auschwitz survivor.  His name was Siegmund Kalinski, and he introduced a nuance never before suggested of Elie Wiesel.  But let’s save that detail for the moment.

     Asked for his description of a pipel in an author interview, Kalinski initially didn’t want to talk about the subject.  Then, without much coaxing, he replied that there were “homosexual friendships in camp.” 

     His terminology implied consent.  Were these boys consenting to the sex act, or were they victims of fate based on age and chance, as described by both Handeli and Michel?

     Kalinski went further.  He used the German word zärtlichkeiten.  Caresses.  “Caresses were exchanged,” he said. Kalinski’s description then not only implied consent but a new word entered the fray.  Pleasure.

     In Night, Wiesel went in an altogether different direction.  In Auschwitz, “the pipel were loathed,” he offered, placing the entire description in parenthesis, “they were often crueller than adults.  I once saw one of thirteen beating his father because the latter had not made his bed properly.  The old man was crying softly while the boy shouted: ‘If you don’t stop crying at once I shan’t bring you any more bread.  Do you understand?’”

     Wiesel’s characterization set up a notable juxtaposition.  On the one hand, he detailed the general hatred of the pipel.  On the other hand, he described one tender, lovable child, who writhed on the hangman’s rope.  Was the contrast a plot point, made to engender a reader’s sympathies to this one particular prisoner?  

     In my investigation into the hanging at Auschwitz, I took this question to all eyewitnesses.  Siegmund Kalinski, who died in 2015, offered some eye-popping detail.  He did not use the word “hate” to describe the pipel.  He favored another word: disregard.  He used an analogy: “Is a prostitute well respected?”

     The analogy seemed applicable.  For the persona of the pipel implied prostitution, sex for protection and food.

     Kalinski, who was born in Krakow but spent his adult life as a doctor in Frankfurt, continued.  He chose a German idiom: “In der Not, frisst der Teufel.”  If necessary, the devil eats flies.  In other words, you do what you have to do to survive.

     With that description as baseline, I asked Kalinski why Wiesel would then include the pipel detail.  Initially, he shrugged off the question.  I found that Kalinski tended to laugh off what he disagreed with.  Only then would he explain.  On the important Norbert Wollheim Memorial Website, an information center concerning the history of Auschwitz, I found some background material of Kalinski that seemed critical.  He was one of those Holocaust survivors who were reluctant to talk about his experiences.  For instance, he waited decades to tell his colleagues in the medical field.  He wore long sleeves to cover his Auschwitz tattoo.

     “You have to understand,” Kalinski eventually continued, “Elie, when he came to the camp, was very young, 14 or 15…”  He cut himself off.  He left his statement dangling.

     What did he mean?  That Wiesel was too young to understand the workings of the camp?  Wiesel had been in the camp for four months by then.  Four months was an eternity.

     Was Kalinski hinting at something else?  My mind went to Yaacov Handeli’s testimony.  Wiesel was 15 years old when he entered the camp.  If you were a certain age at the time of arrival, a teenager say, you ran the risk of becoming a pipel.  Was Kalinski hinting that Wiesel wrote about the pipel as a kind of self-referent?  Or, was Kalinski offering a veiled reference of himself?  His age at the time put him in danger, too.

     I tried to clarify with Kalinski.  He responded, “You have to ask him.”

     Wiesel, though, wouldn’t talk to me.  Let’s be clear about Elie Wiesel.  He was an incredibly fragile person.  He couldn’t handle critical evaluation.  For that reason, he never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him. Unknown to Wiesel’s writers, perhaps, Wiesel used his circle to control the narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his tale.

     No hard evidence renders Wiesel as a pipel.  Only my interpretation of Kalinski’s nuance, and Wiesel’s strange inclusion of the pipel figure in his Night detail.  Again, no other eyewitnesses identified any of the hung prisoners as a sex slave.

     But Kalinski’s nuance, and Wiesel’s original detail, set my mind racing.  In my investigation, I sought a wider lens…

     Let me here offer a warning.  The following history did not make it into GAEW.  What the reader is about to encounter is very raw, very biting, very bleak.  I found a survivor who endured a most brutal war history.  His concentration camp story did not specifically conform to the established definition of a pipel.  Different perpetrators abused him.  Stephan Ross did not serve one boss and that boss did not, in return, protect him.  But in Ross’s story, a parallel emerged.  Ross fit inside Kalinski’s idiom.  He did what he had to do to survive.

     An Internet search on Stephan Ross these days brings up the idealized persona.  Szmulek Rozenthal was born in Lodz in 1931.  He was the youngest of eight children.  He entered the concentration camp universe in 1940.  His Holocaust history passed through ten camps, including Auschwitz.  He was liberated at Dachau by American soldiers.

      Rozenthal sailed into the New York Harbor in April 1948.  He settled in Boston.  He changed his name.  He put himself through school.  He gained a doctorate degree in psychology.  He got married.  Two children came into his world.  He went on professionally to provide guidance to inner-city underprivileged youth in the Boston area.  He also pushed for a Holocaust museum and memorial in Boston.

     In the idealized man story, he spent decades trying to find the American soldier who had, at Dachau, offered some food and an embrace.  As Ross told The Jewish Advocate for a biographical story in 2009, that soldier “gave me a will to live.  He restored my faith.  He was the first person to show me compassion.  He took me back to the civilized world.”

     In an author interview, conducted over the phone, I found the unvarnished Stephan Ross.  The effects of the concentration camp universe remained vibrant.  “I live it today,” he said.  “I’m still living in the camp – here, now, in America.”

     Asked about those experiences in the camps, Ross answered, “I cannot tell you the truth.  It is beyond the truth.”

     Then he began.  He wanted to talk about his thirst for revenge.  He wanted to talk about his anger.  His experiences came out in shards, in broken sentences, in references, in silences.  This was his language.  The shards and silences were as pregnant as the stories.

     Suddenly, he started to tell the story of the first attack.  It was in the morning.  He went to get a little water in the washing barracks.  There was a trough in the washing barracks, with faucets.  The anger in Ross’s voice rose: “The faucets were frozen, no water coming through, no heat.  We had no hot water for five years – in every camp the same.  Five years.  Can you imagine?”

     He immediately answered his question.  “You cannot imagine.  You do not know.”

     He jumped into an angry rant: “We should have put a knife into the bellies of these sadistic murderers.  We should have killed them.  We didn’t know.  We were too much involved with the rabbis, with God.  We were the Chosen People.  It’s a lie.  We should have been taught to kill.  We were taught lies.”

     I felt small, sitting in my apartment in New York City.  I felt incompetent.  I was used to the Elie Wiesel Gospel.  Sorrow being the overarching marker of his experience, bereavement.  The Wiesel Gospel rejected revenge.  The Wiesel Gospel rejected anger, violence, hopelessness.  In that moment, I could understand why.  Stephan Ross emphasized the knife slicing up those “sadistic murderers.”  The listener felt inadequate, burdened, strained, defeated.

     I worked through my feelings to steer Ross back to the topic.  He went there, unwillingly, through explosions of anger and hatred.  He spoke of the Ukrainian guards: “They became part of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion – they became supporters for Germany, for the Führer.  They were promised a Greater Ukrania, after the war.”  He spit out the words, “Sadistic murderers.”

     I felt the wrath of spittle from some 200 miles away.  I tried to focus on the history.  The Schutzmannschaft Battalion, to be accurate, differentiated from Ukrainian guards.  The battalions were indigenous policemen.  For the most part, they volunteered for duty.  Wage earnings might have been a significant part of their volunteerism.  Policemen earned more than unskilled workers.  In addition, they became eligible for state benefits, including extra food rations and health care.  Were they sadistic murderers?  According to the historical record, they were evacuated with the Germans in 1944.  Clearly, they weren’t going to reintegrate into Ukrainian society.

     Meanwhile, the Ukrainian guards ranked “among the most notorious perpetrators of the Second World War.”  In the autumn of 1941 the SS began to recruit guards to assist in labor camps.  The SS recruitment drive turned up at Soviet POW camps, where prisoners were dying in droves due to appalling conditions.  The SS offered life.  Estimates vary on how many prisoners volunteered for the work, but it seems that some 3,000 to 5,000 men went to Trawniki, a town near Lublin.  There, the Trawniki men, as they became known, received training from the SS.  The Trawniki trail then led from labor camps to the death camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor.  Trawniki men turned up as guards at Auschwitz and in the camps in Germany and Austria.

     (For information on the guards and the Ukrainian police battalions, please see Frank Golczewski, “Shades of Grey: Reflections on Jewish-Ukrainian and German-Ukrainian Relations in Galicia,” in Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in UkraineHistory, Testimony Memorialization.)

     The “sadistic murderer” who raped Stephan Ross was probably a Trawniki man, not a member of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion.  The distinction would mean nothing to Ross or any other victim.  Nor should it.  I understand that, at least.

     “I went to get water,” Ross continued, hesitantly, recalling the trough in the washing barracks.  “I was captured by a Ukrainian guard with a gun to my head.  I was forced to do an act…”

     Silence followed his words.  So much muffled seething.  For me, the intensity led to imagery.  To a guard with a gun sodomizing a nine-year-old boy.  I sat quietly at my desk in New York City.  Stephan Ross seethed in Boston.  A guard with a gun sodomized a boy in southern Poland.

     I shook off the imagery.  “In the barracks?” I asked.  “Right there?  Weren’t the barracks full of people?  Weren’t the barracks a congregation place?”

     In her memoirs, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, Gisella Perl described the latrine as “our community hall, the center of our social activities and our news-room…  The latrine was also our black market, our commodity exchange building.  Here you could buy bread for your sausage, margarine for your bread, exchange food, shoes, a piece of cloth for ‘love.’”

     “Love”: the word felt so hollow.  Maybe she meant it that way?

     “They ran,” Ross continued.  “They saw a guard with a gun.  Everyone ran.”  His anger didn’t go to his fellow prisoners.  He understood their reaction.  “Life was so cheap, so bitter,” he said.  “We had no compassion for each other.  Everyone of us knew we were going to die; we just didn’t know when.”

     Silence followed.  So much seething.  Then another repeated phrase, “I cannot tell you the truth.  It is beyond the truth.”

     The next question in my head proved tricky.  I wanted to know, during the rape, what he focused on, what he felt.  But how do you ask that kind of question of a man who lived it everyday?  How do you balance his right to privacy with the historical record?  What’s more important?

     I made a cruel decision.  “Was there consent, even in its remotest sense, during the act?” I asked.

     “Consent?” Ross yelled.  “These were sadistic murderers.  These were butchers.  They should have been murdered after the war.  I was exposed as a boy.  Consent?  How?”

     Ross quieted.  Then he added, “When you’re hungry you don’t think about sex.  You only look for sex when you have a full belly.  We were starving.”

     Silence again.  The imagery, again, in my head.  Ross seething in Boston.  My struggle with taking in the history in New York.  A Ukrainian guard sodomizing a Jewish boy in southern Poland.  I heard Ross’s voice in my head.  “Sadistic murderers,” spit out.  My mind went to Gisella’s Perl description of the latrines.  “Love”: the word felt so hollow.

     Again, I made a cruel decision.  “Can you talk about another instance of abuse?” I asked.

     Silence on his end.  I could feel the seething, the absolute rage.  “Fuck you!” he could have yelled at me.  Maybe he considered the words?  

     He didn’t answer my question directly.  Instead, he told a story.  His mind flashed to a selection process.  The guards were deciding whom to murder.  To hide himself, Ross jumped into a fecal trough.  He submerged himself in shit.

     In the movie Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg used similar imagery.  Did he hear of Ross’s story?  Was jumping into a fecal trough a regular occurrence?

     Ross continued with his story.  After the selection, other prisoners helped to wash him down.  But there was little water, no soap.  They could remove the fecal matter from his skin; they couldn’t remove the smell.  That night nobody would sleep near him.  That made him a target.  He risked the wrath of his fellow inmates.  His brother had an idea.  There was a bucket in every sleeping barracks.  During the night, the prisoners were not allowed to go to the washing barracks to urinate.  They were not allowed to go outside their sleeping barracks.  If they did, they risked a bullet.

     So every barracks had a bucket for urination.  With the contents of that bucket, the older brother washed the younger brother.  “I smell urine everyday,” Ross said to me.

     His voice, suddenly, broke into a howl.  He began to howl-cry.  I’d never heard anything like it before: so much anger mixed with so much sorrow.  A howl-cry.

     I felt pulverized.  I sat there knowing that in between the forbidden and the permitted I had crossed over.  I’d interfered and there was no going back.

     The interview was over.  I tried, in my inadequate way, to bring it back to some kind of normalcy.  “Can I call you again?” I asked.

     “No,” he answered.  “Why would you?”

Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part ii.  Part iii will examine one case of sex slavery in Auschwitz.  Look for “A Pipel’s War Story,” coming soon. 

I first wrote to Elie Wiesel in the winter of 2006.  “This is a book proposal,” I began.  “I would like to write a biography on you.  A different kind of biography, perhaps, from the books already published.  The biography I propose would not be a blow-by-blow accounting of your life….  I aim to write an intimate portrayal.”

     An “intimate portrayal”: what did I even mean?  Words came to mind at the time: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical, objective.  The words resonated in my mind.  That kind of book did not exist on Wiesel.  Why?

     There are enough books on the life and work of Wiesel to fill a library.  There are profound theological studies.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There is much hagiography.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over multiple decades.  Still, despite the incredible outpouring of work, Wiesel remained a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endured.  How did a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania become the face of the Holocaust?  How did a yeshiva bocher, or a young man in a religious school, evolve into a man of conscience, gaining a Nobel Peace Prize along the way?

     Wiesel rejected my proposal, kindly, gently.  At that point I thought the project was dead.  But it wasn’t.  Something about the Wiesel narrative just didn’t set right with me.  Something about his rejection, too personal, too intimate, pushed me forward.  I turned to a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Over the course of the next 15 years, I navigated Wiesel’s life.  I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed his cousin, who was with him in Auschwitz.  I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald 1945.  I interviewed his friends from France and the period following the war.  I interviewed his French tutor.  I interviewed the counselors who guided him.  I interviewed theologians and thinkers who knew Wiesel in America.  I interviewed Wiesel’s key lieutenant from the Holocaust museum building era of the 1980s.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  The list goes on.

     Here’s what my research uncovered.  The previously unknowable Wiesel.  One word came to dominate Wiesel’s rise to fame.  Ambition.  He was as ambitious as any presidential aspirant.  He couched that ego in a lamination of humility.  Was the humility an act?

     Below you will find a portraiture of Wiesel:

1) Wiesel was a master teacher, according to former students.  One of those students, Ariel Burger, wrote a book in 2018, entitled Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.  In a question and answer article used by the publisher for publicity, Burger spoke to the genesis of his work on Wiesel.  He couldn’t believe that “so little had been written about his role as a teacher, even though he always said that teaching was the most important public role he played.” 

     (See Ariel Burger’s author page on Amazon, Witness-Lessons-Elie-Wiesels-Classroom/dp/1328802698/ref= sr_1_fkmrnull_1?crid =1IYDXH5UFHNOQ&keywords=ariel+burger+ witness&qid=1554900149&s=gateway&sprefix=ariel+burger%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-1-fkmrnull.)

     Burger went on to say that “Wiesel was very supportive of the idea, and we spent time discussing what I might include.”

     Of course, those sessions occurred.  Here’s what Burger missed.  Wiesel never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him, as I documented in The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW).  Unknown to Wiesel’s writers, perhaps, Wiesel used his circle to control the narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his story.

     But that’s not the grave disappointment found on Burger’s pages.  There’s not one critical evaluation of Wiesel in Witness.  There’s only the idealized Wiesel.  The real Wiesel – his ambitions, his overwhelming need to control, his public façade of purity, his fragile psychology, or what I called his psychache in GAEW– remains untouched and unexplored.  As a Festschrift, Witness is a success.  But then, that’s all we have on Wiesel.  Pages and pages of Festschrift.  Books and books of Festschrift.  Winston Churchill once said, “To do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is always necessary.”  Burger’s book only provides more urgency to the fundamental question: Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

2) Wiesel was a profound storyteller and a fundamental chronicler of the 20th century.  He had an extraordinary talent; he could conjure up not only the image of the concentration camp universe, but its breath, its smell, its echo, its reverberation.  In GAEW, I gave Wiesel a title: the docent of Auschwitz.

     The history shows that Wiesel’s talent produced a cult of personality.  Wiesel developed a kingdom of followers and disciples, in the traditions of his Hasidic ancestry.  He occupied the seat of the rebbe.  In turn, the rebbe-to-disciple relationship produced a fierce sense of protection.  To challenge Wiesel publicly became a rarity bordering on blasphemy.  There were a few mitnagidim, or opponents, to Wiesel.  Let’s mention three.

     The Holocaust survivor Eli Pfefferkorn proudly displayed the badge later in his life.  Decades before, he met and befriended Wiesel.  On the museum building project in Washington, D.C., he became Wiesel’s alter ego.  Appointed by the president of the United States, Wiesel could not speak his mind.  Pfefferkorn took the blowhorn.  He became the wild card, the schemer, the operator.  But his allegiances to Wiesel fell apart.  Pfefferkorn cited Wiesel for betrayal, for turning his back on his core constituency.  It was “close to a tragedy,” Pfefferkorn remarked in an author interview.  “By turning against the survivors, he was turning against himself.”

     The literary critic Alfred Kazin preceded Pfefferkorn on the mitnagidim queue.  The literary record indicates that Kazin grew captivated with Wiesel early in the 1960s.  “As we sat in Riverside Park watching young families on parade,” Kazin recalled in an autobiographical essay, “Wiesel’s dramatically tortured face, his martyred thinness, the deliberateness of his speech, were all the more striking because he suffered violent headaches.  I felt very humble.  He looked as if he had taken into himself the whole cruelty of what Churchill had called ‘the worst episode in human history.’”

     (See Alfred Kazin, “My Debt to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi,” in David Rosenberg, ed., Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal.  New York: Times Books, 1989.)

     But Wiesel’s decades-long development sent Kazin into full retreat.  He came to see a platform idol, a celebrity, a “professional survivor.”  Wiesel never missed an opportunity to put the Shoah face on for the camera.

     Kazin excoriated in his personal journals.  Apparently, the two men met by chance on a flight from Boston to New York.  Wiesel “languidly” invited Kazin to sit with him.  The conversation “steered away from all grievances.”  Kazin continued, “As the plane doors were about to close, some unimaginably Hasidic characters in full regalia came in, and I asked Elie if his characters always followed him.”

     (See Richard M. Cook, ed., Alfred Kazin’s Journals.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.)

     I am the latest on the short list of mitnagidim.  In GAEW, I question Wiesel in the narrative he told.  I question Wiesel in how, and why, he portrayed himself as he did.  I question Wiesel in the role he created for himself.  I think Wiesel created both a Biblical character and a Gospel.  He framed himself as a neo-prophet.  In the Wiesel-created and Wiesel-controlled narrative, a different Jeremiah came into the world.  Not the whiny Jeremiah.  Not the PTSD Jeremiah.  The Jeremiah of righteous counsel.  The docent of Auschwitz quietly advanced the strongest sanctimony.

3) If Wiesel’s mission included some truly admirable work, a strong subtext of narcissism pervaded.  He made a career of distilling and billboarding the Holocaust’s essence as he saw it, usually with himself at the center.  He developed his prophet persona, replete with a physiognomy, subtly reducing appearance to marginalia.  But he took his persona beyond the prophet.  He reached for an illustrious figure in Jewish traditions: a Tzaddik, a wholly righteous person.  In Hasidic traditions, the Tzaddik has some superhuman qualities.  A charismatic leader, he can be imbued with access to the divine.  I think Wiesel positioned himself as the American Tzaddik.

     To what was Wiesel moored?  As presented in GAEW, he was moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  He was moored to control at a high cost.  He was moored to storytelling at the expense of historicity.  Such a mooring, for a novelist, would hardly be worth a footnote.  But Wiesel positioned himself as much more than a novelist.  He positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors.  He positioned himself as the docent of Auschwitz.  He positioned himself as the voice of conscience.  In those self-appointed roles, did he have the right to compromise truth?  Did he have the right to build legend?  Did he have the right to create his apocrypha?

4) Let’s be clear.  At times, Wiesel was a heroic figure.  In the 1950s and 60s, when few outside the survivor demographic listened or cared about the Holocaust, he worked on behalf of survivors.  He gave voice to that terrible history.  He then used his voice to advocate on behalf of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents beginning in the mid-1960s.  He continued his advocacy work around the world.  It’s a profound record.  He won a Nobel Peace Prize for the work, ostensibly.

     Let’s expose the flipside.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, an advocacy operation began.  In GAEW, I gave that advocacy a name: the Wiesel-for-Nobel campaign.  Wiesel made some highly questionable decisions in his push to win the Nobel.  For instance, he aligned with a German politician who, as a younger man, had believed in the Nazi cause.  The record shows that Wiesel needed this politician on his side.  This politician had reach to the very top of the German Bundestag.  Wiesel needed the support of Chancellor Helmut Kohl to win the Nobel.  He got it. Strangely, Wiesel then invited this German politician to the Nobel awards ceremony.

     When Pfefferkorn called out Wiesel for “turning against the survivors,” this is some of what he meant.

5) Wiesel’s narcissism got in his way.  After winning the Nobel, Wiesel created a foundation.  The foundation served as a platform for Wiesel’s self-promotion.  In GAEW, I gave it a name.  A one-man state department.  Consider some of his questionable diplomacy.  In the summer of 1992, international observers and journalists began to chronicle widespread atrocities in Bosnia.  The reportage evoked images of World War II and the concentration camp universe.  In fact, the parallels to the Holocaust were eerie, as if the perpetrators had a model on which to build their form of annihilation.  As in the Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia sparked its own vocabulary.  The term “ethnic cleansing,” attributed to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, came into the world.  Talk of “ethnic cleansing” resulted in an international outcry to stop the atrocities.

     At the end of August 1992 a critical moment occurred.  A conference, to advance peace negotiations and to close the prison camps, was held in London.  Top Western diplomats, mainly foreign ministers including Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, attended.  So did all the key players from the Balkan region.  One attendee, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim by birth, referred to the prison camps as death camps.  Such talk conjured one death camp in particular.  Auschwitz loomed over the entire proceedings.

     What transpired proved notable.  Elie Wiesel attended the conference on the invitation of President Dobrica Cosic of Yugoslavia.  According to Wiesel, Cosic proposed that a commission, led by Wiesel, travel to Bosnia to investigate the conditions in the prison camps.  At the conference, the other leaders went along.  They promised freedom of movement.  Cosic took the gesture further.  Before Wiesel, he appealed to Karadzic to close all the camps in his territory.  Karadzic accepted.  The two leaders signed an agreement.

     Pierre Hazan, then a diplomatic correspondent who covered the Balkan wars extensively, called that document a “paper” agreement.  It was worthless.  It would never take effect.  

     (See Pierre Hazan, Justice in a Time of War.  Hazan participated in an author interview, September 3, 2013.)

     Hazan framed the conference as a façade.  The Balkan strongmen hoped to gain a “veneer of legitimacy.”  In Wiesel, they found the ideal frontman.  Here was the witness to the concentration camp universe.  Here was the docent of Auschwitz.  Here was a voice of conscience.  Here was someone who could confer, in the court of public opinion, a favorable image.

     Hazan, though, took the framing further.  The Balkan leaders weren’t alone in using the persona of Wiesel.  Why did the leaders of the Western democracies turn to Wiesel?  Following the reportage of atrocities, public opinion expressed outrage.  Cries could be heard for a vigorous intervention.  The Western leaders responded by ratcheting up the pressure on the Balkan strongmen during the London conference.  They threatened the belligerents by naming a special investigator to examine the crimes.  They imposed economic sanctions.  They raised the idea of military intervention.

     “The words are strong,” Hazan described, “but no one is fooled.  Behind the rhetoric and spectacle of politicians outraged by the policy of ethnic cleansing, this conference is, above all, an attempt to intimidate the belligerents into compliance and to calm an indignant public.  It is not about sending soldiers to die in Sarajevo.”

     Hazan called the London conference a “theater.”  Wiesel served as the perfect symbol, according to Hazan, or “the living dead man returned from the Nazi camps meets the organizers of ‘ethnic cleansing.’”  In the persona of Wiesel, Western moral conscience had a public face.

     Was Wiesel aware of the duplicity?  Did he realize that he was a tool, as all sides played Wiesel for their own gain?  Or, was he so blinded by his own ambitions?  Was he a victim of his own one-man state department publicity? 

6) Wiesel developed a most unique public image.  His self-portraiture centered on humility.  He removed himself from the forces of ambition.  He shaped his character upon the moral fibers of work: to study, to write, and to teach, as noted in the Ariel Burger narrative.  Meanwhile, his credits piled up.  He wrote indefatigably.  He won literary prizes in France.  He served two presidents as the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  He won the highest prizes bestowed by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  His crowning achievement occurred in 1986 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Wiesel developed a distance between himself and his accomplishments.  There’s no talk of taking action in his narrative, of pursuit.  There’s no talk of ambition.  A definitive brushstroke in the self-portraiture of Elie Wiesel emerged, the brushstroke of humility.  The world fame and import fell to him.  He played no role in his accomplishments.  Rather, he expressed wonder at his successes.

     This incredulity found a champion in Wiesel’s longtime literary agent, Georges Borchardt.  Wiesel met Borchardt in the late 1950s.  Borchardt then represented the French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit in New York.  Through Borchardt’s efforts, Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night, found an American publisher.  A confidential, trusting relationship grew from these roots.

     Asked about the promotion of Wiesel during the long width of Wiesel’s career, Borchardt responded in an author interview, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…”

     Borchardt’s statement held some merit.  In July 1966, for instance, the 92nd Street Y contacted Wiesel.  His lecture series began with the Y’s outreach.  But consider Borchardt’s pronoun, I.  He focused on himself.  His statement then missed the wider story.  Was there duplicity in Borchardt’s grammar?

     Wiesel hired a promoter, the B’nai B’rith lecture bureau, in the spring of 1967.  The bureau, then and now, represents renowned Jewish public figures and scholars.  Lily Edelman became Wiesel’s publicist.  In many different sources over the years, Edelman interviewed and wrote about Wiesel.  Never did she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never did Wiesel acknowledge her role.  It’s a totally fascinating form of chicanery. 

7) Wiesel was, quietly, an incredibly litigious person.  He threatened lawsuits relentlessly.  Perhaps the case can be made that Wiesel used the threat of lawsuits to yield power and control.  Perhaps the case can be made that the threat of lawsuits was a part of his psychache.

     Wiesel’s history of lawsuit threats circles over to the most renowned lawsuit intimidator of our era, Donald Trump.  In fact, the two men shared some notable traits.  Let’s end this portraiture with a study, not found in GAEW.

     Both Wiesel and Trump loved, and sought out, the limelight to a fault.  Both men built their campaigns on loyalty.  Loyalty meant saying the earth was flat if the leader deemed it so.  Disloyalty got you shunned.  

     Both men suffered from massive abandonment issues as children, stemming from their fathers.  Trump’s relationship with his father has been well documented.  In fact, I went in depth in an earlier book, Trump-a-Lincoln-a-Lago.  Adjectives used to describe Trump’s father jump off the page.  Autocratic, recalcitrant, certainly emotionally unavailable but very possibly lacking in emotional intelligence.  

     Wiesel’s father, in the years before his death at Buchenwald, was a merchant, a grocery store owner.  In an interview with a trusted colleague, Wiesel reflected on his early relationship with his father.  The store took away the attentions of his father.

     “He worked hard from early morning to late at night,” Wiesel recalled.  “He was more absent from home than present because either he was in the store or he was working for the community.”

     (See Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.  New York: Paulist Press, 1976.)

     According to Wiesel, and corroborated by other eyewitnesses, Wiesel’s father was a dayan, or community organizer and arbiter.  Due to his work life, Wiesel’s father had one day a week to spend with his son.  That time came on Shabbat.  Wiesel attached to a memory.  Following the ritual mikveh, father and son walked to services together.  The father took his son’s hand.  “I liked it when he did that, and I like to remember it now,” Wiesel commented in his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea.  “I felt reassured, content.  Bound to me, he belonged to me.  We formed a bloc.”

     That bloc dissolved in an instant.  When someone else joined in the walk, the father released the hand.  The act caused his son to feel “abandoned, even rejected…”  

     The image is arresting.  For moments, snippets, Wiesel had his father’s undivided attention.  That attention inspired gratification.  Note the great warmth, the unity, the ownership.  The child reveled in the attention.  The moments, though, were fleeting.  Something always followed, something that took his father’s attention away.  Wiesel felt rejected.  Rejection led to bereavement.

     Where did bereavement lead?  Bereavement created a cycle, a deep and unmitigated longing for more attention.  What did the child learn from that wound?  How to hoard what he craved?  How to invent to facilitate more?  How to act to coerce?  How to control?

     Trump’s early life contained some of the same markers.  Of course, Trump didn’t lose his father to the Holocaust.  He didn’t watch his father die, as Wiesel did.  The war year, from the spring of 1944 to April 1945, intensified Wiesel’s sense of bereavement.  The war year produced a person who desperately needed to control his universe. Control came easily to the writer.  In his fiction, his memoirs and even his journalism, Wiesel could create characters, plot lines, and story development unchallenged.  There was no outside threat, no voice of contention.  

     Control came almost as easily to the emissary, and to the teacher.  But that control was put to the test during the 1980s and the building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as I documented in GAEW.  Wiesel entered a new and collaborative enterprise.  He had a great deal personally at stake.  He felt threatened.  In the face of perceived threat he tightened his control.  He formed an oligarchy as a protective layer.  He surrounded himself with loyalists.  The tentacles reach out to Trump’s oligarchy, to his obsession with control, to his wound relationship with his father.

     But a notable meeting purportedly took place in the late spring of 2016.  Wiesel and Trump had a private lunch. At that point in time Trump had essentially gained the Republican nomination for president.  Why would a luncheon take place between these two seemingly disparate men and what was discussed?

     The historical record offers little response.  While Ted Koppel reported the luncheon, he didn’t know the content discussed.  (See Max Kutner, “What Did Donald Trump and Elie Wiesel Discuss Over Lunch?,” Newsweek, July 15, 2016.  Online at wiesel-trump-lunch-meeting-480506.)  But let’s speculate.  Trump’s reasons for meeting with Wiesel seem clear.  Trump was doing what politicians do: trying to shore up support.  In this case, Jewish support.

     Wiesel’s reasons for the lunch appear to touch on his psyche.  Let’s circle back to that child and father walking to religious services together, as described by Wiesel.  Let’s circle back to rejection, bereavement.  Bereavement created a cycle, a deep and unmitigated longing for more attention.  Spin the psyche into the 1960s.  When Wiesel began his climb to world fame, he found an irresistible dynamic.  He liked the attention.  The attention fed into his ambition.  Wiesel, as documented in GAEW, wanted to play “world stage politics” with a “humanistic touch.”

     Wiesel died on July 2, 2016.  And yet, some weeks earlier, with Wiesel in ill health, according to the reportage, he met with Trump.  His ambition, even while suffering from a long and terminal illness, remained until his final days.

     This is the true Elie Wiesel.


My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, is soon to be released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available for preorder here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part i.  Part ii will examine the man and his tales.  Look for “Who was the real Elie Wiesel,” coming November 1. 


Let’s cast off with a dream.  I am at a dinner party.  A group of seemingly reputable men and women sit around a long table.  Their appearance suggests their respectability.  Everyone is dressed to titivate.  Gorgeous gowns and pinstriped, three-piece suits.  Real material, not flimflam from some pedestrian tailor.

     I, too, have dressed for the occasion.  When I wake, and I sense the fineness of the suit, I’m not sure of its origin.  It does not hang in my closet.  But, my appearance leads to a great sense of personal pride.  This is the high point of the dream.  I feel like a dandy.

     There’s laughter and camaraderie around the table.  There’s great celebration.  It seems that things have been set right.  It seems that some injustice has been corrected.  There’s a clinking of wine glasses.  I do not participate.  I realize, despite my excellent façade, that I sit uncomfortable.

     The dream itself is a bit hazy, as if viewed from too far away.  I don’t have sharp focus on faces present.  I can feel identities, however.  Mine sits at the head of the table.  I am the guest of honor.  In the beginning of the dream I have no idea why I’m so esteemed, but the reasons will soon emerge.

     A voice begins the raison d’être for the dinner engagement.  The man actually says “raison d’être” in his toast.  The accent is peculiar: a French-accented, Scottish-tainted, old man cadence.  It takes me a second, in the dream and once in the waking life, to understand the English spoken.  I remember the thought that pops into my mind upon first impressions: I wish dreams came with subtitles.

     As the sole editor and chronicler of this dream, I have cleaned up the garble.  The saluter begins: “As the eldest here in this exquisite dining hall, the grandfather of deniers, so to speak…” – a small smattering of tee-hees follows from those gathered around the long table, a chuckle, a noticeable table slap, all gaining my interest and making my discomfort expand – “… it is in my purview to give the salutation.  Let’s raise a glass to the man of the hour…” – full attention turns to me now, causing my discomfort to race – “… the man who took down the FABRICATOR.  The man who took down the LIAR.  The man who took down the REAL DENIER.”

     As the sole editor and chronicler of the dream, I have put the words of emphasis in cap lock, for they are spoken with so much disdain.  I suppose that’s what I most remember.  It’s not the meaning of the words that captures my attention, in the dream and in the waking world.  It’s the sneering effect.  The bombardment of contempt.  The syrupy righteousness offered in the delivery.

     The saluter continues: “Let it be said that I was born some four months after the REAL DENIER.  Let it be recognized that I died some two months after the DENIER.  Let it be said that I began our row sometime in the mid-1970s, when things crystalized in my head, when I realized the entire perfidy in the mere mention of gas chambers.  Gas chambers became a form of grandstanding.  Gas chambers, in the MOUTH of the RIGHTEOUS, became a kind of superiority complex.  The rest of us, reduced to rabble, were made to feel entirely small.”

     A round of applause follows the man’s words, a noticeable nodding of heads, more table slaps, even someone seated close by offering up a “preach, preach” response.

     I remember my discomfort with one word.  The saluter had a fixation with the adverb entirely.  When one speaks of the complete, I admit, my internal skepticism mechanism kicks in.  There must be room for nuance.

     The saluter continues: “The RIGHTEOUS vs. the rabble, that’s how the world viewed our row.  The RABBI vs. the renegade.  I was shouted down.  I was accused.  A new word came into our vernacular.  The denier.  I became the first denier, when THAT ONE never spoke a truth.  THAT ONE lived to tell his tall tales, outrageous to the core.  The travesty, my friends, is entirely galling.”

     A side toast breaks out, a toast within a toast.  In the dream it’s unclear who offers the side toast.  I can’t even hear the gender of the voice.  But the side toaster declares: “To the grandfather of deniers.”

     Then an addition to the side toast, a second side toast, or a toast within a toast within a toast: “To the dean of deniers.”

     A round of applause follows, more tee-hees, a rising chuckle, even a guffaw.  My sense of discomfort now feels massive, catastrophic, a flood waylaying a third of a country.

     The saluter continues: “Now here we are.  The record has been entirely corrected, thanks to our man…” – again, full attention turns to me, my body responding in a massive shiver – “… The GREAT DENIER has been castrated.  To the castration of the WEASEL.  To his… deracination.”

     I don’t recall the reaction to the toast from those at table.  I am assuming that everyone present cheered heartily, perhaps wildly.  I did not.  In my dream, and later in my waking life, I concentrated on words spoken.  “Entirely,” of course, but also “great denier” and “weasel” and, perhaps most singularly, “deracination.”  The word, according to Merriam-Webster, means to uproot.  But there’s a secondary twinge: to remove the racial or ethnic characteristics or influences from.  Did I deracinate the subject of my upcoming book, Elie Wiesel?

     I don’t think so.  Here’s what should be known.  Many years ago now, I was thinking about a writing project on George Washington.  I wanted to concentrate on his slaver upbringing and culture and how the country, under his tutelage, grew from those roots.  And how those roots have not been… deracinated.  I went to a library to do some preparatory work.  I wasn’t struck by the amount of scholarship on Washington.  That was a known.  I was struck by the amount of scholarship on his neighbor, alphabetically speaking.  Wiesel.

     In terms of sheer quantity, he well surpasses the mid-table presidents.  The Clintons and Madisons, the Andrew Jacksons and John Adamss (twice).  In terms of sheer quantity he seems neck and neck with the presidents of the 1960s: Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon.  He probably even out-scholarships Tricky Dick.

     But to study the voluminous work is to find a fascinating dynamic.  Wiesel serves as the central source.  His story, as he alone laid it out, absolutely dominates.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, is nonexistent.

     What did that mold?  Wiesel, despite a library’s worth of volumes, remains a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endure.  How does a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania become the face of the Holocaust?  How does a yeshiva bocher, or a young man in a religious school, evolve into a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

     When I first began to conceive of a biography project on Wiesel, I wanted his participation.  I sent a proposal his way.  I asked, in my wording, to “walk a little” with him.  Wiesel refused my proposal, kindly, gently.  I then turned to another form: a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

     Such a mooring would not have escaped Wiesel’s eye, had he lived to read my work.  Wiesel had his eye on the Soviet Union, beginning in the mid-1960s.  He had his eye on refuseniks and dissidents and Tarbutniks, or those Zionists involved in Hebrew-language education.  He spoke out against the insane anti-Semitism.  As he was doing so, Solzhenitsyn was in the midst of castigating the gulag system.

     As the years of my research went by, though, my project moved well beyond literary interpretation – as Solzhenitsyn’s did, of course.  In my research I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed acquaintances and friends who were with him in Auschwitz.  I interviewed his closest friends from Buchenwald 1945.  I interviewed his fellow survivors from France and the period following the war.  I interviewed his French tutor.  I interviewed the counselors who guided him.  I interviewed theologians and thinkers who knew Wiesel in America.  I interviewed Wiesel’s key lieutenant from the Holocaust Museum building era of the 1980s.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  I interviewed Wiesel’s first cousin, whose Holocaust history paralleled Wiesel’s.  They, in fact, shared a bunk in Buna.

     What does my project find?  The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW) breaks through the layers.  GAEW challenges the canon, first established by Wiesel, then solidified by his biographers.  GAEW separates the man from the persona, and legend from historicity.  An Elie Wiesel never before uncovered emerges.

     But my work comes with some personal regret.  In fact, I waited five years to publish.  I saw my role as terribly fraught.  I hope I am not stoking the deniers.  I have a great fear.  Will I become a pinup girl for the denier set?


Let’s get back to the dream.  Following the toast, it basically fizzles out.  I awake in a start and my mind instantly goes to those in attendance.  I jump out of bed and walk over to my writing desk.  I want to document the participators.

     As noted earlier, there is haziness to the dream, graininess, unfocus.  Still, identities do emerge.  Let’s name names.  It quickly becomes apparent that the saluter, or the “grandfather of deniers,” is the bizarro named Robert Faurisson.  Seemingly reputable, a professor of French literature, he began to question gas chambers in the mid-1970s.  The historical record indicates that he wrote to Yad Vashem – there wasn’t a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., at this point in time, with an extensive research arm – in an effort to disprove genocide.  He then turned his attention to Elie Wiesel, and to the diary of Anne Frank.  He wanted to expose the supposed falsities.

     A new mindthink was born.  The Faurisson Frontman Effect drew in the like-minded damaged.  A veritable bizarro fringe band formed.  Their music reached out and over real scholarship.  Their impact deeply affected their listeners, like laser Pink Floyd in the aftermath of Dark Side of the Moon.  Here’s the difference, though.  The hallucinogenics that Floyd-lovers took at the show only heightened the laser/sound potency.  The Faurisson Frontman Effect seemed to permanently lacerate the sanity of the followers.

     A case in point.  A young man named Eric Hunt accosted Elie Wiesel in a hotel elevator in 2007.  His motivation?  He intended to question Wiesel on the veracity of his Holocaust memoir, Night.  He called that memoir “almost entirely fictitious.”  He further labeled the Holocaust a “myth.”

     (Eric Hunt made his remarks on Ziopedia, a virulent anti-Zionist website.  Subsequently, the site went offline.  Hunt then posted his story on his own blog with a sensational title.  See

     Eric Hunt was a mere roadie.  Big names became enticed by the Faurisson Frontman Effect.  Once a reputed scholar on World War II battles, David Irving became a leading denier sometime in the 1980s.  At that time, Patrick Buchanan served as President Reagan’s communication’s director.  Later, he would reveal his true deniership.

     Others would join in: Ernst Zündel, who formed a neo-Nazi publishing house sometime in the mid-1970s; Henry Makow, a Canadian conspiracy theorist who attempted to establish the authenticity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; David Icke, who jumped on the Jewish World Order cabal, as put forward by Protocols; Carolyn Yeager, who authored the website,  The name of the site, with its fixation on disproving Wiesel’s Holocaust history, says it all.

     If all of these identities somehow make their presence known to me in my dream, let’s distill the denier band down to two.  Here, we have to tunnel a bit into my research.  At Georgia State there was a professor of some renown.  His name was David O’Connell.  He became one of the gravest deniers.  Grave because, like Faurisson, he seemed legitimate as a professor of French literature.  In my research, I had some contact with O’Connell and a colleague of his, Daniel McGowan, who was a professor of economics at a liberal arts college in upstate New York.  McGowan also served as the director of a protest blog, Deir Yassin Remembered.  The history of that massacre, in fact, brought me to the bizarro tag team of O’Connell and McGowan.

     Let’s go back to 1948.  In the haze of the War of Independence, Jewish paramilitary groups attacked the village of Deir Yassin, just west of Jerusalem.  From that day forward, the village ceased to exist.  Three years later, a mental health center was built within village ruins, not far from the village cemetery.  If the irony of building a mental health facility on top of a massacre site isn’t striking, here’s more irony.  In 1953 the Knesset created the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.  That body created Yad Vashem.  Yad Vashem has a direct view of the old village grounds.

     Reportage suggests the worst humanity has to offer occurred during the massacre: mutilation and rape, decapitation and disembowelment.  The new Israelis treated the Palestinians as butcher meat.

     O’Connell and McGowan became obsessed with the massacre.  They used the war crime as a distillation for modern Israeli policies.  They further pointed to Wiesel, who never criticized the massacre.  Wiesel lived by a principle.  He chose to live in the Diaspora.  For those on the outside, there is no criticism of Israel.

     That line of thinking attracted the great Jewish scholar, Noam Chomsky.  In author correspondence with Chomsky, dating to 2008, he identified Wiesel’s “grotesque stands.”  They included: chauvinism, “servility to power,” his “unwillingness to take even private steps to mitigate what he concedes to be genocide.”  

     Perhaps the worst condemnation, though, came from another Jewish scholar, the political scientist and provocateur Norman Finkelstein.  In Finkelstein’s worldview, according to his work, The Holocaust Industry, the Holocaust has been used as publicity to shame those who argue against Israeli policy in Palestine.  Finkelstein took dead aim at Wiesel, naming him as the “official interpreter” of the Holocaust, and calling that interpretation, a “performance.”

     But O’Connell and McGowan went further afield on Wiesel.  From Deir Yassin, they went to gas chambers.  Both O’Connell and McGowan argued that Wiesel’s mother and youngest sister died of typhus at Auschwitz, not in the gas chambers.  Both men pointed to documents to support that claim.  O’Connell claimed to have seen the documents, or death certificates, years ago.

     “All the records relative to Wiesel’s family are alive and well and are now in the USA…,” O’Connell wrote to me in email correspondence in 2009.  “The Holocaust fundamentalists made sure they [the records] went to the holocaust museum in DC and not to the National Archives, where they should be.  For this simple reason, access is blocked, especially to ‘deniers’ like myself.”

     Note O’Connell’s punctuation, capitalizing National Archives but not the Holocaust Museum.  Note his quotations around the word deniers.  Those choices really made my skin crawl, as did his salutation in email correspondence.  “Dear Friend,” he wrote.

     Notably, O’Connell couldn’t have been more wrong on nearly all accounts.  He was right in the flow of documents.  There was, and remains, an archive in Germany called the International Tracing Service (ITS).  ITS came about during the war, as a registry for missing persons.  Following the war, ITS became the repository for all documentation on Nazi persecution.  It was only open to the public in 2007.  Previously, only survivors and scholars had access.

     ITS records did go to the Holocaust Museum in D.C, where they should have gone.  The Holocaust Museum does not restrict access.  That is an ugly canard.  I walked in off the street and gained total access.  The administrators didn’t even ask for identification, so I could have been O’Connell or any “‘denier,’” for all they knew.  

     Typhus was a common term, scrawled by registrars on death certificates at Auschwitz.  Typhus ran rampant at Auschwitz, incessantly, and certainly killed many prisoners.  But typhus was a cover for the gas chambers.  Or, does anyone really believe that the Germans were going to write “Killed in Gas Chambers” on death certificates?  They were trying to hide their mission.

     Wiesel’s Auschwitz documents are fascinating, by the way, but the reader will have to wait for the publication of GAEW.  I will give just a small morsel.  There is a major bureaucratic mistake in his father’s record.  At that time, his father even crossed out the mistake.  In his own handwriting, he offered a correction. 

     Not surprisingly, O’Connell and McGowan missed the wider story.  Deniers are not interested in facts.  They are rooted to garbage, like twisting the spelling of Wiesel to Weasel, to terms like “Holocaust fundamentalists,” to accusations like “Con man Wiesel,” as O’Connell wrote to me.

     I will say this about corresponding with Holocaust deniers.  It leaves you feeling greasy.  It leaves you with dreams of dread.


Days after the dream, a thick aurora remains and I feel seized by a general state of agitation.  Becoming Carolyn Yeager’s bestie will do that to you.  I experience a panic attack with a unique causality.  Literature, my own project, has mired my mind in alarm.

     As a doctor’s son, I first turn to medication.  I nearly call my physician for a prescription of Xanax.  But doctors being doctors these days, she won’t offer the prescription.  Instead, she’ll refer me to a specialist.  That therapist will embark on a program of talk therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.  CBT sounds like a lot of work just to get a few pills.

     The acronym launches another treatment form.  CBD.  But then, maybe cannabis causes as much anxiety as the original diagnosis?  I turn to yet another treatment option.  Flight.  I decide to go into hiding.

     I have done this before.  Or, to put it more accurately, I have imagined my run.  Let’s track back to some earlier work.  In 2019, I published a faux history called Satan’s Synagogue.  On those pages I imagined the blowback coming from the publication of GAEW.  That plot sent one reviewer reeling.  According to the San Francisco Book Review, the reviewer did an “internet search” on GAEW.  She concluded that “this text apparently does not exist.”

     The text exists.  At that time, only on my computer.  Soon, available at bookstores everywhere. 

     Satan’s Synagogue became a prequel-sequel.  Prequel because I published the book before GAEW.  Sequel because there wouldn’t be a Satan’s Synagogue without The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel.

     Digging deeper into Satan’s Synagogue, the blowback coming from the publication of GAEW included the strident reaction of Jewish groups.  One particular reaction, coming from Zealots known as the Sicarii, made me run.  The Sicarii put out a hit.  I went into hiding.  I chose to hide in plain site.  I flew to Jerusalem.

     How did this militant Jewish organization, the modern-day Sicarii, find its name?  Historically speaking, the Sicarii are difficult to define.  There are no references to the Sicarii in the Torah or the wider Tanakh.  They show up in scant form in the Talmud.  Notably, they do make an appearance in the New Testament, in Acts of the Apostles, but that reference seems interpolated to conform to the historical record.  In fact, history knows of the Sicarii, almost exclusively, from the most important historian of the 1st century, C.E.  His name was Josephus, and as I traced in Satan’s Synagogue, he was a direct ancestor of mine.  That’s a true genealogical fact.  Amazingly, I can pinpoint my lineage back some two millennia, back, in fact, to the Roman Republic.  I am a JDD.  A Josephus Direct Descendant.

     According to Josephus in his 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, published in and around the year 94 C.E., there was a Roman procurator named Felix.  Felix ruled during the growing crisis that would become the Jewish revolt against Rome, and Josephus noted the political climate in Judea as “going from bad to worse.”

     Josephus then turned to the high priest of the Temple, Jonathan.  Growing weary of the tension, Jonathan “continually urged” Felix to “improve his administration.”  Felix finally reacted, just not in the way that Jonathan had counseled.  He “hired sicarii,” Josephus narrated, “to murder” the high priest.  Josephus identified the Sicarii as “dagger-men.”

     Sica means dagger in Latin and this group concealed weapons in their garments.  As the attack on Jonathan went unpunished, Josephus continued, the Sicarii learned a valuable lesson.  They could conspire without consequence. Josephus’s phraseology spoke suggestively.  The Sicarii learned that they could “boldly attack their enemies… even in the temple area.”

     Flash-forward to 2018.  In my imaginative faux history, the modern-day Sicarii attacked me “in the temple area.”  Of course the temple area of the 21st century looks fundamentally different than the temple area of the 1st century, C.E.  In our era there’s no room to run, other than to run into a wall.  The wall.

     In the 1st century, C.E, nobody would have even noticed that wall.  It merely formed a boundary.  Today, it’s the most treasured wall worldwide.  Odd.

     Flash-forward to 2022.  The dream of the deniers places me on the same precipice.  Nervous about the release of GAEW, I go through a similar process.  Xanax – CBT – CBD – running/hiding.  Coincidentally, an advertisement from the web-magazine, Thrillist, arrives in my email inbox during the aurora of my dream.  The advert lists “the best mountain towns to visit in America.”

     For some reasons, hiding out at high altitude sounds better than the most famous plateau in the Judaean Hills.

     Surveying the first options in Thrillist – Taos, Lake Placid, Bend, Burlingame – doesn’t strike me in any convincing fashion.  In fact, if I’m after altitude, Jerusalem offers a higher elevation than Burlingame.  By thousands of feet.  Jerusalem is beyond Lake Placid.

     Escape into high altitude brings a sheer reminder of the Holocaust to mind: Marseilles 1940.  If flight Jews could use the Varian Fry route to escape over the Pyrenees, cresting at 11,000 feet, then I, too, could find a high mountain town for my break away.  Who would want to chase me in Leadville?  You can’t breathe in Leadville.

     Leadville, it should be noted, is not listed as an option in the survey.  But I don’t want to give too much more away.  I might need a neo-Varian Fry route in a few months time.

     Escape comes with an asterisk.  There’s a financial component.  I am reminded of some research conducted during the writing of GAEW.  Could the Jews of Sighet, Wiesel’s hometown in Northern Transylvania, have escaped the Final Solution had they fled into the nearby Carpathian Mountains?

     One of Sighet’s most brilliant sons, David Halivni, argued against that course of action.  “You can only do it if you have means,” he replied during an author interview.  “We had no means.  No money, no language, we couldn’t hide, we had no non-Jewish acquaintances.”

     The Halivnis were trapped.  Their poverty severely limited their options.  The Wiesels, on the other hand, had options.  But let’s save that story for GAEW.  Let’s just note the regret that remains for those who might have had the option but chose disregard.  Regret turning to guilt turning to self-loathing.  That’s the Wiesel psyche in a nutshell.  A psychache of longing.

     The question hits me.  How will I fund my flight?  I can’t, for instance, go to the Jewish Federation for sponsorship, or Hillel, or even more ironically, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  I have to think subversively.

     Coincidentally, another advertisement lands in my email mailbox during the aurora of my dream.  This one from Caesar’s Sportsbook.  And a crazy idea introduces itself.  Notably, my thoughts turn to Israel, a sort of aping of the plot in Satan’s Synagogue.  I guess there’s a pattern there.  Always facing east.

     With Israel in mind, let’s jump back to the 11th century, B.C.E.  The actual date has been lost.  But since our man, David, was conventionally born around 1040, B.C.E., and since our story takes place in his youth, let’s put up a hard date.  The springtime of 1020.

     If that date comes with the asterisk of estimation, the place seems to be commonly agreed upon: the Valley of Elah.  Modern-day archeology has identified this valley as just west of Jerusalem.  At that time, the 11th century, B.C.E., the Philistines ruled and Philistinian geography revolved around a pentapolis.  Of those important five towns, three resided on the coast (Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza), and two resided inland.  Gath, according to modern-day archeology, existed in the Elah Valley.  Residents of Gath were known as Goliaths.

     With that buzzword in mind, let’s move to the pre-fight scene between David and Goliath.  The narrative in the Book of Samuel indicates that Saul, Israel’s first king, had a talk with young David.  Goliath, at that point in the great war between the Philistines and the Israelites, had slain countless warriors in single combat.  David volunteered to fight next, and Saul offered the young warrior his personal armor.  The armor of a king.  An armor equivalent to what Goliath wore.

     David declined.  According to the Book of Samuel, David took his staff, a sling and five stones from the nearby stream into battle.  Notably, the authors of Samuel do not report on Saul’s reaction to the armor refusal.  Nor do they report on Saul’s reaction to David’s battle weapons.  That leads to some speculation.  But, I suppose I have some of Saul’s reaction in mind when the crazy idea for funding my escape hits me.  Pure fantasy.  Not even hope.  Lunacy.

     Let me explain the crazy idea further.  I follow European soccer, or football as it’s rightfully called.  Every season, European soccer holds a nearly year-long tournament to decide the best side.  Teams from all over the European leagues qualify for the tournament.  They begin with pool play, each team guaranteed six games, and advance from there.  The big clubs always win.  Real Madrid has won 14 European championships.  Bayern Munich has won 6.  Same with Liverpool.  

     But what if a peripheral team won?  Or better yet, what if an extreme peripheral team won, a David-like neophyte, with just a staff, a sling, and five shiny stones?  What if I bet on that David-like team now, while the tournament is in its infancy?  Wouldn’t the profits bankroll my escape?

     Again, as noted earlier, I turn toward Israel.  There’s a little-known team on the northern coast, not so far from the Lebanese border, called Maccabi Haifa.  How the side qualified for a soccer tournament in Europe is a story all to itself.  The geography doesn’t quite line up.  Haifa is not in Europe.  Maybe the New York Red Bulls could qualify?

     In August of 2022, with GAEW just weeks away from publication, tournament organizers held a schedule-release party.  In Abu Dhabi, by the way.  Again, the geography doesn’t quite line up.  Abu Dhabi is much closer to the Elah Valley than to the European hinterland.

     Following the schedule-release party, Caesar’s Sportsbook listed Haifa at +100,000.  Here’s how this works.  Put $1 down on Haifa and if by some outrageous miracle, David vs. Goliath style, Haifa wins the tournament, the sportsbook would pay out $1,000, plus the original dollar bet.  Put down $100, and that win blossoms to $100,000, plus the original $100.  Put down $1,000, and that win blossoms to a million.

     Let me interrupt my story to offer a word of clarification.  I can imagine the blowback coming in on social media.  Not only have I incited Holocaust deniers with my research in GAEW, but I’ve proven my degenerate ways with such gambling folly.

     Here’s my reaction.  A prequel-sequel, so to speak.  Prequel because I’m anticipating this series of events.  Sequel because I still need some way to finance my escape.

     I am not a gambler.  I am a bettor.  There’s a difference.  A gambler has some addictive qualities.  A gambler needs the rush of winning, and the possibility of losing.  That’s what drives the gambler.  That strange alchemy, that very fine line, between euphoria and crash and burn.

     A bettor just wants to have fun, and make a few bucks.

     Let’s jump back to the spring of 1020, B.C.E., again.  Here’s what we know.  Goliath was on a serious winning streak.  According to the Book of Samuel, he had defeated an Israelite, to the death, every day, twice a day, for some 40 days.  It’s sort of a staggering statistic.  Let me emphasize.  During the great war between the Philistines and the Israelites in the Elah Valley, Goliath had taken the time out to challenge, and slay, Israel’s best warriors.

     The question arises.  Why would Israel risk their best warriors to the unbeatable foe?  I mean, after a few days, wouldn’t it become clear that Goliath’s challenge should go unmet?

     The authors of Samuel never seemed to ponder the question.  Or, if they did, they offered no details.  But let’s be real about the authors of Samuel.  They were unimaginative.  First off, they didn’t even bother with a proper name for the Philistine’s great warrior.  David got due credit.  Why didn’t Goliath get a naming?

     Second, they went plagiaristic.  Yes, you read that right.  They basically lifted the David vs. Goliath story from Homer’s Iliad, written maybe two centuries before.  Here’s what we can say about the authors of Samuel.  They could read Homeric Greek.  I suppose the vast majority of Israelites could not.

     But, like I said, the authors of Samuel were unimaginative.  According to the source material, Goliath stood nearly seven feet tall.  The tallest Israelite, Saul, stood six feet tall.  Further, according to the Book of Samuel, Saul stood a head taller than his people.  His height, it seems, made him fit to be leader.  But the point is: Goliath should have been whipping up on his opponents.

     Why did the authors of Samuel include the height proportions?  The reason seems clear.  Saul should have been the one to fight Goliath.  The whole story hinges on Saul’s reluctance.  David doesn’t come of age if there’s not an unfit Saul.

     We all know how the story plays out.  We refer to Goliath today, and we use Philistine as a word for uncultured or unenlightened, only because the winning side, the Israelites, win the war.  David becomes king.

     Let’s spin the David and Goliath story forward some 3,000 years.  I place my bet on Haifa.  I then act as Saul might have, had he not fallen on his sword to avoid a hostage situation and, somehow, lived into the modern era.  I turn on a streaming service to watch Haifa play its first match of the tournament.

     How this story ends is not known at this time.  Maybe the authors of Samuel should have taken a hint from this future writer?  They killed off Saul in some derivative shtick.  The biography of Saul needs a radical rethink.  But that’s a story for another profile.

Coming Soon:

The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel

Who was the real Elie Wiesel? How did a Hasidic Jew from small town Transylvania become the docent of Auschwitz?  How did a yeshiva bocher, or a religious student, transform into a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

This project tracks those developments. But there’s more. Visit a library. The Elie Wiesel section, in terms of sheer quantity, out-volumes the presidents of his era. There are profound theological studies.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There is much hagiography.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over many years.  

But to study the voluminous work is to find a fascinating dynamic.  Wiesel’s narrative serves as the central source.  His story, as he alone laid it out, absolutely dominates.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, is nonexistent.  

The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel then is a first of its kind.  A rigorously researched, deeply penetrating, absorbing and thoughtful deconstruction of a man and his tales.  At its heart, this biography wanders into some important terrain.  Where does the persona end and the true Elie Wiesel begin?


My next work of faux history, entitled Trump-a-Lincoln-a-Lago, will be available next week.  Trump-a-Lincoln-a-Lago begins a three-part series, delving into the Civil War era while maintaining a unique focus on The CoronaVirus age – the term, like the Civil War, is too important not to capitalize all important words.  Part two in the series, WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GRANT BLACK, should be coming soon.  For more information on Trump-a-Lincoln-a-Lago, including a short description, please see the sister site to,, at



Week 1

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here:

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 1 of 3.

Day 1.  Arrival in Tel Aviv after a 14-hour flight, with one stop in Vienna.  When I purchased the airline ticket, I considered a two or three day stopover in Vienna.  I have never been and I certainly want to visit the Schönbrunn Palace, or the place where Franz Joseph spent his life, literally from cradle to grave.  I also want to visit the Franz Joseph Center, or the archive that houses the emperor’s artifacts and pays homage to his life lived.  I am, as these references may indicate, intrigued by the historical figure.  I have documents on the man, not known to the historical record.  But let me save those records for another time.

     I didn’t opt for the stopover.  For a Jew, Austria remains a rather sketchy place.  Austria, which willingly jumped on board the German freight train we call the Holocaust, has not gone down the same tracks as the Germans in more recent times.  Austria would rather honor Kurt Waldheim than reveal the depths of its alliance with Germany during the war years.  In current times, Austria would rather elect an anti-immigrant leader as prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, and watch as Kurz allied with other far-right political parties to form a government, than build a more thoughtful and receptive immigration policy.  Notably, the immigration policies in Austria 2019 haven’t changed much from the immigration policies in Austria 1938.  Just as notably, the current immigration policies of the United States now resemble the immigration policies of America 1940s.

     I spent two hours in the Vienna Flughäfen and gladly escaped when the flight took off.  In Tel Aviv, I caught a taxi in from the airport.  The driver spoke to me of Brooklyn.  He spat out the name like a long-time resident.  He spat out the name like a guy on Flatbush Avenue, walking into a bodega and buying bread, complaining to anyone who would listen about the traffic outside, and the complete lack of parking.  There’s a reason why double parking is the rule.

     Yes, I live in Brooklyn.  I’ve lived in Brooklyn for about a decade.  But I never said a word of my place of residence to the driver.  For all he knew, I lived in Portland.  Oregon or Maine, it didn’t matter.

     The driver dropped me off at my hotel, the Vital.  The hotel was part of a large shopping complex, the Dizengoff Center.  Meir Dizengoff, an Eastern European by birth and an engineer by training, was an expansionist.  He had a vision for a modern Jewish city.  He settled in Jaffa shortly after the 19th century turned into the 20th.  He joined a planning commission.  In 1922, a town officially came into existence.  Tel Aviv.  Dizengoff was elected mayor.  He held that position, with a small hiatus, until his death in 1936.

     If an all-knowing narrator suddenly appeared before Dizengoff early in his mayoral tenure and showed him photographs of what Tel Aviv was to become, how would he have reacted?  Tel Aviv now looks a little like Las Vegas.  The Dizengoff Center is brightly lit in neon.  Aside from the high-end shops and restaurants, a food court with the M for McDonalds in full blaze, a large supermarket, young people on first dates, shoppers take their dogs to the mall.  The Dizengoff Center is a dog park, of sorts.  What would Dizengoff say to the scene?

     A security perimeter engulfed the mall.  All shoppers, and hotel guests showed identification, and passed through a metal detector.  Back in 1996, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his explosive just outside the center.  He chose a particularly crowded moment, the eve of Purim.  Eye-witnesses described the horror that followed but so many of them had children in their reportage.  Children in costume.  More children died in the explosion than adults.

     I veered away from the stores and made my way to reception.  I checked in for my 2-night stay.  I then caught the elevator up to the 13th floor.  When I first moved to New York City, years ago, I lived in a building with fourteen floors.  I lived on the thirteenth.  The building, built around the time Dizengoff became mayor of the new Tel Aviv, incorporated a superstition.  No thirteenth floor.  Officially, the elevator reached floor 12E.  It only made the superstition more mindful. 

     There was no such superstition in Israel.  I dropped off my pack in the room, splashed some water on my face, caught the elevator down to the first floor, exited the security zone, and began the hour walk to Hayarkon Park.  I’d mapped out the walk on Google.  I walked up Weizmann Street to the Medina Square, hung a right on Jabotinsky Street, crossed the city to Abba Hillel Silver Road, hung a left and continued on to the Yarkon River, located on the park’s perimeter.  All of these street names meant something to me, but more on that in a bit.  I had a meeting and I was running a little late.

     The meet point was the dog park off of Rokach Street.  There, I met a man named Ezer.  Weeks earlier, I had made arrangements to rent a bicycle from Ezer and his wife, who together ran a tour guide operation.  They welcomed wealthy foreigners to Israel and guided them, on bikes, to famous places.  I didn’t want the tour.  I wanted the bike.  Ezer and his wife accommodated and they rented out their finest, a BMC carbon frame, with high-end Campagnolo parts and wheel set.  New, that bicycle would have cost well over ten thousand dollars.  I rented the bicycle for two weeks, at around three hundred dollars per week.

     Ezer wore the blue and white national cycling jersey of Israel.  In our friendly conversation, he told me that he was once the national cycling champion.  My thoughts went to sarcasm.  This wasn’t France or Italy or Spain.  How hard was it to become the national cycling champion of Israel?  How many cyclists were there in country?

     Let me put it another way.  I always wanted to participate in the Olympics.  Don’t misunderstand: I was never good enough in any particular sport to make it to that level.  But that didn’t stop my drive.  Then one day I had a thought.  If I became an Israeli citizen, I improved my chances considerably.  Now maybe I still wouldn’t have had a chance in soccer or tennis.  But what about skiing?  How many Israelis even skied?  Did Israel have a national ski team?  There is a place to ski in Israel, by the way, Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border.

     My problem with becoming the national champion of Israel in skiing and then participating in the Olympic Games was simple.  I don’t really ski.  Yes, I grew up in Colorado and, yes, my parents put me on the slopes at a young age.  But I didn’t take to the sport.  I didn’t care much for speed down a hill.  I preferred the twists and turns, and long stretches, of cross-country skiing.  That’s an apt metaphor for my life.  But let’s not get into that here.

     After picking up the bicycle from Ezer, I rode back to the Vital.  I wanted to keep the bike in my room, but management wouldn’t permit it.  A notable moment occurred when the receptionist argued my case to her manager.  The manager’s decision was final – the bike went into their storage room on the ground floor, with promises of security – but the receptionist couldn’t have been nicer.  We rolled eyes at each other.  I then took the elevator up to my room on the 13th floor.  I just wanted to shower after the long flight.  But technology got in my way.  The key card wouldn’t work.  I then traipsed down to reception.

     “Oh,” the receptionist responded to my request for another key card, “I thought you came down because you missed me.”  I smiled.  Was she flirting with me, or was her behavior a part of her job description?  The basics of customer service.

     She introduced herself by name, Tamar.  This Tamar didn’t know about the Tamar of Genesis, who endured a cursed story.  Her first husband, Er, was killed by God because of his wickedness.  To continue the familial line, Er’s father, Judah, asked the next brother, Onan, to reproduce with Tamar.  Although Onan went along, he performed an act of deception.  God punished Onan and he died, too.  Tamar, in an effort to get pregnant, dressed up as a prostitute and had sexual relations with Judah.  Judah, apparently daft in his dotage, didn’t know that the prostitute was, indeed, Tamar.  She became pregnant.  While Judah would react initially with a death sentence, he released Tamar from that sentence once he learned that he was the father.  Tamar then continued Judah’s line.  She gave birth to twins.  One of them, according to the Evangelist Matthew, was an ancestor of Jesus’s.

     This Tamar, a very cute 26-year-old, was used to getting her way.  For a few moments, we talked about Israel.  She sounded European in her outlook.  What did that mean?  She didn’t feel the anxieties of the older generations, with the Arab threat on all sides.  She wanted to have fun.  She wanted to buy a new car.  She had a nice Toyota but she wanted a Jeep.  “Jeeps are all the rage,” she said.

Day 3.  Traditions state that a person travels up to Jerusalem, never over, or down, or into.  Up to Jerusalem signifies ascending to the center of faith, although, strangely, Jerusalem is never once mentioned specifically in the Torah.  But, as I learned, there’s a far more earthly reason for the word.  That reason has everything to do with the hill.  Route 1 reaches across the width of Israel.  What begins in Tel Aviv and traverses the ground up to Jerusalem ends in the Jordan valley, not far from the Dead Sea.  Route 1 covers some sixty miles.  The Tel Aviv to Jerusalem leg encompasses about two-thirds of the route.  Nearly a quarter of that leg is the “up” section. 

     Back when I contacted Israel’s former national cycling champion about renting a bicycle, he asked about my travel plans.  He then tried to dissuade me from the first leg.  “If you go against my advice,” Ezer wrote in an email, “you should wear white clothing against the sun, and it will take you about 4 hours so you will need 4 liters of water.  The route up to Jerusalem is an HC climb.”

     I thought he was just in Israeli mode: trying to tell me what I couldn’t do.  Israelis are big on what’s not possible.  The clothing and the amount of water did not scare me off.  The category climb made me somewhat hesitant.  In cycling terminology, HC stands for “Hors Categorie,” or beyond categorization.  The history of cycling tells a history of the Tour de France.  Cycling measurements came about when the Tour added mountain stages.  Riders received points for ascending the hills first.  To figure out the category, race officials multiplied the length of the climb, in meters, with the grade.  If that number reached 8,000, it became a category 4 climb.  A category 1 climb began at 48,000.  An HC climb began at 64,000.  That’s supposed to be a bamboozle of a climb.

     Let me give just the briefest description of an HC climb.  There’s a very famous climb in the Tour de France called the Col du Tourmalet.  It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Pyrénées.  In 1910, that pass reached 7,000 feet.  It wasn’t a paved, smooth road the way it is today.  It was dirt and mud and grime.  A French cyclist named Octave Lapize supposedly shouted out his frustration at race officials during that climb.  Gasping for air and mentally defeated, or “cracked” in the parlance of cyclists, he identified an official and yelled, “Vous êtes des asassins!  Oui, des assassins!”  Word has it that he spat a variant of that phrase to any officious looking person as he continued the climb.  “You are murderers!” the phrase translates into English.  “Yes, murderers!” 

     Lapize won the day, and the Tour, that year.  He won the tour three years later.  That route, too, included the Tourmalet and a bronze statue of Lapize now sits near the top.  Lapize clearly moved toward the highest places manageable by human ingenuity.  He became a fighter pilot.  He died during the First World War.

     His words live on.  I shouted them once, in a moment of panic, as I rode up the Jerusalem hill.  At the risk of committing cycling blasphemy, I would say the ride up to Jerusalem is harder than the Tourmalet.  While I have never ridden the Tourmalet, I doubt that it includes bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I doubt that cyclists must, at the risk of their lives, remain within an ever-decreasing shoulder.  There are points on that route where the shoulder becomes a balance beam of a single white line.  Meanwhile, less than an arm’s length away, cars traveling at 100 kilometers an hour whiz by.  The vast majority of drivers seem to find it necessary to honk as they pass.  Busses join in the whizzing parade. 

     There was a moment, near the famed tunnels on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in what is known as the Sha’ar Hagar junction, that I felt my life on the line.  Literally, as there was no shoulder and a little mistake or misadjustment to my left would have meant a collision with a careening car.  But there was a moment when, panicked to the point of vomiting, I shouted Lapize’s famous words.  Of course, there were no race officials nearby.  This wasn’t a race.  This was only my decision to make the journey by bicycle.  I could have taken the bus.

     I survived the Jerusalem hill and followed the Bus 480 route to the central bus station.  From there, I cycled down Jaffa Road.  The road in that part of the city becomes a mall, with upscale retail and restaurants and young people out on parade.  Fortunately, I landed there just as the mall was waking up.  Later in the day, that place becomes a zoo with visitors moving in all sorts of directions, not one of them paying attention to the street, the traffic, or directions of travel.

     On Jaffa Road, signs pointed the driver – or cyclist, in this case – to various points of the Old City.  Right to Zion Gate, straight to Jaffa Gate, left to Damascus Gate.  I hung a left.  Sultan Suleiman Road traverses the northern side of the Old City, with East Jerusalem and the Arab side to your left and the Old City to your right.  All roads lead to the Damascus Gate.

     I have never been so happy to dismount.  The Israeli soldiers guarding the gate, on three separate guard towers, all looked at me with shaking heads and lowered guns.  I clearly wasn’t a threat, at least to them. 

     With my bike held in my right hand and resting on my shoulder, I walked down a series of steps and passed through the Damascus Gate.  The road into the souk leads down a semi-steep embankment, a ramp on the right, stairs on the left, and comes to a fork.  Hang a right and the road leads to the Christian quarter.  Hang a left and the road leads to the Muslim quarter.  I hung a left.  That road is called Al Wad.  Not that the name helps.  In the Arab world, street names mean nothing.  Everybody points, whether they know the directions or not.  Like New York. 

     The Austrian Hospice, my directions noted, was located at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa.  I felt immense relief to find the guesthouse without incident.  That souk is all about finding your bearings.  You could get lost for days, as no compass or map really helps.  You just have to learn the ins and outs of those narrow roads.  I’m sure there’s a story about a traveler entering the Old City and never finding his way out.  He’s still there, walking the limestone, looking for one exit.

     The Austrian Hospice is many things.  It’s a large building with old world style.  The building, replete with a dormitory in the basement for cheap sleeping space and five floors of private rooms, rises to an observation deck on the roof.  Non-guests pay ten shekelim to access the deck and, in fact, there’s a steady flow of visitors wanting the unimpeded view of the city.  If ten shekelim sounds pricey, consider the 36-dollar price tag to rise to the top of the Empire State Building.

     Typically, I noticed, the non-guests hike the stairs to the roof deck (no elevator), take some time to survey the city, then hike down to the first floor and the café.  The food there is marvelously Vienna: käsekuchen and schnitzel, sachertorte and apfel strudel.  The café also serves one Austrian beer on tap: Freistädter, with its slogan, “Fresh.  Free.  Freistädter.”  The beer is most definitely not free but you can take your beer, and your sweets, and sit in a wonderful garden.  An array of trees populates the garden, and an overgrown cactus rises to the second floor.  The garden serves as a refuge to the constant hubbub just outside the compound.

     The Austrian Hospice offers about a hundred private rooms and the dormitory in the basement probably sleeps another fifty or so travelers.  The private rooms are spacious, simple yet clean.  No complaints.  Except for the construction going on directly behind the complex.  Jackhammering, Sunday through Thursday.

     The Austrian Hospice is a paean to Emperor Franz Joseph.  He traveled there in 1869.  He stayed on the grounds.  Joseph essentially reopened the Holy Land to Christian Europe.  Christian Europe had been cut off from access since the crusades.  Joseph, with close ties to the Ottoman Empire, changed the flow of pilgrimage.  Following his trip, Austrians came in multitudes, then the Prussians, then the French, and on and on.  The Old City became Europeanized.  The hunt for Christ, and the places he traversed, was on.

     During his stay in Jerusalem, Franz Joseph did something no other leader in Europe would have considered.  He met with Jewish groups.  To the outside world, it looked like Joseph was in keeping with his policy of tolerance toward Jews in his empire.  The true history told a different tale.  It turns out that Joseph descended from Jewish roots, and he knew it.  The world did not.

     His photograph hangs on the second floor of the Hospice, along with a short biography.  Photos of his family hang there, too.  In fact, photos of people important to the Hospice fill the hallways.  The one hundred and fifty years of history of the place is on display in this donor exhibition.

     Hanging above the photographs of Joseph and his family are these wonderful teardrop lampshades.  There are also symbols of Christianity everywhere, from the paintings on the walls to the cross in my room to the rectory itself.  Not only does a Catholic bishop live on site, but the Hospice houses an order called the Custody of the Holy Land.  This order, founded by Francis of Assisi, offers what the name suggests: protection of the Holy places.  It has been in place since the 13th century.

     As King of Jerusalem, a title Franz Joseph most cherished, he decreed this land as the property of Austria.  Today, the land is governed by the Republic of Austria, as an embassy would.  So I might not have made it to Vienna on this trip, but I did enter Austrian dominion.

     Let me give one last note on the Hospice: it reeked of Austrian efficiency.  Breakfast, for instance, started at 7 a.m. sharp.  I tried to enter two minutes early but received a strong rejection.  A banishment, really.  Breakfast ended at 9 a.m.  Everybody was forced out.  No lingering allowed.  As I ate my breakfast with brot and marmelade and käse and müsli, I watched a parade of Austrians entering the cafeteria.  There were a speckling of non-Austrians on site, but we were in the vast minority.  Even the waitress and the dishwasher were Austrian by birthright.

Day 4.  Franz Joseph is not the only historical figure I am intrigued by.  In fact, he’s not even in the top ten.  I should, at some later point in my writing life, compile a top ten list.  But for now, suffice it to say, that my trip to Holy Land Central (and peripheral) involved two of those figures near the top: Joshua ben Joseph (better known as Jesus of Nazareth) and the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.  Both men were born around the same time, but unlike Joshua ben Joseph, Josephus was born in Jerusalem.  For the next thirty years or so, Jerusalem became Josephus’s home base.  Everything changed for Josephus when the Jewish rebellion against Rome began.  Josephus became a general in the Jewish army.  He tried to defend the Galilee.  He lost, with the defining moment coming at the Battle of Jotapata.  He then became a prisoner of Rome.  But his life took a turn most prisoners would never know.

     Josephus became a friend of the Roman General Vespasian and his son, Titus.  Vespasian would become emperor.  Titus would follow in his father’s footsteps.  Josephus would enter Rome on Titus’s ship.  He would never leave.  So while Joshua ben Joseph died in Jerusalem, ostensibly, Josephus never saw his homeland again.

     When he left the ruined city in and around the year 70 of the 1st century, he was stateless.  Did he realize that he could never return to this city again?  Did he take one last look, trying to embed a pictorial in his mind?  In the histories written by Josephus that have come down to us, Josephus spent a good deal of time describing the Jerusalem universe.  In those descriptions, two Jerusalems emerged.  He drew a political map of the City, as he always referred to it in capitalization, or a description of players and events over the years.  The brushstrokes found on that map could be glowing, or acrimonious.  And he drew a physical map of the terrain, involving the land, the cityscape.  Details mattered to Josephus: the specific size of the guarding walls, the weight of the limestone used for building, the work masonry, the intricate look of the upper and lower sections, known today as the Old City and the City of David.  Josephus used a recurring adjective in his physical map: wonderful.  “Like a snowy mountain glittering in the sun,” he described his hometown.

     My tour of Holy Land Central (and peripheral) had to begin with Jerusalem.  That morning, I had questions in mind as I walked the souk.  What is Jerusalem today?  What observations does the physical map inspire?  What follows here are some notes.  Hopefully they form some answers to these questions. 

     Everybody smokes.  Europeans, Arabs, Jews: cigarette smoking is the connective tissue, the binding agent.  Yet advertisements, as in the United States, are apparently forbidden.  You don’t see used cigarettes scattered on every street.  You don’t see an overabundance of vendors.  In the Old City, boys on moveable wagons sell their cigarette packs but you rarely see them.  While cigarette smoking is the one consistent, cigarette selling is sporadic.  Everyone coughs here.  Another connective tissue.

     In the Old City, there’s no space, there’s no light.  It’s tight, claustrophobic.  A roof covers the souk, so you can’t see the sky.  Huge crowds dominate the tiny roadways.  Get behind a tourist group, and you can’t move.  I felt my annoyance kick in.  I felt my total impatience.  Something within takes over and you push your way through the hoards.  You look around and others are pushing, too.  The Old City is this strange confluence of pushing and smoking and coughing.

     The Old City is also this strange economy.  There are tourists on pilgrimage.  They move through the city with maps in hand, hitting the most fundamental of Christian sites: the Via Dolorosa and the stages of the cross; the dark and dank and incredibly kitschy Church of the Holy Sepulcher, commemorating the hill of crucifixion and the alleged tomb of Jesus’s burial; an alternate site to that church, known as the Garden Tomb, where the crucifixion may have occurred.  But while these tourists make their rounds, business owners stand outside their stores, attempting to drum up business.  They’ve learned a few words in all sorts of languages, from English to French to Italian, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, German.  You hear it all.  The stalls all offer the same stuff: food, sweets, toiletries, clothing, shoes, t-shirts, junk jewelry, scraps of religiosity.  The food is all exposed.  The sweets, the meat, the bread, it’s all within sneezing range.  But ninety percent of business, it seems, is walk-in.  There are no regular customers.  There are no enduring relationships here.  This is one-time capitalism on display.

     I spent some of that morning on a mission to find gifts for my two nieces back in Brooklyn.  My maternal grandparents traveled the world and they brought back the most fantastic gifts for their young grandchildren.  So many of those countries don’t exist anymore, or have been renamed: Yugoslavia, Rhodesia, Burma.  My grandparents brought back souvenirs, and coinage, from everywhere.  I was particularly engaged by the coinage: the faces, the medals used, the intricacies of detail.  I want to do the same now for my nieces.  I want to introduce a worldview.  And, as I looked around at the Europeans, I realized that they all wore keffiyehs as scarves.  I stopped at a vender and looked through his collection.  But something stopped me from the purchase.  I am a Jew.  I find the purchase a grave disloyalty to my heritage.  My nieces are not being raised Jewish, but that doesn’t matter.  I am what I am.

     The stall owners are all men, and I watch one trying to sell bras.  He is hardly an expert in bras, although he is a good salesman.  But I wonder: how does he know proper sizing?  That leads to the next question: do Arab women wear the wrong size?  I also see women in full body-hugging, stylish hijab and abaya.  Isn’t form-fitting a bit of hypocrisy?  Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of modesty?

     It doesn’t take long to tire of the souk.  I walk all over Jerusalem.  I walk the guarding walls.  I walk over to the Knesset and the archeology displayed there, remnants dug up from Jesus’s time and the long run of the Second Temple Period.  I walk over to Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem.  When I entered Israel through customs at the airport, the official looked at my passport and then made a suggestion.  “Go visit Yad Vashem,” he said.  “It’s terrific there.”

     I don’t know if that description fits the archeology of the Holocaust on display at the museum, but I’m assuming that his sales pitch came from orders up high.  Notably, the official sounded like he came from the Donald Trump School of salesmanship.  Why is that notable?  Donald Trump’s embassy is being built not far from Yad Vashem.

     I walk over to the City of David and the pool of Siloam, which used to serve the city as its water supply.  That pool probably finds reference in Isaiah.  It certainly finds reference in the Gospel of John.  A blind man receives his sight there.  I walk over to Mount Scopus and Hebrew University.  I walk into East Jerusalem.  I walk onto Jaffa road, the shops and restaurants could be anywhere in the cosmopolitan world.  That Friday, I work out at the YMCA in East Jerusalem.  It was formed in a tent in the immediate aftermath of Israeli independence, and it has a long history in that part of Arab Jerusalem as a social gathering spot.  Only men use the swimming pool.  Only men use the fitness room.  I run fifteen miles on the elliptical.  The elliptical doesn’t hurt the arthritis in my feet.  I haven’t yet mentioned, but a few months back I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.  In this early stage, my feet hurt terribly, and I can’t make a fist with my left hand.

     Back in the souk after my workout, I am nearly struck by a kid on a bicycle.  I will see him everyday, and everyday he will nearly hit me.  Along with everyone else.  He careens down the narrow roads.  He ploughs through the crowds.  Somehow, he doesn’t hit anyone.  I ask a store vender about him.  It turns out he has a nickname.  “Evel Knievel,” the vendors call him.

     The souk has many different musical accompaniments, whether they be store vendors calling out their wares or the call to prayer or, on Sundays, the church bells announcing service.  That Friday, I travel the wrong way twice.  To exit the souk through the Damascus Gate, I go against the movement of Muslim Arabs on their way to al-Aqsa and morning prayers.  Later, as I enter through the Damascus Gate on my way to the guesthouse, the crush of Arabs departs the souk.  Prayer session has ended, and they are on their way to the Friday meal.  In both cases, they pack the entirety of the roadway, filling every crevice, every corner, every crack of space.  Pushing through becomes an extreme sport.  The X Games should stage a competition.

     Friday afternoon, I visit the Western Wall.  The sight isn’t that interesting to me.  At this point in time, it’s a bit kitschy.  But turn around, with your back to the Wall, and the sightlines become fascinating.  You see Jewish Orthodoxy, like Chabad and Aish HaTorah, buying up space, buying up buildings, and putting their advertisements on display.  There are no cigarette advertisements, but there are faith advertisements.  If the Gospels recorded the heresy of the day at this place, and therefore Jesus’s need to overturn the money tables, isn’t this some sort of equivalent?

     Late Friday afternoon and I sit on the steps outside the Damascus Gate, drinking Arab coffee.  I watch the scene.  Vendors selling corn.  The IDF on guard.  Here come two soldiers on horseback, down the steep steps.  The sun setting, not too long after four in the afternoon.  Hasidim walk briskly down the steps toward the Western Wall. 

They can’t make contact with outsiders.  They look down.  The wind whipping.  A young vendor approaching those sitting on the steps.  He offers bread, vegetables, lemon tea.  “Good price,” he says in English.  He then switches to Arabic.  He tries to sell a bag of fresh baked pita at “ahad wa ashara.”  One bag for 10 shekelim.  By the time the sun sets, and I’m essentially the only one around, I could have had that same bag for agorot, or pennies.  The word ashara is constantly heard coming from the vendors in the souk.  More musicality.  The economy is based on ten.

     More Hasidim moving down the steps.  They’re running now.  The sun setting.  I watch some Arab teenage boys jumping around, blowing off steam.  They wear ripped blue jeans, t-shirts too tight, marvelous Air Jordans.  They have the same haircut: the sides shaved, the top a bit of a mop.

     The Hasidim now in full sprint to the Wall.  It’s past sunset.  It’s getting dark.  I finish my coffee.  I get up to go, walking down the steps toward the gate.  A youngish Hasid comes running down the stairs.  He bumps into me.  It’s an accident, but he’s just been corrupted.  He stops for the briefest moment.  He then performs the most interesting maneuver.  He wipes off his shoulder, where we touched, like wiping off dust.  He runs on.  I walk slowly to the Austrian Hospice.

Day 6.  I set out that morning with an objective: to spend time in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  Before visiting, I went to a website called  That website provides a great deal of information, including a history of the place, and a map.  According to the website, there are 122,000 known graves as of this writing.  The cemetery is 83% occupied.  There’s at least one burial per week.

     I walked to the cemetery on the simplest route I could find.  I bypassed the Old City by walking along Sultan Suleiman road until it turned into Jerekho road.  Jerekho road traveled into the Kidron Valley.  That road, rolling down a long hill, first encountered the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus supposedly prayed to God before crucifixion and where the arrest scene took place.  Up the hillside glimmered the ornate Church of Mary Magdalene.

     I made a pit stop.  Today, a modern church neighbors Gethsemane.  The garden is fenced in, impossible to enter, except for the Franciscan monks who serve as manicurists.  Olive trees fill the garden space.  They are old trees, tired, knotty, a reminder of the ancient land and its long run of history.  The question arises perhaps for every visitor: Could these same trees, if they could speak, offer reflections of Jesus on this spot, praying in the hours before arrest? 

     Notably, Josephus would have argued otherwise.  According to his reportage in The Jewish War, theRomans cut down all the trees when they burned the Temple and the city.  On Josephus’s day, though, Gethsemane stood outside the city proper.  Maybe the Romans didn’t make it over there.

     I entered the church.  I was not alone, though it was early in the morning.  Tour groups packed the place.  Tour leaders spoke in all sorts of different languages outside the entrance.  Fortunately, the church forbade explanation once inside.  The church was remarkably quiet.  I found the scene inside quite moving.  Above the alter, there was a triptych of murals.  The mural to the viewer’s left told a tale of Judas kissing Jesus, with the other disciples gathered around.  The disciples, given their daftness, would not have understood the significance of the kiss.  The arresting party was not in the scene.

     The middle mural depicted Jesus alone on earth, seemingly before the betrayal.  There was a re-creation of him above, as if floating toward God in heaven.  I sat down on a church pew – around me: worshippers agape, lots of photos, lots of selfies, no conversation – and I meditated on Jesus.  Could he enter me?  Could I open myself to him?  What would it mean for a Jew to cross over to Jesus?  I certainly wasn’t the first to ask this question.  I’m sure the disciples all struggled with it, though the Gospels tell a different story.  But I think that the struggle partially explains Judas’s behavior, if his story in the Gospels is credible.  To turn from the moorings of his Jewish heritage to the moorings of Jesus must have weighed heavily.  Did he out Jesus to the arresting party because he couldn’t leave behind his Jewish mooring?

     The question asked something of me.  What would be my worth if I, too, left behind the moorings of a Jewish heritage for the moorings of Jesus Christ?  I have spent my life on an interminable search for truth.  I am dogged by a question.  What is a fact?  The answer isn’t satisfactory.  I’m not sure there are facts but, rather, manipulations of moments.  History then comes down to us as plotted by its writers, engineered, contrived.  There is a wonderful physics phrase: an autocatalytic phenomenon.  An increasing on itself.  A historian finesses a story, and the world accepts the finesse as fact.  The phenomenon hardens the story and we have ourselves a truth.

     The Gospels strike me as one of those truths.  If a man named Jesus – or Joshua ben Joseph in the Hebrew – actually lived, he would have come across as an itinerant orator, traveling the towns and the countryside of the Galilee, preaching and performing exorcisms amongst his activities.  His preaching would have been subversive, riling up the masses against the ruling cultures, both Jewish and Roman.  As the Gospels suggest, his message would have reached the authorities.  How would they have reacted?  Would they have let him live?

     Here’s what I think happened.  The Gospel writers, particularly Mark, had a template in mind.  Given their Jewish moorings, they turned to the Tanakh to base their story of Jesus upon.  They found the Books of the Maccabees.  There is a curious echo there.  There’s the story of Judas Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucid Empire.  There’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day.  It’s indeed the story of a miracle.

     The wider history is notable.  According to the source material, Josephus included, the Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world.  For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region.  Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

     Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors.  The Hasmoneans were Hellenized.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants.  To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.

     But replace the Seleucids with the Romans.  Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus.  Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracles of the itinerant orator and his penchant for exorcisms.  The Gospel writers had their backstory.  They then took the history in a completely different direction.  They took the history to Jerusalem, to Gethsemene.  They took the history to a crucifix at a place called Golgotha.  They took the history to a tomb.  They took the history to witnesses, marking a transformational moment.  The rising of Jesus.  The human form becoming the Son of Man.

     I left the church.  A footpath traveled down stairs to the base of the cemetery.  I came across a sign.  The top part of the sign was written in Hebrew script.  The bottom part was written in Latin, with the Hebrew transliterated.  The words included Sephardim and ba’et ha’akharona.

     There are no specific rows in the cemetery.  It’s not like Arlington and it’s perfect grid system.  There is no grid system.  There are headstones everywhere.  The scene reminded me a bit of the Jewish cemetery in East Berlin.  I’d visited in the last days of East German national history.  The cemetery needed immediate and rigorous attention.  Headstones had fallen, or had been vandalized.  The landscape looked more like a rock pile than a cemetery.  But the headstones told the story.  Nearly everyone in that cemetery had died in a twelve-year span, 1932-1945.  It was harrowing, both the dates and the general decrepitude.  I took on a mission: to properly arrange the headstones.  I got arrested by East German police.  I spent a weekend in an East German slammer.  A well-known German Jew came to my rescue.  But that’s a story for another project.

     The Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem is the most amazing man-made structure I’ve ever seen.  The cemetery must be hundreds of yards wide and rising steeply up the hillside.  The headstones are made of limestone and to fly over must signify sameness, as in every headstone looking identical to its neighbor.  On the ground, the headstones make you feel small.  You enter and you feel lost among the generations of the past. 

     You can’t get lost in the cemetery.  There’s a view, directly south, of the Old City.  That point of the Old City houses the remains of the Temple.  There’s a slight view of the Dome of the Rock from the Jewish cemetery.

     I walked back to the footpath.  I turned to my left.  The footpath led past Absalom’s Tomb and Jehoshaphat’s cave.  The cave, a burial ground probably dating back to the time of Jesus, was not the final resting spot of King Jehoshaphat, or any other Jehoshaphat in the Tanakh.  In Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people, Josephus spent a good deal of time detailing King Jehoshaphat and, while the king was clearly an important historical person in Josephus’s worldview, there seemed to be an ulterior motive to Josephus’s biography.  Josephus traced his ancestry to the king.  By providing so much color to the persona of Jehoshaphat, was Josephus trumping up his own persona?

     Past the cave, beside a ravine that led to the City of David, I came upon the east side of the cemetery.  The signage leading into that part of the cemetery had similarities to the signage on the western side.  There were two postings, the top half in Hebrew script, the bottom half in Latin.  The transliterated words included Sephardim and Zaken.  Zaken identified old, or ancient, people.  The words on the sign on the western front, ba’et ha’akharona, identified the newer, or more recent, burial ground.  The cemetery had been subdivided.

     Let’s dig into some cemetery history.  The burial ground came into existence during the reign of David, dating back to sometime around 1,000 B.C.E.  Over the long run of history, the cemetery expanded and divisions arose.  Today, there are four major burial locations, with eight minor locations.  The Hasidim, for instance, have their own burial location.  An Ashkenazim burial ground differs from the Sephardim burial ground.  But these distinctions tend to blur.  When I entered the eastern part of the cemetery, I encountered a Hasidic unveiling.  Way more than a minyan stood in attendance.  I stood apart from the Hasidim, observing. 

     Behind the grieving party, from my vantage point, the land rose up hundreds of feet.  From my vantage point, the Old City, dominated by the old Temple wall, could be glimpsed.  A staircase connected the Jewish cemetery to the Old City.  The steps ascended in intervals of five or six, then a landing area of a couple of feet, then more intervals of steps.  Up the steps went to a lookout point and the guarding wall surrounding the Old City.

     It was afternoon, after prayer session.  There wouldn’t be any worshippers around.  There would be tourists.  The complex, housing al-Aqsa Mosque and its more famed but less significant neighbor, the Dome of the Rock, was open to visitors.  Of course, a visitor couldn’t enter the mosque unless he believed in Allah and Islam.

     For Jews, the Temple Mount holds a question.  The grounds were once the most sacred of places.  The grounds once housed the holy of holies.  Given what it once was, was it unholy to step onto those grounds today?

     I left the cemetery and walked over to the staircase.  I then began to run the steps.  The route took fifty seconds to climb in full sprint.  I then went down easy.  For an hour, I repeated the up and down.  The sun baked my body, and I certainly provoked some weird looks from tourists exploring that part of the city.  But up and down I went.  The steps did not hurt the arthritis in my feet.  That was the good news.  The pounding wasn’t the same as a regular run.

     The steps up to the Temple Mount complex became the latest in what has been a thirty-year challenge.  I run steps everywhere I travel, or live.  From Sinai to Jerusalem, from Varanasi to Bali, in San Francisco and the Fillmore hill starting from the marina side, in Brooklyn and the steps of Prospect Park opposite the Quaker cemetery, I have found steps to test my physical endurance.  I could compile a top ten list.  On that list, but in no particular order, would be the Jerusalem steps.  Then I would add the Nazareth stairs (more on that shortly) and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and while we’re in Colorado, the Manitou Springs Incline outside of Colorado Springs.  Some 2,700 stairs rise 2,000 feet in elevation over a mile.  This is not the one-minute sprint up to the top, then an easy down.  From step one, this is a lungs-blasting, heart-hammering, ferocious, sweat-soaked challenge.  I have heard that there’s a staircase known as the “Gateway to Heaven” in Hunan province, China that tops the Manitou Springs Incline in difficulty, but the Incline is simply out-of-this-world difficult.  I would also add “the hidden stairs of La Mesa,” a neighborhood of San Diego.  I ran them once during a family reunion on Shelter Island.  Finding them is difficult, as the name suggests, but once there, they test the limits of physicality.  It took me almost two minutes to run them.  You reach the top in exhaustion.  When you turn around for the downward, you look directly west, high above the city, toward that point where the sky meets the ocean.  Looking west, with your heart and lungs ripping in your chest, is the opposite to standing near the Old City at the top of those stairs.  Yes, your heart and lungs are ripping in your chest, but you’re looking north.  You’re looking over the large expanse of the Jewish cemetery.  You’re looking at thousands of years of human history, generations upon generations, millennia of lives lived and past, stone slabs filling the landscape.  Jerusalem is an autocatalytic phenomenon.


Week 2

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here:

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 2 of 3.  Part 3 can be found below.

Day 8.  I retraced my cycling route back to Tel Aviv.  While the shoulder problems remained on Route 1, there was no need to shout denigrations about race officials.  The downhill from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv really made me move.  I almost kept up with traffic.  The night before, I had made a reservation for one night at the Tel Aviv hotel where I’d stayed upon my arrival in the country.  At reception, I was instantly disappointed.  Tamar was on holiday.  As before, we had a little argument over where to house the bike for the night.  As before, management won. 

Day 9.  Knowing I had a long ride up the coast to Phoenicia, or Lebanon as it’s called today, I departed at first light.  I traveled Route 4 all the way to the Lebanese border, with one stop some thirty miles into the trip, and a few peek-a-boos in the north.  From there, Route 51 hugged the coastline, snaking past my destinations of Tyre and Sidon and reaching Beirut.  I did not make reservations at a hotel in Beirut.  I had no plans of visiting the capital.  There wasn’t a Beirut in Jesus’s and Josephus’s day.  Tyre and Sidon were the port cities of note.

     As I set out that morning, I felt this great internal resistance.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Was it the unknown talking to me?  Was it fear?  Fear of bike failure and technological malfunction?  Fear of cycling on crowded highways?  Fear of Lebanon, of Hezbollah, of traveling through what could be dangerous lands?  I let myself have a crazy fantasy as I crossed through Tel Aviv, taking Chaim Weizmann road to Zeev Jabotinsky to Route 4.  In the fantasy, Lebanese police pulled me over.  They asked to see identification.  My passport, of course, recognized my American citizenship.  The police, in that part of the country, answered to Hezbollah.  They threw me in the back of the car and, quite suddenly, I became a hostage.  Hezbollah shot a video of me, beaten and tired and reading from a script.  I professed my hatred of all things American and Zionist.  I professed my Israeli hatred.  I denounced Judaism.

     I interrupted my fantasy at that point.  To distract myself from my anxieties, I concentrated on street names.  Chaim Weizmann’s trajectory took him along a path similar to Meir Dizengoff (for more on him, see part 1 of these dispatches).  Weizmann was born in a shtetl in the Russian Empire.  When the empire fractured, those lands became Polish.  As a child, he found a love for two studies: chemistry and Hebrew, and they would absolutely guide his life.  His love of chemistry took him to Berlin, where he studied for his doctorate in and around the end of the 19th century.  From Berlin, Weizmann landed a teaching position at the University of Manchester.  If not for chemistry, Weizmann’s trajectory would have gone in a very different direction.  A Polish Jew during the Holocaust, his trajectory would have gone towards the death camps.  But history had other ideas, and Weizmann became the leading Zionist.  His Hebrew served him well.  He learned the language as a child, taught briefly and, of course, spoke from the minute he became an Israeli citizen in 1948.  As the first president of the country, Weizmann was a foundational player in the rise of modern Israel. 

     Jaabotinsky was not foundational, though he might have been.  A Ukrainian Jew by birth, he became a controversial resistance fighter.  His personality traits tended toward tyranny, impatience, hostility.  He could be self-serving.  But Jaabotinsky was one of the most forward thinking Jews of his time.  In the 1930s he put forth an evacuation plan for all the Jews of Poland, Hungary and the Carpathian-Ruthenia region.  He conceived of an exodus to Palestine over a decade’s time.  The World Zionist Organization, led by Chaim Weizmann, dismissed the idea.  Had events played out differently, though, Jaabotinsky might have been the more heralded man.  Today, who knows of Jaabotinsky?  I bet Tamar and her generation have no idea of the name they’re driving their Toyotas and Jeeps upon.

     But something about those leaders, and their namesakes on streets, put me in a better mood.  I reached Route 4 with positive thoughts in mind.  That didn’t last long.  Route 4 through Tel Aviv is a nightmare for cyclists.  Cars spin past at breakneck speeds.  The shoulder narrows at times to the width of a shoe.  There are multiple exit ramps, and the cyclists have to cross those ramps, against traffic, to maintain the route.  I wanted to scream.  I’m sure I did.  But then, about a half-hour outside of Tel Aviv, on the northern border of Herzliya, Route 4 calms down.  It becomes sleepy and scenic.  The miles pass by, as do the towns, from Netanya to Hadera. 

     Some thirty miles into the trip I reached the road known by the number 6511.  That road, on the eastern outskirts of Caesarea, took me straight to the Caesarea National Park, with its beaches and Roman ruins.  I did pass beside the Caesarea Golf Club, which was founded by the Rothschilds back in the 1960s and then completely redesigned in the 2000s by the famous Golf course designer, Pete Dye.  That project was funded by a certain Donald Trump.

     I’d called ahead and reserved a storage space for my bicycle.  But first I had to wait.  The park opens at 8 and I’d arrived a little early.  I spent some time on the beach, sitting on the sand, watching the blue of the Mediterranean mix with the blue sky.  So calming, so quiet, so different than the Tel Aviv cycling scare.  I thought about Josephus and his rendering of Caesarea in The Jewish War.  As with his description of Jerusalem (see part 1 of these dispatches), Josephus spent many paragraphs on the city, and he laid out both a physical map and a political map.  His political map focused on Herod the Great, who built the city on lands “in a state of decay.”

     As rendered by Josephus, Herod maintained close ties with Augustus in Rome, and he built the city in the emperor’s honor, thus the name.  If Josephus repeated the word “wonderful” in his description of Jerusalem, he did something similar with Caesarea.  He chose a different word, “splendid.” 

     Splendid described the palace and the hippodrome.  Splendid described the row of arches covering one roadway and the theater with seating for 4,000.  Splendid described the statue of Caesar, built to resemble Zeus.  “Nowhere,” Josephus wrote of Herod, “did he show more clearly the liveliness of his imagination.”

     But for all the wonder he poured into his description of Caesarea, Josephus was most smitten with the harbor.  And, as with his physical map of Jerusalem, details mattered to him: the white stone that shined in the sunlight, the masonry that defied the sea, the welcoming and massive colonnades, the harbor’s size and shape, its artificial construction, its direction.  According to Josephus, harbors in Egypt faced southwest and were therefore “menaced” by the sea.  The harbor here faced north where everything was calm.

     To walk through the national park at Caesarea today is to experience both ruins and reconstruction, as architects took from Josephus’s description in The Jewish War and rebuilt.  There are cactuses everywhere, and limestone pillars.  There are Romanesque roadways, both public and private bathhouses, a hippodrome, the colossal theater, scant remnants of a palace with a mosaic in shards on the ground.  Herod never lived in that palace, but Pontius Pilate did.  There’s also a minaret there, and while the Islamic architecture seems out place, it points to the years following the Romans.  Caesarea outlived the Roman Empire.

     I spent two hours in the park, and by half past 10, I found myself back on Route 4.  The road goes straight to Haifa, but fortunately offers a bypass around the city.  I took the bypass.

     About an hour from the border, just north of Nahariya, I passed by the ancient town of Achziv.  Apparently, the town played an important role during the days of Canaan.  It had a port and, like Acre to the south, formed during the Bronze Age.  Today, Acre is a thriving city of some 50,000 residents, and the holiest city of the Baha’i faith, and Achziv is an historic site, with a famous beach and mosque.  I didn’t stop at either.  Instead, I glanced.  Had I toured the region by car, I might have stopped.  I might have noted the presumed disharmony of a beach beside a mosque.  Bikini Israel vs. sharia modesty.  Had I stopped, that disharmony would have been quelled.  The mosque is for show.  It’s a tourist site, a marker of Achziv’s Ottoman past.  Like at Caesarea.

     Around the noon hour, I reached the Rosh HaNikra border crossing.  It was nearly deserted and I soon came to understand why.  As an IDF soldier explained, all tourist guidebooks, both in print and online, describe a border unable to cross.  According to the guidebooks, there are no overland routes from Israel into Lebanon.  To make that trip, a tourist has to cross into an Arab country, like Jordan or Egypt, and then fly to Beirut.  Further, the Lebanese hold to a standard.  A traveler with an Israeli stamp in his passport is unwelcome.  Israel has solved that issue for travelers by offering a paper permit.  But the IDF soldier, after smiling at me and my bicycle and the “crazy” crossing I’d chosen, took my paper permit and let me through.  “This is a pauper border now,” he said.

     I think he used the wrong adjective, if pauper even can be used as an adjective.  Or, perhaps, he looked at my tattered and dirty riding shorts and thought of poverty.  But I think he meant to use the adjective permissible.  Still, his word as a description held some meaning.  That border crossing is desolate.  I remember the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing between West and East Berlin.  That border, in the midst of the city, had so much activity despite the reigning fear.  The Rosh HaNikra crossing held the same amount of fear, with no activity at all.

     Sidebar: The history of Christmas Nativity scenes depicts shepherds with large growths in their throat regions.  Check out the paintings of the Renaissance, or the sculptures.  Check out Caravaggio.  Check out Bernini in Rome.  The growths are as notable as the mangers, and the angels, and the wisemen.

     The growths are goiters.  They symbolize the pauper status, the abject poverty, of the shepherds.  They are, in essence, subversive brushstrokes, or carvings or castings, in relation to the dominant heralding glow of the Nativity scene.  But the goiters reflect more upon the age of the artist than the age depicted.  Goiters were common in Renaissance Europe.  Iodine deficiency ran rampant.  Goiters were not as common in Judea during the time of Jesus.  Iodine deficiencies don’t usually occur in coastal regions.  They are more common in the highlands.  Of course, the Galilee qualifies as highlands country.  Maybe Jesus suffered from a goiter?

     Let’s get back to the ride.  The Lebanese side of the border is operated by the U.N. Interim Force.  The word Interim is a farce.  That force has been on site since the late 1970s.  Why don’t they call it the U.N. Permanent Force?  A friendly Dutch soldier let me through.  He didn’t question my crossing.  Rather, he wanted to talk about my bicycle.  He described himself as a “cycling wonk” and he marveled at the bike’s technology.  This particular model, as noted earlier, was decked out with high-end parts and components.  It would have cost upwards of ten thousand dollars.

     I offered to let the soldier take the bike for a spin, but he shook his head.  Duty wouldn’t allow for such frivolity.  Instead, he talked to me about his hero, Erik Breukink.  When back in his hometown of Amsterdam, this soldier rode with a club led by Breukink.  They all wore their bright orange national cycling jerseys so proudly.

     I nodded my head, and watched as he stamped my passport.  I had never heard of Breukink, but I didn’t feel like standing for the explanation.  I wanted to get on with the ride.  I hopped back on the saddle and peddled into the town of Naqoura.  Later that night, in a guesthouse in Tyre, I learned that Breukink was the last Dutch cyclist to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.  The yellow jersey is worn by the leader of the race.  Back in 1989, Breukink dawned the yellow.  He held it for one day.  No Dutch rider has ever won the Tour.

     The ride from Naqoura to Tyre was uneventful, just the well-paved route of 51 that stretched the thirty or so miles.  Had I been intrepid enough, I could have taken 51 all the way up to Antioch.  That town, in modern-day Turkey, was the center of Roman rule in that part of the world.  The governor of Syria lived there.  At the time of Josephus’s birth, a man named Lucius Vitellius governed Syria.  Some thirty years later, Governor Cestius Gallus, acting on orders from Nero, marched his army into Judea.  He got as far as Jerusalem but Jewish resistance won the day and Gallus turned back.  According to Josephus, he died a broken man in Antioch, never living down the shame of losing to Jewish forces.  Gallus’s loss, though, meant that Roman legions were coming.  Gallus’s loss led directly to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

     It should be noted that, intrepid or not, it’s not possible to cross overland from Lebanon into Turkey.  There are impenetrable borders.  The Lebanon/Turkey border would make a top ten list.

     I slept that night in a perfectly adequate guesthouse.  The sheets were old but clean, and the room smelled of disinfectant.  The disinfectant made sense, as everyone smoked.  Better Lysol than cigarette funk, I suppose.  The best part of the guesthouse was the lemon tea.  I went to sleep that night with a glass, and I woke up to further glasses.  The proprietor of the guesthouse made it on site, from lemon trees in his yard.  He saw my affection for his tea and packed up a thermos for my wanderings around town.

     That morning I explored the ruins of Tyre.  I was immediately stuck by the ancient city’s long run.  The tentacles of Tyrian history reach way back to nearly 3,000 B.C.E.  Those tentacles revolve around the color of a dye, for purple pigment made Tyre.  We see Tyrian purple stretching all the way to Babylon.  We see Tyrian purple in the building of Jerusalem and the first Temple.  We see Tyrian purple making its way to Rome and through that portal, conquering Europe.  We see Tyrian purple on the sails flapping high above, as Cleopatra’s boat entered the port of Tarsus not so far from Antioch.  When Cleopatra emerged, dressed as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, Marc Antony didn’t know what hit him.

     Josephus, in his writings on Tyre, didn’t trace the purple economy.  Unlike his mapping of Jerusalem and Caesarea, he did not describe the layout of Tyre.  A physical map did not materialize.  He most likely never set foot in the region, as it did not fall under his jurisdiction in the war with Rome.  His political map, drawn mainly in Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people, tracked the line of kings during the long run of the Assyrians.  But Josephus missed Rome’s great interest in the city.  All the physical manifestations of Roman attention can be found in the ruins, from colonnaded roads to a burial ground, to an arena, to an aqueduct and a hippodrome that once seated some 20,000 spectators, to a bathhouse, to residential quarters that resemble those found in Caesarea.  But unlike Caesarea, the ruins lack adequate archeological protection.  Lebanon isn’t interested in protecting its historical sites. 

     Of course, the Lebanese are veritable protectors of antiquities compared to their neighbors, the Syrians of ISIS influence.  Notably, ISIS destroyed historical sites built by the Parthians.  The Parthians were Rome’s most formidable enemy.  ISIS could have built a strong east vs. west narrative out of Parthian resistance to Rome.  Of course, ISIS didn’t know the history of the land.

Day 11.  I rode the leg from Tyre to Sidon without event.  But events immediate changed upon my arrival in Sidon, at about the time the muezzin’s call to prayer began.  I heard the news from a man named Aziz, who operated the Hariri GuestHouse.  Aziz, as I soon learned, held a degree from University College London, and he was proud to name other alumni.  He named two in particular: Mahatma Gandhi and Chris Martin.  “Coldplay, you know,” he said.  I did know. 

     Aziz traced his name back to Assisi, the Italian evangelizer canonized by Pope Gregory.  Assisi died “from the wounds,” Aziz was quick to point out, or the stigmata.  He probably died of sepsis, but that’s a story for another time.  Also, Assisi was the first to stage a nativity scene.  He did so in the Italian village of Grecio.  He set up a manger and hay and live animals and he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem,” according to The Life of Assisi by St. Bonaventure.  St. Bonaventure, it should be noted, did not note shepherds with goiters.

    Anyway, Aziz valued his namesake.  He grew up in Sidon, went to England to study, then returned in 2003 to open the guesthouse.  Originally, he’d planned to live in London but the prime minister of Lebanon at that time, Rafic Hariri, put out a call for Lebanese in the diaspora to return home to help rebuild their country.  Fifteen years of civil war was in the rear view, Hariri claimed, with the peace here to stay.  Hariri pointed to the lavish hotels sprouting up.  “The war of the hotels,” Hariri advertised, according to Aziz, “is now the welcome mat of Arab hospitality.  We are now a country of room service.”

     The double use of the word “now” struck me as trying just a bit too hard to win support for the tourist economy.  But Lebanese history seemed to turn a corner here in the 21st century.  The civil war broke out in the 1970s, and it began, quite literally, in the Holiday Inn, a five star hotel located in an opulent, seaside neighborhood of Beirut.  The ruins of the hotel stood to Hariri’s day, a symbol of everything lost.  The Phoenicia InterContinental was the next hotel destroyed by sectarian warfare.  The hotels became the front lines.

     Hariri resigned from office one year after his call to return.  He was assassinated four months later.  The country remains split on the culprit, according to Aziz.  Half the country blames Hezbollah.  The other half thinks an outside agent set up Hezbollah.  And that, in a nutshell, is recent Lebanese history.  It doesn’t feel like a place; it feels like a place others come to use.  But Aziz believed in Hariri’s message so much so that not only did he return to rebuild the country, but he literally took Hariri’s words, opened a guesthouse, and named the place after the prime minister.  Notably, as with most tales both large and small, this one revolved around some complexity.  Aziz didn’t love Hariri.  “He was a child of Saudi influence,” Aziz explained.  “He was corrupt.  But he could get things done.  His son is half of him.”

     In December 2016, Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, became prime minister.  Aziz went on to describe Hariri the younger in comparison to Hariri the elder.  That description could best be summarized by a poster I’d seen while cycling the leg from Tyre to Sidon.  On faded poster paper, the son sat on a chair in the foreground, small in stature.  The father loomed behind, standing and menacing.  Rafic Hariri’s famous mustache almost engulfed the son.  Saad Hariri’s mustache, by comparison, had no force or grace.

     Flash forward to November 2017.  As I rode from Tel Aviv to Tyre, Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia.  In the hours since, he hadn’t been heard from.  There were crazy rumors floating about.  He was under house arrest.  The Saudis countered, claiming that an assassination plot against Hariri had been uncovered and, for his own personal safety, he remained in Riyadh.  Saudi information focused on Hezbollah as the agency of assassination, but then Hezbollah had made an alliance with Iran, and Iran was the sworn enemy of the Saudi Kingdom.  So, of course, the Saudis would blame Hezbollah.  Hezbollah’s long-serving leader, Hassan Nasrallah, immediately denied any involvement.  He then put out a counter-statement.  The Israelis, in alliance with the Saudis, were mobilizing a force to cross the border.  Their aim was to engage and destroy Hezbollah. 

     I asked Aziz a question.  “If war breaks out, are we safe?”

     “Yes,” he claimed.  “On the coast.  You wouldn’t want to be in the Bekka Valley.  Don’t cycle over there.”

     I had no plans to cycle there.  But his words did nothing to alleviate my anxiety.  Was I, all of a sudden, in a war zone?  I couldn’t sleep that night.  I spent my hours on Al Jazeera’s English-language website, trying to suss out the situation.  Little corroborative information was forthcoming.  It seemed all rumors and misinformation, or disinformation.  To try to calm myself, I watched some professional basketball.  My beloved Denver Nuggets were in action.  But I couldn’t keep my mind on the game.  I have no desire to become a war writer.  I was not raised to idealize war, and the writers who romanticize it.  I am “no Hemingway,” a critic once called my work.  I think the critic meant that I couldn’t tell a straight story to save my life, that I overindulged in complexity.  But, well, his meaning certainly described my war dispatches.

     The next morning, taking Aziz’s comments at face value, I went sightseeing.  Josephus had little interest in Sidon.  In his chronicle, Sidon fell under the umbrella of Tyre.  Sidon did not stand on its own.

     A similar framing can be found in the Gospels, where Sidon always comes second.  Tyre is always the first city listed.  To read the Gospels, or Josephus, is to believe that Sidon existed as the simple younger sister to the stunning Tyre.  It didn’t have to go down that way.  In the early days, just the opposite occurred.  Scholars believe that the purple dye actually came from Sidon.  But history seemed to be on the southern city’s side.  A famous king, Hiram, struck trade deals with King David down in Judea.  Tyre soon came to dominate.  That sense of domination continues for someone on a tour of Roman-era history.  There is little to see in Sidon.  Notably, one of the more popular tourist spots is the Soap Museum, which traces soap making in the region.  This is notable because Sidon, for the most part, is rundown and depressed and dirty.  How can a soap-making capital not keep its own city clean?

     When I returned to the Hariri GuestHouse, I asked Aziz for the news.  Hariri had resigned, according to a published report.  Had he been kidnapped?  That was the question in mind.  Was he a hostage?  In related news, three Arab countries – UAE, Kuwait and Saudi – put out a call for their citizens in Lebanon to leave.  I immediately phoned the United States embassy in Beirut.  The official there described the situation as “one to watch.”  The U.S. hadn’t weighed in yet.  Aziz suggested that, since this was ostensibly my one time in Lebanon, I push on to Beirut.  “Everyone must go to Beirut,” he claimed.  “It is the center.”

     I didn’t understand his meaning.  There wasn’t a Beirut in Josephus’s day, so it wasn’t on my list.  Also, what would I discover there in my very limited time in the city that I wouldn’t see elsewhere?  Aren’t all of these capital cities the same, relatively?  Wasn’t Beirut just another Mediterranean city?  I was torn.  Given the possibility of war, should I make my way for the southern border or push north?  At about that time, I received an email from my father back in Colorado.  He advocated for an immediate return to Israel.  “They might know of you,” he wrote, “because of your book.  You might be in danger.”

     Some years back, I wrote a fiction entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise.  That book detailed American involvement in Iran, and secret deals made between the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and the Khomeini leadership, to delay the release of the American hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran until after Election Day, thereby ensuring the victory of Reagan over President Carter.  There was no hard evidence of any deals, only lots of information, misinformation and disinformation.  A nonfiction book was not possible.  But a fiction could go there.

     It turns out that I was wrong.  A nonfiction book could go there.  New information has come down to me.  A key operative wants to tell his tale.  Another key player, with long ties to the Republican Party, “needs to give a deathbed confessional,” in his words, “that will blow the lid off the true history.”  But that’s a story for another book project.  My book on the October Surprise showcased the traitor mentality of the Reagan Republicans, and the great duplicity of Ayatollah Khomeini.  While the Ayatollah publically condemned America – Marg bar Amrika, he thundered, or death to America – he had his envoys make the deal.  My father was correct: the Iranian government of today would not like the book.  And that government had serious tentacles in Lebanon.  But let’s be real.  I couldn’t find a publisher.  I self-published.  Maybe a hundred people worldwide bought the book.  Maybe ten people read it.  There wasn’t a fatwa against me.

     My father was acting out of his own anxieties, understandably.  But my father lives in a gated community in a wealthy part of suburban Denver and, from that vantage point, nearly everything presents a danger.  An internal voice pushed me northward and, I must say, that decision turned into the great highlight of the trip.  I went on Expedia and made reservations for two nights in a Beirut hotel.  I then called the hotel to make certain that I could store my bicycle in my room.  The receptionist responded with strange words.  “Yes, of course,” she said.  “But, you know, you can’t use the bike in the marathon.”

     What was she talking about?  I did a quick Google search.  Sunday the 12th of November would see the 15th running of the Beirut Marathon.  A further search noted that space was still available for participants.  Registration closed as the race began.  I cycled the twenty-five or so miles to Beirut with a question in mind.  Should I try to run in the marathon? 

     There wasn’t an easy answer.  I have a decent history as a marathon runner.  I began in my 20s and ran many marathons into my 30s.  But at some point plantar fasciitis set in and my feet couldn’t take the pounding.  Then something far worse took over.  I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.  My feet were the first to feel the effects.  I stopped running completely.  Could my feet manage the 26.2 miles of pounding?  Could my body, so unused to running these past few years, find that rhythm?  Although I felt fine from a fitness perspective, I certainly wasn’t marathon-trained.  Would the exertion be too extreme?  Would I suffer a heart attack and end up in a Beirut hospital, just as war broke out?  Would I suddenly find myself on the front lines?  Lots of anxieties, to be sure.

     I think, in retrospect, these questions pushed me onward.  These were the final days of my forties – my 50th birthday fell a few days after the marathon – and the challenge of the run was too much to pass up.  On Sunday morning, I registered twenty minutes before the event began.  The official gave me a bib with the number 47,001.  I later found out that 47,001 participants began the race.  I was the last to register.

Day 14.  A few minutes before nine a.m., I joined thousands of participants near the starting line.  The scene, in many ways, resembled marathons held everywhere else.  There was the usual chatter and wishes of “good luck” or “Inshallah,” since this was an Arabic-speaking country.  All the participants looked the same, in our microthread running clothes and our gaudy-colored running shoes.  The marathon began near the marina, and sea breezes whipped along at a good and cooling pace.  The breezes would be with us for the entire day.  The course was a double there and back.  The first there and back traveled seven miles south, then returned to the starting point.  The second there and back went six miles northward.  The wind played havoc.  Sometimes you felt it in your face and then, quite abruptly, a draft pushed you forward.  There was a swirling effect.

     What separated this marathon from all others were the atmospherics.  Signs everywhere posted Saad Hariri’s face, with slogans underneath in Arabic and English, announcing, “We want our PM back.”  Some young men, in fact, took that slogan, embroidered it on baseball caps, and passed them out to the runners.  Many of the runners wore those hats along the way.  There was a billboard rising high above the crowd with Saad Hariri in running gear.  He had, apparently, run this event the year before.  “We are all waiting for you,” the slogan on the billboard read. 

     I looked at all the children present.  They were participating in various distances, from the Family Fun Runs, to the 5K, to the more trying distance of the 10K, to the long slog of the marathon, and their behavior told the tale.  Saad Hariri, in their eyes, had become a hero.  Gone were the tales of his corruption.  Gone was his ineptitude.  Gone was his capitulation to Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.  Gone was his reliance on the Saudis.  Saad Hariri had come of age.  Maybe he’d been underestimated?  Maybe this whole strange entanglement was a ruse, to make a hero of the man? 

     The English-speaking crowd noted the name coincidence, Saad to sad.  To judge from the children, if indeed they aped their parents, the country now believed in Saad Hariri.  The crowd felt a collective defiance.  The crowd felt the duty of perseverance.  Notably, these are useful mental tools to lean on during a marathon.  When the miles pile up and the going gets tough, you need something to push you forward.  Defiance and perseverance certainly work.

     Before firing his gun in the air – a strange exercise for a once war-torn country, perhaps on the verge of another war – the announcer shouted, “We run for peace, for unity, for Lebanon.”  We shouted first in Arabic, then in English, then in French.  Then he fired his gun. 

     My body hurt from the first step.  I am not going to write a reflection of pain here.  That seems gratuitous.  But I hadn’t run in years and my muscles had forgotten the pace and positioning.  I also used to overpronate slightly, running on the outsides of my feet before putting much of the pounding on my arches and toes.  The arthritis had taken over my arches and toes.  I couldn’t run as before.  I therefore tilted back and ran on my heels.  My body wasn’t used to that position. 

     I ran slowly.  Normally a marathon would take me slightly under three hours to complete.  Only once did I go over the three-hour barrier, my last.  I was so depressed with my time that I quit.  Actually, that’s not correct.  I quit because I realized that marathons were destructive to the body.  I took to training for marathons, but not running in them.  In Beirut, I ran with a thought in mind.  “Just make it to the next water stop.”  There was a water stop at every mile.

     The course snaked down Paris Boulevard in West Beirut, past the American embassy and American University.  We hugged the coast and nearly reached UNESCO headquarters.  UNESCO was supposed to protect the ruins of Tyre and the tomb of Hiram nearby, but the agency was clearly failing in that endeavor.  I’d come up from the south on this route, and I felt some positivity in the familiarity of it.  We reached Military Beach and made our way back. 

     In East Beirut we ran in between the sea and the Dora Highway, past refugee camps.  Beirut is small, I quickly discovered.  It is not like other Arab capitals, Cairo or Amman, for instance.  The city size reminded me of my first marathon in San Francisco.  That day, you felt like you covered the entire city.  Same feeling here.  Except, of course, San Francisco didn’t have refugee camps on its eastern side, although the homeless encampments today might qualify.  These days the refugees in Lebanon come from Syria.  During the civil war era, Syria controlled large swathes of Beirut.  Everything has changed.

     I’m not sure what happened to me on the run.  That first mile was so painful.  The next mile wasn’t easy, nor the next.  But along the way I realized that I really wanted to run this day.  I realized just how much I’d missed the sport.  Running is all about control.  We don’t control much in our lives, but when you run, particularly when you run long distances, you feel as if you’re the master.  I took to running for various reasons but, primarily, I ran because I wrote.  As a writer, I couldn’t control anything.  Couldn’t control the process.  Couldn’t control the flow of words, or lack of flow.  Couldn’t control the story.  Couldn’t control the publishing side.  Running offered control, a counterweight to the writing side.  I ran to write.

     I realized as I ran Beirut that I still needed the control of running.  There is no control in cycling.  There are too many variables, like drivers who pull beside as some sort of joke.  So if this was my last long running effort, man, I was going out with everything I had.  Damn it, I was going to limp over the finish line. 

     And that’s essentially what happened.  It took me four hours to run Beirut.  I have never felt a better sense of accomplishment.  At some point, around twenty miles or so, I started to talk to the pain encompassing my body.  What had started from step one in my feet soon moved into my calves and up into my quadriceps, and then into my hips and back and beyond.  Even my shoulders hurt.  I started to cry.  Have I gone off the deep end here in my description?  I stated that I wouldn’t write a reflection of pain but here I am, doing just that.  Once I started to cry, I couldn’t stop.  The tears helped me because I knew just how ridiculous they were.  I was crying and laughing at the same time.  I crossed the finish line in laughing tears.  The crowd there saw me and cheered wildly.  Did they think I was crying tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of defiance, tears for their prime minister?  Sad for Saad? 

     If so, they were wrong.  I was crying tears of outrageous pain.  I crossed over that line and found the first volunteer to lean on.  He took on the entire weight of my body and whispered, “Mabrouk.”  Congratulations in Arabic.  Then he did a most outstanding thing, but something I would never allow in any other circumstance.  He wiped away my tears with his hands.  And we stood there for a few moments, one man crying and leaning heavily on the second man, that man wiping away the tears.

Day 15.  I didn’t get out of bed the entire day.  I was too tired to move, and my feet were too swollen to slip into shoes.  I’d anticipated such a day and stocked for provisions.  Plus, the hotel offered room service, as Rafic Hariri had once advertised, and I ordered the biggest cheeseburger available.  I ate my food and swallowed Ibuprofen and binge-watched Netflix and check in regularly on the Al Jazeera website and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean from my window.  It was a great day. 

Day 16.  I woke early, with the anxiety of a ninety-mile cycling trip through unknown territory, on highways filled with traffic and drivers unused to sharing the road with cyclists.  I’d already had enough of those drivers on my way to Beirut.  Drivers in the Levant think a cyclist should be honked at, then nearly sideswiped.  How close can you get?  That’s the game played.  At twenty miles per hour, with your life on the line, it’s hardly a fun game.

     I reversed my route and cycled south beside the towns of Sidon and Tyre and the road to Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine.  That story appeared in the Book of John only.  The Synoptics missed the story entirely. 

     Today, Cana is a lost city.  Was it in the Galilee?  Was it in Phoenicia, and therefore present-day Lebanon?  History remains miffed.

     One historical map, Shepherd’s Historical Atlas of 1923, placed Cana smack dab in the middle of the Galilee, with its famous neighbors, Nazareth and Sepphoris to the west, and the Sea of Galilee to the east.  I looked for that Cana a few days later, but more on that search in a bit.  There is a Qana in Lebanon.  Today, it’s a Shia town.  A Shia town in a wider Sunni nation.  In some ways, that’s more threatening than a Jewish nation in Arab lands.

     I departed my Beirut hotel at sunrise, about an hour after the call to prayer.  I would chart that call, in terms of length of time.  In Beirut, the call on a November morning began at around 4:45.  It lasted seven minutes.  In Nazareth, the call began a few minutes earlier but never lasted more than five minutes.  In Jerusalem, the call began at half past the hour and lasted a good fifteen minutes.  On Fridays, the call went on for half an hour.  Trying to sleep on Friday mornings in Jerusalem is impossible.  I’m sure the entire city rises before five.  But, if the call goes on for that long in Jerusalem, Islam’s third most important city, how long does it go for in Mecca and Medina?

     Due to my early departure time, the roads were mostly clear of traffic.  The temperature was a cool 55 degrees, and the wind seemed friendly.  I made excellent time.  I arrived at the border with hopes of a quick transfer.  It didn’t work out that way.  As before, there were no tourists in sight.  Just me and the border officials and a whole legion, seemingly, of soldiers with guns.  I spent four hours in some kind of detainment, on both sides of the border.  I was not interrogated.  That would be too strong a word.  Interviewed would be a better description.  Rigorously interviewed. 

     What did the officials want to know?  The official representing the U.N. Interim Force, a Kuwaiti, didn’t understand the nature of my trip.  I missed my Dutchman.  I tried to explain that I was following the path once blazed by Josephus in his writing.  Nobody knew the name.  The Kuwaiti brought in other Arab soldiers, as apparently it was Arab guard duty that morning.  They ordered lemon tea from a café in Naqoura.  I drank and they smoked.  I decided to talk about the geopolitics of the region.  It was a tactic.  Locals are always surprised, and typically pleased, when a foreigner knows something of their lands.  I had studied the wider region thoroughly for my book on the October Surprise.  Although that was a good five years back, and much had changed, much had not.  I listed names and paramilitary organizations and, as these were Sunni soldiers that day, I described a deep distrust with Iran.  I predicted a Saudi/Iran war.  The soldiers all promised to fight for Allah, or the Saudis, and after some heavy conversation, they let me through. 

     I walked my bike to the Israeli side, thinking, as a Jew, I was in the clear.  The Israelis studied my passport.  They asked my route of travel.  They doubted my story.  They ordered Nescafé instant coffee.  I drank and they smoked.  Did they think I was an Arab agent?  I clearly didn’t pay allegiance to Hezbollah, or ISIS, or any other death-to-Israel military organization.  Did they think I was CIA?  They searched my belongings.  They patted me down.  They tested my story.  I expressed my views on Israel.  I expressed my fears that this younger generation was not prepared for war.  Oh, I’m sure they’re prepared in terms of military training.  But are they willing to make the kinds of sacrifices the older generations made?  To the soldiers on the border, all young, I questioned their “relative comforts,” their obsession with state-of-the-art technology, their eagerness for material accumulation, their self-perceived lack of tension with their Arab neighbors.

     They didn’t object to my perspective.  Instead, they corrected my word choice.  “Relative comforts?” one of them argued.  “Israel is the stability in the region.  Look at the investments pouring in.  Look at the building in Tel Aviv.  Look around.”

     He wasn’t wrong.  In Tel Aviv, I saw cranes everywhere.  Tel Aviv struck me as a mix between Las Vegas and New York.  New York in its maniacal building.  New York in its traffic.  New York in its glamour.  Tel Aviv has a strip of stores that resembles Madison Avenue in its fixation with fabulousness.

     But Tel Aviv has the Las Vegas feel, too.  Las Vegas in its abundant sunshine.  There is no way of escaping that blinding sun.  As in Vegas, even the shade seems sunny.  Las Vegas in its pockets of rising high-rises.  They do not spread out.  They are clustered and the look feels like the Las Vegas strip has come to the Levant.  Las Vegas in its lack of drinking water and its reliance on one river.  As Vegas is to the Colorado, Tel Aviv is to the Jordan.  Both create incredible tensions within their regions, though neither city seems particularly interested.

     The border guards let me through around two in the afternoon.  It was siesta time, I think, and they’d grown tired of the interview.  I was just happy to get moving again.  I rode Route 4 to Acre, where I picked up Route 85.  Eighty-five connects to Route 785 at Karmiel.  I certainly didn’t see the IDF in mobilization, as Nasrallah counter-accused.  If the Israelis were invading southern Lebanon, they were doing so on side roads.

     I took Route 785 to 79, passing beside Yodfat, where I would return the next day.  Seventy-nine connects to Route 75 around the town of Zippori, or Sepphoris as Josephus and Rome would have known it.  I would return there on my birthday.  Seventy-five ends with a climb up the Nazareth hill.

     It was six in the evening when I began the climb.  I was reminded of cycling up the Rocky Mountains, minus the car traffic whizzing by, and the noise and grime, and the setting sun blinding the drivers.  It once took me nearly three hours to cycle from the town of Idaho Springs to the summit of Mt. Evans.  That road reaches 14,130 feet and travels some thirty miles.  It’s a slow, heart pumping, heavy breathing slog.  The ride up the Nazareth hill has some of the same traits.  Plus, I’d left my hotel in Beirut about ten hours earlier.  I was very tired when I saw what I had to climb.

     I made it, somehow.  I arrived at the old city and immediately found myself at a loss for how to find the guesthouse.  I had done a Google Map search in my Beirut hotel room, and I had written down directions on a scrap of paper.  But Google Maps shouldn’t be blamed for the direction difficulty.  Nazareth is complicated and, in Arab towns, street names are pointless and everybody points in a direction, even if they’re all pointing in different directions.  I found the guesthouse through sheer luck.  The manager greeted me with remarkable hospitality.  Arab hospitality has its levels.  Muslim Arabs treat you like brothers.  They will share their last scrap of food with you.  Christian Arabs treat you like royalty.  They will not only share any and all food with you but, if necessary, they will chauffeur you around the city, in search of rare parts.  But more on that hospitality in the next dispatch.


Week 3

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here:

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 3 of 3.

Late night on day 16.  The long slog on bicycle from Beirut to Nazareth, with the four or so hours of waiting, and interrogation, at the Rosh HaNikra border crossing, had taken its toll.  Exhaustion had rendered me empty.  I slumped in a comfortable bed.  I tried to eat shawarma.  I tried to read.  The next day, I was scheduled for a tour of Yodfat, or Jotapata as Josephus and the Romans would have known it, and I wanted to read Josephus’s chapter on that battle.  He wrote his original description in The Jewish War.  That description reminded me of my bike ride from Beirut to Nazareth.  It went on for sixteen interminable pages, rendering it a brutal slog.  But something funky happened.  There was a detractor.  Someone took umbrage with Josephus’s description of the battle and called out Josephus.  That someone has been lost to history.  We only know that Josephus was put on the defensive.  He therefore felt it necessary to write a second description of the battle.  He did so in the last known book of his life, Against Apion.  It turns out that there was another book written after Against Apion, but that’s a story for another time.

     Apion was the most famous historian of his time.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on more important figures.  Homer, for instance.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish and, in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews.  He rendered Moses as a leper.

     Rendering Moses as a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, that work has not come down to us.  We only know of Apion’s work through Josephus.

     The title, Against Apion, promoted the book’s agenda.  Against Apion was a defense of a people, as Josephus took on a whole kettle of commentators who screamed and whistled anti-Jewish invective.  Against Apion was a roundhouse right of a responsum.

     At the end of the book, Josephus included his “Vita.”  It’s in those pages that his second Jotapata reportage can be found.  There’s a sea change in his two works on the subject.  The original comes across as a chronicle, with some loud, self-serving crowing.  The revision is an edgy defense strategy, acerbic at times, insecure at times.  Layers of panic underscore the tone.  Here was Josephus seemingly up on the witness stand.  Here was his original reportage, under threat.  Here was a man trying to prove himself, trying to save his legacy, trying to save his life. 

     Who was his detractor?  Again, the historical record remains murky.  But there was a villain in The Jewish War.  His name was Justus ben Pistus from Tiberias and he seemed to lead a rebellion against Josephus, while the war against Rome raged.  At least, that’s how Josephus rendered Justus.

     To that intrigue, here’s more.  At some point in the post-war years, Justus accused Josephus of irresponsible warmongering.  The accusation was somewhat hollow.  Justus was in the Galilee.  Josephus was ensconced Rome.  A prisoner of sorts.  Unable to leave the city, but free to live his life and to write his histories.

     What did the irresponsible warmongering charge mean?  Unfortunately, there are no extant sources.  We only know of the accusation through Josephus.  Maybe there’s a document written by Justus ben Pistus somewhere in Tiberius.  It hasn’t shown itself, yet.

     With all of this in mind, but with inertia taking over, I slumped down in bed.  I closed my eyes.  I fell asleep.

Day 17.  I awoke to the prayer call.  My night light was still glowing.  My copies of The Jewish War and Josephus’s Vita laid cluttered on my chest.  I looked at my watch: 4:42.  The call to prayer provoked the roosters, who joined in the cacophony.  Or maybe it was the other way around.  Maybe the roosters’ circadian rhythms came first.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.

     I set out for Yodfat at around seven a.m.  I had a difficult time in finding my way out of Nazareth.  The turns and twists and maze of the place challenged my internal navigation system.  My internal navigation system is used to the Rockies of Colorado, where I grew up.  I’ve never been lost there.  I’ve been lost most everywhere else.

     Eventually, I found Route 75.  I took that road to 79, then to 784.  Rolling hills formed the landscape, with some steep climbs.  There were no big cities in the region, so traffic was light.  The route, some twenty miles, took longer than expected, and I worried that I’d missed the turn.  I didn’t.  The sign for “Yodfat/Monkey Forest” was big and bright and welcoming.  What wasn’t so welcoming, though, was the prick in the innertube.  I arrived with a flat tire.

     I had made preparations for such a malfunction.  When I rented the bicycle in Tel Aviv, I also rented a repair kit.  The kit included two spare innertubes and a pump.  I soon discovered that the first spare had a valve problem.  So after changing out that innertube, I immediately realized that it wouldn’t hold air.  I wanted to give up right there.  It’s interesting.  During the Beirut marathon (see part 2 of these dispatches), I didn’t want to give up.  I wanted to persevere.  I was pushed to persevere.  But here, given the technology glitch, given the difficulty in changing innertubes with my arthritic hands, I contemplated my options.  I could try to hitchhike back to Nazareth.  Given the tourist attraction of the site, I certainly had many people to ask.  I could ask one of these people to call a taxi on my behalf.  How much would that cost?  What would the driver say to the bike?  I could change the tire, again. 

     I swallowed some of my frustration and went with the last option.  Fortunately that innertube held air.  But I had bike grease all over my hands and clothes, and I felt the anxieties of what to do if another flat should occur on my ride back to Nazareth.  I had no spares left.

     Today, Yodfat serves several purposes.  As the welcoming sign advertised, it’s a monkey preserve.  It turns out that all sorts of monkeys are indigenous to the area.  As I changed out my tire, twice, the parking lot filled up.  The tourist attraction includes a restaurant and a gift shop.  There’s also a working moshav next door.  The settlement must be strictly agricultural by nature.  I changed the tire beside the entrance and didn’t see any industry, not even furniture building in keeping with the basics of the kibbutz movement.  The historical site is to the south.  It’s a five-minute drive, down a steep incline.  I was feeling the anxieties of my tire issue, and the incline bugged me.  Plus, I knew I had to cycle up it.  Plus, I knew I had to cycle back up the Nazareth hill.

     The self-fortification of Yodfat is immediately apparent.  The ancient town sat on a hill, shaped like a key, sloping, with the bow of the key up high and the cuts below.  Prior to the revolt, the town held some fifteen hundred residents, according to Josephus.  The residents must have known something about terrace or slant farming.  From the town, there were steep drops to the valley floor.  For the most part, the floor below was not visible from up high.  The vegetation on the hills included grass and weeds, olive and fruit trees.  The trees were not packed together, like the highrises going up in Tel Aviv, but sporadic.  There were limestone rocks everywhere.  These days, and probably back in Josephus’s day, cows roamed the hills.  They munched on the grass.  I looked around at the neighboring hills and it dawned on me: there might have been other communities with towns there, too.  This was not exactly Masada, with it’s one rising hill in an otherwise flat landscape.  Josephus didn’t note any surrounding towns in either of his writings, but maybe those towns fed into Jotapata at the time of revolt.  Maybe that swelled the population.  Maybe the other towns also aided the war effort.  Positioning archers on neighboring hills would have put them in position to pick off Roman legionnaires from behind.  Maybe Josephus, as a novice war general, missed this opportunity. 

     In the run up to the war, Josephus garrisoned Jotapata as his western outpost.  The Romans could only attack from the north.  When Rome’s great general, Vespasian, arrived on site and viewed the difficulty of the terrain, he called for backup.  Some sixty thousand Roman troops attacked, according to Josephus.  That number seems exorbitant.  Did Josephus raise the troop number to pit a David vs. Goliath battle?  As noted, the land around Yodfat is hilly.  Moving armies into place wouldn’t have been easy, or quick.  The Romans were at a disadvantage.  Also, the battle occurred in the summer of 67.  The summer is the dry season, and sticky hot.  The Romans would have needed long lines to connect to a water source.  Certain details of the battle, as Josephus rendered it, then reflected on another battle made famous by Josephus and Josephus alone.  The few Jewish settlers compared to the large Roman army resembled the battle at Masada.  Did Josephus use Jotapata as a template for his legend at Masada?  (See my book Satan’s Synagogue for a detailed analysis.)

     I sat down amongst the cows to write down my thoughts.  I watched a group of Israelis on tour.  Their Hebrew speaking guide gesticulated wildly.  I looked up at the sky.  Incredibly blue for as far as the eye could see.  The very opposite of the New York finite.  I didn’t sit for long.  I was feeling the anxieties of my bike situation.  Granted, my anxieties paled in comparison to the anxieties the residents of Jotapata must have felt nearly two millennia ago, but my anxieties were strong.  I wanted to get on with the ride back to Nazareth.

     As events played out, I arrived at the guesthouse without incident.  Even up the Nazareth hill, the innertube held.  I then had a mission: to find a bike shop and purchase spare innertubes.  A Google search of Nazareth didn’t show one bike shop in the entire city.  The nearest bike shop, according to Google, was in Haifa.  I guess nobody cycles in Galilee.

     I took my mission to the proprietor.  His name was Michel abu Nassar, and he couldn’t have been any more generous.  According to Michel, Google was wrong.  There was bike store in Nazareth, but it was clear across town.  He offered to drive me.  At first, I thought the offer was too large.  How could I take up that much of Michel’s time?  Plus, the search occurred around the rush hour.  How could I put Michel in traffic, on a mission superfluous to him?

     Michel was adamant.  We jumped into his compact Toyota ­– in Nazareth, all cars are small, as the size of the streets won’t allow for SUVs – and, along the way, we talked about life in Nazareth.  It’s a town with a Muslim majority.  According to Michel’s statistics, Nazareth is sixty-five percent Muslim and thirty-five percent Christian.  There’s also a Nazareth Illit, or Upper.  That’s where the Jews live.  In the Arab towns that Jews want to settle in, they build an Illit neighborhood.

     Michel was in the minority.  A Christian in a Muslim town.  A Christian in a Jewish country.  He was 77 years old when I met him and he lived his life in a Jesus-inspired way.  He showed incredible kindness.  He ran his guesthouse and treated his guests with a base level of extraordinary generosity.  For instance, he personally cooked breakfast for every guest every morning.  His breakfasts were delicious.

     For me, he wove through heavy Nazareth traffic, there and back.  He haggled with the bike shop owner for a better price on my behalf.  The owner wanted to charge me double what I would have paid in the United States.  Michel’s haggling got me down to “an Arab price,” in Michel’s words.

     When we arrived back at his guesthouse, he offered to make my lunch for my bike ride the next day.  I know enough of Arab hospitality to know that one does not turn down what’s offered.  Michel concocted the most excellent eggplant sandwich, which I would eat in the ruins of a synagogue the Jews of Sepphoris might have davened in. 

     Michel lost his father when he was three.  His mother brought up six children, with the help of the Nazareth Diocese.  He lived in poverty but he received great schooling.  As a child, Michel learned languages: English, Hebrew (he went to school prior to Israeli independence, so Hebrew in the north would not have been compulsory), Latin.  As an adult, he found a nun to teach him French and German.  An administrator by trade, he became the director of the local medical center.  He retired after many years in the trade and opened a guesthouse.  He said he did it for his son, so he could have the money made.  This was Michel abu Nassar: kind, generous, thoughtful, a good driver through crazy traffic, a wealthy man though you would never know, a polyglot who speaks to his guests in their language.  He pronounced his family name the Christian way, two syllables: Na-Sar.  Not the Arab way, like the once dictator of Egypt, one syllable: Nasser.  When we got back in his Toyota after haggling with the bicycle shop owner, Michel offered some final words.  A denouement to my flat tire.  “Your troubles are over,” he said. 

Day 18.  I awoke a good while before the muezzin’s call with a foreign thought in my head.  I was born in Virginia at around two in the morning, according to my parents.  Given the seven hour time differential between Israel and the East Coast of the United States, I was in the last three hours of my forties.  The countdown led to a much wider thought.  Who was I?  The question had little to do with accomplishment.  The question had everything to do with mooring.  When I visited Israel last, thirty years earlier, I had no adult mooring.  That would be expected for a twenty year old.  But at some point in our lives, we need to find something far greater than ourselves to serve as a foundation.  There are many options: religion and God, family and friends.  Those form the traditional building blocks.  But there are others, like science or mathematics.  I moored myself to the flow of history.  When you become a historian, when you step back from the moment and look at human life on this long trajectory, you realize your own stature.  You are small.  You are insignificant.  Let me borrow a phrase from one of the great Holocaust historians.  Raul Hilberg labeled himself a “footnote writer.”

     I love the phrase.  It connotes insignificance compared with the much wider task of compiling history.  It connotes humility.  It connotes self-awareness and accountability.

     Josephus was not a footnote writer.  He inserted himself, sometimes subtly, into his narrative.  He used the third person when writing openly of himself.  He stylistically chose to call himself Josephus in his narratives.  It’s a painful reminder of ego.

     The same could be said for the Gospel writers.  The discrepancies found between Gospels, the contradictions both large and small, comes down to the bravado of the evangelists.  They wanted their stories to be told, and to dominate.  There’s a terrible irony to the Gospels.  In the telling of Jesus, there’s a sort of best supporting actor role.  The best supporting actor role has nothing to do with Peter or Pontius Pilate or Judas Iscariot.  The best supporting role has everything to do with Mark and Matthew and Luke and John.  They inserted their dispositions into their narratives.  They then created remarkably flawed histories.

     They should have known better.  They were not young writers, according to Christian traditions.  They were old men, telling a story much bigger than themselves.  It’s a painful reminder of ego.

     I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I took my coffee to the veranda and sat outside on a cool, quiet, starry night.  I reflected.  When I first started a writing career, I had big aspirations.  I suppose I wanted what Josephus accomplished.  To be remembered, and to be remembered some two millennia later.  The writing life, though, reduced my ambitions.  It took from me, sometimes little by little, sometimes massively.  It slapped me in the face.  It rearranged more than my disposition.  It rearranged my comportment.  I am not Josephus memorable.  I am not Evangelist important.  I am a footnote writer.

     These were my final thoughts of my forties and they came with a sort of musical accompaniment.  The roosters began their vocalizing.  The call to prayer soon woke up the town.  The sun appeared.  The noise of waking life followed.  My forties turned into my fifties. 

     I made another cup of instant coffee and considered how to spend my birthday.  I was tired from the previous days of pedaling but determined to push on with the Josephus tour.  I did need a day off the bike, however, so I made a plan to visit Zippori, some six miles to the north of Nazareth, or about an hour’s hike from my guesthouse.  That hike followed what is known today as the Jesus Trail.  Pilgrims come to Nazareth to hike either parts or all of the trail.  The full hike will take you the forty or so miles to Capernaum, Jesus’s adult home.  I cycled over to Capernaum a few days later, to visit the synagogue site where Jesus supposedly preached.  From there, I made the journey up to Gamla, or Gamala as Josephus called it.  To judge from a map, Gamla was in the territory controlled by Herod Antipas.  Herod served as the vassal king for the Roman Empire.  Josephus then must have fortified Gamla in the war against Rome, if his reportage was accurate, despite Herod’s control.  It’s an interesting twist.  Would Herod have permitted Josephus on his soil?  Would the people of Gamla have gone over to Josephus’s side?

     These questions circle back to Zippori, or Sepphoris as it was known to the Romans.  The town did not cross lines and join the rebellion.  The town stayed loyal to the Romans.  For this reason, Sepphoris was not destroyed during the war.  But little to nothing, artifactually, remains from that time.  Today, Zippori is known for its fantastic ruins, dating from the second century onward in the Gregorian calendar, until about the 5th century.  Zippori saw a renaissance following the second rebellion against Rome, known as the Bar Kochba revolt, 132 to 136 C.E.  Following the Jewish defeat, Rome banned Jews from Jerusalem.  Judean Jews traveled north to the Galilee.  They settled, for the most part, in two towns.  Zippori and Tiberias.

     But that’s decades removed from our story, and a story I will concentrate on in a future book.  What we know of Sepphoris from the time of Jesus, we know from Josephus.  He told some history of the town but, more strenuously, he rendered Sepphoris as a place of hypocrites. 

     The history began with Herod the Great, who conquered the city around the year 37 B.C.E.  Herod died some thirty-three years later, and a Jewish revolt soon followed.  Sepphoris then saw revolt at about the time of Jesus’s birth, some sixty years before the wider revolt against the Romans.  The initial revolt led to Jewish governance, for a short period.  Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, retook the city.  After that military victory, he followed the Roman model, burning the city to the ground and enslaving the revolting population.  Herod Antipas then rebuilt Sepphoris. 

     And it’s in that rebuilding where an intersection with Jesus and his family occurs.  According to information supplied by Josephus in his book Against Mark (see my book Satan’s Synagogue for the reprint of that full document), Jesus was born in Beth Lehem Zebulun, a town neighboring Nazareth.  In need of work, his family migrated to Nazareth.  Like migrants everywhere, Joseph and his wife Mary went where the work was.  The Gospel of Mark used a Greek word, “tektōn,” to describe Joseph.  Tektōn might be translated as a carpenter, a woodworker, a builder.  In the larger scope of things: construction.  None of the Gospels spell it out, but Joseph walked the hour or so everyday from Nazareth to Sepphoris for the work.

     The story gets even more interesting.  According to Josephus in Against Mark, Joseph taught his boys – James, Joseph, Judas, Simon and Joshua (or Jesus of Nazareth as he’s known today), according to both Mark and Matthew – the craft of the tektōn.  They all went to work in Sepphoris.

     Looking north from the top of Nazareth, there’s a small town below on the valley floor.  That’s modern-day Zippori, with the Sepphoris National Park in the center.  The first leg of the Jesus Trail winds its way down the hill.

     The trail has been clearly marked, with orange and white signage to steer the way.  In between the towns, the land is serene, tranquil, undeveloped, hilly, green.  You walk along a dirt path and you can feel the antiquity in the soil.  There’s nothing of modernity here.  Nothing to suggest a Jewish state situated within a wider ring of Arab nations.  Nothing to suggest Hezbollah terrorists just beyond the border.  Nothing to suggest Syria in civil war.  Nothing to suggest the hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  Nothing to suggest Palestinian refugee camps.

     On the Jesus Trail, you can glimpse the Roman Empire, with a Jewish population torn over revolt.  There wasn’t an Islam or a Christianity in Josephus’s day.  There was a Jewish hegemony led by the Pharisees.  There were Sadducees to the south.  There were Essenes to the south, too, a forerunner in attitude to modern-day Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  In his writing, Josephus played up the internecine feuding of the “completing philosophies.”  He rendered a country torn asunder by distrust and envy, a country torn apart by venom.  He made Jews into antagonists.  He made himself into the protagonist.  According to Josephus, different towns within the Galilee wanted to kill him.  He couldn’t, for instance, step foot in Tiberias.  Within the wider rebellion against Rome, the internecine warfare created insurmountable obstacles.  Josephus blamed the losses to Rome in both the Galilee and Judea on Jews.

     It’s a notable framing and it has tentacles that reach into the 21st century.  The internecine feuding of the “competing philosophies” continues.  If Josephus were writing today, we would note the Ashkenazi vs. the Sephardic.  He would note the competing sects, or the Orthodox vs. the Conservative vs. the Reform.  He would note the “fallen” or “fake” Jews vs. the “real” Jews.  The list goes on.  If he went to Judea and the Galilee, he would note the Dante-like rings, with the black Jews of Ethiopia, and other parts Africa, on the bottom, with the Mizrahi Jews on the ring slightly above, with the Russian Jews on the next ring.  He would note the intractable positions taken by the Sabra vs. the Ashkenazi.  He would note the settlers in the West Bank vs. Jews on the Coast.  He would note Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv.  If anything has changed from Josephus’s time, the religion has gotten more complicated.

     But here’s what Josephus missed in his narrative.  He missed his own status.  He was an outsider when he became governor general of the Galilee.  Maybe the Galileans wanted one of their own as leader and general.  Maybe they didn’t much care for a favored son of Jerusalem.

     Josephus seemed oblivious to this consideration in his chronicle.  This is strange in that Josephus, at the time of his writing, was a Jew from Judea living in Rome.  He didn’t fit in within Jewish circles in Rome, and he certainly was ostracized from Roman society.  He was the ultimate outsider.  His reportage reeked of self-importance. 

     On my walk from Nazareth to Zippori, I asked a question I’d never before pondered.  What was Josephus moored to?  The answers weren’t easy to grasp this many years later.  As an observant Jew, he was moored to God.  According to his personal history, he was moored to his family.  But those moorings seemed to wane, as he made his way through the labyrinth of Roman rule.  He became a turncoat, or so the accusations went.  He became a hypocrite.  He became a fraud.  If he moored himself to history, a part of his mooring went to the Flavian dynasty.  He had to serve the emperors.  Without Vespasian and Titus, there would be no Josephus.  If ever there was a court Jew, Josephus fit that description. 

     But, of course, he lived a complicated life.  He wouldn’t have survived without the Flavians.  What is more important?  Mooring to the Flavians and then living for decades while writing histories that would survive thousands of years?  Or, fighting to the death in the war with Rome and dying as a Jew moored to the soil?

     I arrived at my destination.  I was immediately struck by a healthy dose of skepticism.  How can those ruins be so well preserved?  It feels like someone played a trick on you and, one dark night in the not too distant past, came along and built the ruins, claiming they dated back some two millennia ago.  Sepphoris is an amazing place for the imagination.  When you enter the National Park, you feel transported back to the pinnacle of the town’s existence.  Sepphoris is a time machine.

     Upon entering, you come across a modern day model of the ancient town.  Sepphoris was constructed with upper and lower sections.  A water system connected the sections, though it’s not clear that the system reached the acropolis.  Today, you can walk through the water system, with its deep reservoir some thirty feet below the city’s floor and its aqueducts.  After passing beside the model, you walk on an ancient road incredibly well preserved.  The town was constructed on a grid system and, beside the road, there are remnants of colonnades.  On both sides of the road, there are homes.  It seems that Sepphoris was a town of mosaic floors.  Josephus even referred to the town as an “ornament.”  He seemed to have the mosaics in mind.  Every home probably had one, like wood floors or carpet today.  The town probably became famous region-wide.  That reach might have traveled south.  Maybe Judeans even knew Sepphoris for its mosaics.

     On the walk, you come to what is called the Nile house.  The naming of the house is instantly clear.  There is a mosaic on the floor, depicting life beside the river.  Agriculture, animals, Egyptian gods, warriors: all are on display in gorgeous detail. 

     Further on, you reach another home with a mosaic of Dionysus.  The God of the harvest seems applicable, as fruit trees dot the landscape.  In fact, I’d grabbed a grapefruit on my walk over.  The God of theater also seems applicable, as the town included a large amphitheater.  The Greek word for actor is hypokrites and that, too, seems applicable, when considering Josephus’s rendering of the town.  But the highlight of the mosaic of Dionysus is what’s known as the “Mona Lisa of Zippori.”  The mosaic, depicting the stunning beauty of a woman, is remarkably close to da Vinci’s painting.  It makes you wonder if the painter traveled here before beginning his work, or maybe someone described the mosaic to him with such vivid accuracy that he reconstructed the description on canvas. 

     Up the hill to what might have been called Zippori Illit by the Jews, there is a fortress.  It was probably rebuilt over the centuries, first by the Byzantines, then by the Ottomans.  The view of the surrounding region from the fortress is unmatched, with the valley floor below, the hills on all sides, Nazareth clearly in the distance.  But the crowning jewel of the tour comes next door.  There, in the highest part of the town as would be Jewish tradition, stands the remnants of a synagogue.  The mosaic on the synagogue’s floor depicts different scenes from both Biblical and Greek traditions.  The writing on the mosaic, in fact, uses both the Hebrew and the Greek alphabet.  There is a zodiac on the mosaic.  Within the circle, there is a depiction of Elias.  The depiction clearly illuminates the Elias of Greek traditions, not the Elijah of the Tanakh.  Also within the circle, there is a menorah, and a reflection of the Hebrew calendar, noting the months Nissan and Tammuz.  Beside the zodiac, there is a depiction of the Temple, including the tools used on those grounds, from the trumpets to sacrificial animals, from oil to bread, from a menorah to a depiction of the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, the holy of holies.

     Three hours passed all too quickly.  Before leaving for the hike back to Nazareth, I sat for lunch.  I unwrapped the eggplant sandwich made by Michel earlier in the day.  I unpeeled the grapefruit.  This was my birthday lunch.  And, in that spot, I felt rejuvenated, uplifted by the ruins, uplifted by the land, uplifted by the eggplant.  I felt like certain things were possible.  I think I felt something similar some thirty years earlier.  I hadn’t traveled to Nazareth, but I’d been close and, at age twenty, I had my life before me.  I wanted everything from the world.  Now, at age fifty, I wanted some quiet.  And, in that moment, that’s exactly what I found.

Day 19.  I woke early.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I listened to the strong silence.  Too early for the call to prayer, the crows and their relentless racket, the echoes of foot falls bouncing off the walls.  Not even the rustling of wind.  The old city of Nazareth is an enclosed place, a maze of narrow streets.  For the most part, the alleyways are built of limestone.  The limestone serves as the perfect surface for noise amplification.  The old city of Nazareth has the loudest echo in the world during the day, and the strongest silence during the night.

     A catfight cut through the silence.  Nazareth is also a town of feral cats.  The old city shuts down early.  When darkness comes, and the storeowners go home, the cats prowl about.  The old city belongs to them.  I wonder if the cat presence is as old as these limestone streets.  Did the family of Joshua ben Joseph pass beside cats as they passed through their days?  Did they awake to constant nocturnal catfights? 

     Cats don’t appear in the Gospels, and only once in the Hebrew Bible.  They are associated with the devil, or paganism, or evil.  But, in Nazareth, they are the dominant population.  How did the Gospel writers miss this detail?  How did Josephus miss the detail?

     There are no mice or rats in Nazareth.  That’s a certainty.  In that characteristic, Nazareth is the polar opposite to New York.  In another characteristic, tourism, Nazareth is like a sister city.  But unlike New York, Nazareth is not a city of hotel rooms.  Most of the tourists pass through on day trips.  Buses pull up directly in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, idle for an hour or two, then move toward the next stop on the Jesus Tour, Capernaum or up to Jerusalem.  Take away the Basilica of the Annunciation, take away one family’s history, and what is Nazareth?  Would there be a mention in any of the history books?  Would Nazareth even exist?

     The economy of Nazareth is based on tourism to one focal point.  It’s no wonder then that the old city seems shuttered.  So many storefronts but few of them occupied.  The old city is the opposite of Jerusalem.  There, empty storefronts are as rare as rats, as Jerusalem too has its large cat population.  Here, it feels like the usage rate for storefronts is one in twenty.  That, too, reminds me of New York City with its wide swathes of vacancies.

     Mid-morning and I decided to get some exercise.  The Jesus Trail begins at the Basilica of the Annunciation.  The walk then rises, through the streets, towards the top of the town.  Everybody in Nazareth breathes hard due to the steep incline.  You’re either climbing or descending with little flat in between.  As you walk the first few steps of the trail, you pass by a series of guesthouses.  In between two noted falafel cafés, Kazan’s and Abu Salem’s, you hang a right.  Up the trail you go, passing by both the Mensa and Maronite Churches.  The path continues to rise, the breathing loudens, the echoes of deep inhale and exhale bounce off the limestone, amplification turns the exchange into a cacophony, or a musicality.  My thoughts jumped to parking.  The streets are way too narrow for parked cars.  In fact, you rarely see a parked car.  Where do drivers park?

     In Nazareth, like everywhere else in Israel, people want to drive.  In fact, the first sight I saw on my bike after the Nazareth hill was a Toyota dealership.  A salesman beckoned me over.  “You need a car,” he said in English.  He didn’t talk about parking.

     At some point, the Jesus Trail becomes a series of stairs.  I was instantly reminded of the stairs in Jerusalem (see Week 1 of these dispatches).  These steps reach the tippy top of Nazareth, and I decided to run them.  It took me 56 seconds to sprint up.  I then took my time getting down.  Up and down I went for an hour.  As I finished my last sprint, on top of Nazareth for the last time, I took a moment.  I was exhausted, and sweaty, and breathing heavily, with the air seemingly reaching the bottom of my lungs.  But from that vantage view, with Nazareth below and the Galilee stretched out for miles and miles, I felt invigorated.  And I realized why people travel to Nazareth.  They come here for the view.

     Back at the guesthouse, I showered and ate the eggplant sandwich Michel had again made for me.  My itinerary that day involved two objectives.  I wanted to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation and, in no particular order, I wanted to eat coffee ice cream.

     Let me start with the latter.  The date was November 15, my paternal grandmother’s birthday.  She was born in Austria, in the last decade of the long reign of Emperor Franz Joseph.  Her given name was Frances.  She immigrated to America with her family before the First World War.  She married into the Josepher name.  The Franz Joseph/Frances Josepher name connection always fascinated me.  I was also fascinated by our birthdays just one day apart.  As a child, I thought that was special.

     As an adult, I realized two particulars about my grandmother.  While she loved her five grandchildren, she favored one in particular.  I was not the favored.  My cousin was, as he was diagnosed with diabetes as a child, and my grandmother took to him.  Our birthday connection might have been special to me, but my grandmother didn’t uplift that connection.  She uplifted the disease my cousin had to live with.

     My second realization had to do with my grandmother’s love for coffee ice cream.  She kept a container in her freezer and she ate a small portion nearly everyday.  She died in 2008.  To commemorate her birthday, and to celebrate her life, I turn to coffee ice cream.  I love it, too.

     Coffee ice cream does not exist in Nazareth.  Ice cream, in fact, is not the easiest find.  Arabs love their sweets, but they favor cakes and sweet bread and cheese pastry and Baklava.  Ice cream isn’t on the list.  I spent an hour or so hunting down the item.  All I could find was vanilla.  So I compromised.  I bought vanilla ice cream.  I bought an Arab coffee.  I poured the coffee over the ice cream.  I ate away.  Sometimes you have to be a little inventive.

     I went to the Basilica of the Annunciation prior to my hunt for ice cream.  The Basilica dominates a large complex in a strategic part of Nazareth.  It is, in fact, just off the main road when entering the city.  Visitors can’t help but to take in its presence and, due to that location, the Basilica has become a political issue.  The Arabs want the high visibility that the Basilica offers.  The major mosque in town, the White Mosque, is further up the road, and down a few alleyways.  Nobody on the Jesus Trail goes to the White Mosque.  Most tourists have already visited the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem, anyway.  They don’t visit the White Mosque, although they should.  You can actually go inside.

     The Basilica complex is multi-tiered, with each layer telling something of the long history.  The current church was built in 1969 and its builders wanted a show church, or the biggest church around. 

     There were earlier incarnations.  The first house of worship was Jewish.  Notably, it was not built in the highest part of town.  I don’t know why.  Its date remains unknown but most certainly pre-dates the first Christian church on site, built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.  An inscription was found in Greek on the synagogue wall.  “Hail Mary,” the inscription read.

     Luke’s Gospel tells the origin story.  God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, who was promised to a man named Joseph.  Gabriel came with shining news.  The Lord had decided to favor her, Gabriel reported.  She would become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus.  He would become a great man, Gabriel continued, and he would be known as the Son of the Most High.  The Lord would give him the throne, and his kingdom would last forever.

     “‘How can this be,’” Mary responded, according to Luke, “‘since I am a virgin?’”  Note the form of resistance.  She didn’t respond to the exalt coming at her.  She didn’t respond to the glory.  She didn’t immediately think of Gabriel as a crazy loon.  No, she considered her status.  Her resistance formed around sex.

     Gabriel responded with interesting words.  “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’”  How Gabriel spoke these words, Luke did not say.  Did he speak these words in a chilling tone?  Did he speak these words in a supportive whisper?  It’s a shame that Luke missed the tone and temper of the words.  A story lies there: Mary’s initial reaction.  At the very least, I am assuming, Mary’s hands would have gone to her belly.

     Here’s what we know.  Mark’s Gospel didn’t offer an origin story.  According to Against Mark (see my book, Satan’s Synagogue), Josephus came along and noted the lack of origin story.  Did Luke tell the tale as a direct result of Josephus’s criticism?  It’s seems reasonable to suppose.

     According to Luke, Mary gave up her resistance and pledged allegiance to the Lord.  She then readied herself for the pregnancy.  While Luke didn’t say exactly where this annunciation took place, church traditions suggested her home.  Her home was believed to be a structure found on Basilica grounds.

     Let’s continue with more history.  The Muslims conquered the region in the 7th century and destroyed the church.  The crusaders came along and began to build a new church in the 1100s.  Saladin’s armies conquered the crusaders in 1187 and took control of the region.  The Muslim/Franciscan relationship then went through its stops and turns for the next five hundred years.  There were expulsion orders by the Muslim suzerainty and returns by the Franciscans, dark years, massacres.  Somehow Franciscan families maintained the church’s presence.  In the 1600s, the Franciscans purchased the land and built a new structure.  That building saw projects of enlargement for the next three hundred years.

     Flash forward to the mid-1950s.  The Franciscans began the process of tearing down the structure to build the modern church.  During that process, the Franciscans invited archeologists to the site.  Excavation work then tunneled downward as the building went up.  The findings were extraordinary.  They included: the first synagogue, the structure believed to be Mary’s home, and another home from the time of Jesus.  Mary’s neighbor, apparently.  It’s too bad we don’t know anything about Mary’s neighbor.  What a story he might tell.

Day 20.  I woke that morning to the call to prayer.  I glanced at my watch: 4:41 a.m.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I dressed warmly and sat with my computer on the veranda.  I had an itinerary for the day and I needed to do some research before embarking.  My day involved the search for Cana.

     As noted in Week 2 of these dispatches, the town of Cana appeared in the Book of John only.  Jesus performed his first public miracle there: turning water into wine at a wedding feast.  The Synoptics missed the story, and the city, entirely.  Today, Cana is a lost city.  Was it in the Galilee?  Was it in Phoenicia, and therefore present-day Lebanon?  History remains miffed.

     On my bicycle ride through coastal Lebanon, I saw the road to Qana (for that story, see Week 2 of these dispatches).  I didn’t take that road.  But, notably, one historical map, Shepherd’s Historical Atlas of 1923, placed Cana smack dab in the middle of the Galilee, with its famous neighbors, Nazareth and Sepphoris to the west, and the Sea of Galilee to the east.

     Today, that Cana is an Arab town known as Kafr Kanna, a short six or so miles from Nazareth.  Around first light, I packed up my belongings, slung my pack on my back, jumped on my bike, and pedaled my way to Route 75.  Down the Nazareth hill and outside the city, I turned onto Route 754.  Before the sun even properly awoke, before the morning traffic could get going, I pedaled into Kafr Kanna. 

     It feels like a made-up place.  Yes, Arabs live there and, to them, it’s home.  But to the Christian world, and to those of us engaged in Biblical exploration, it feels like a place artificially constructed to fit a story.  There is no there in Kafr Kanna.

     Here’s what we know, and where the evangelist who wrote John took his narrative.  According to John, Jesus and his disciples traveled from the Jordan valley, where John the Baptist had baptized them, to Cana for a wedding celebration.  Jesus’s mother was in attendance, as were his brothers.  Mary, though unnamed in the story, played an important role.  She served as the co-host.  Perhaps that placement suggested something of the event itself, a family affair of some kind, a wedding of one of Jesus’s brothers. 

     John had no interest in that element of the story.  He focused on the miracle.  In John’s rendering, more people than planned attended the event and, soon enough, the party ran out of wine.  Mary turned to Jesus in some kind of desperation.  Jesus then took six stone vessels, filled with water, and produced the finest wine.

     It really is a fascinating story.  It’s hard to miss the psychology.  Jesus reacted to his mother, not to some stranger, or an innocent bystander.  Would he have turned water into wine for just anybody?  Did he perform the miracle to please his mom?

     John, of course, didn’t care about the psychology.  His concern centered on a powerful moment reached.  In John’s rendering, we come to the first sign of Jesus as the Son of Man.  This is the first miracle step.

     Let’s now turn to a key source.  As I documented in my book Satan’s Synagogue, the historian Josephus wrote a responsum called Against Mark.  What was he responding to?  The title gives it away.  His criticism centered on the first Gospel, the Book of Mark.  The Books of Matthew, Luke and John were then necessary to re-establish the Jesus narrative.  As was the suppression of Against Mark.

     According to the Book of Mark, and corroborated by Josephus from what he heard in the Galilee some thirty years after the life of Jesus, Jesus and his family lived in Capernaum.  While Jesus was born in a town called Beth Lehem Zebulun, and while his family moved to Nazareth for work when Jesus was a boy, the family migrated further east to Capernaum after Jesus and his siblings reached manhood.  They did so, according to Josephus, for work purposes.  Though raised by Joseph in the field of construction, or “tektōn” in the Greek, the brothers preferred the fisherman’s life.  Capernaum, on the shores of the Galilee, fit the purpose.

     In Against Mark, Josephus routinely made reference to Capernaum by shortening the name.  Capernaum becomes Cana.  Though he didn’t use the Latin alphabet in his writing, the sounds were the same.  Cana was apparently the popular shortening of Capernaum during this era.

     Since the Christian world eviscerated Josephus’s Against Mark, and since we don’t have any other extant sources from that time, other than the Gospels, history misses the true story of Cana.  There wasn’t a town by that name.  There was only Capernaum.

     What is Cana, or Capernaum, today?  I found out that afternoon.  Around mid-morning, I jumped on my bike.  Just north of Kafr Kanna, I reached Route 77.  I could have taken that road all the way to the town of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.  In fact, I had some research to do in Tiberias, but more on that in a bit.  At the intersection of Route 65, I hung a left.  I caught a side road, route 807, to Migdal.  From there, I turned onto Route 90 beside the sea.  I rode north for another twenty minutes or so.  I bypassed two spots that I would return to in a few hours: Tabgha and the Mount of the Beatitudes.  At Tabgha, I veered onto route 87.  I arrived in Capernaum before noon.

     Capernaum today is an archeological configuration.  There are Roman-era ruins that clearly mark out a town.  There are remains of a synagogue, dating to the fourth or fifth century.  There is a modern memorial, built over the alleged house of Peter.  The town’s history can be traced to the Hasmoneans.  During that era, when a Jewish rebellion threw off the yoke of the Seleucid Empire, new fishing villages sprung up around the Galilee.  Capernaum was one of these towns.

     That rebellion, it should be noted, played a key role in the writing of the Gospels.  As I documented in Week 1 of these dispatches, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, had a template in mind.  Given their Jewish moorings, they turned to the Tanakh to base their story of Jesus upon.  They found the Books of the Maccabees.  There is a curious echo there.  There’s the story of Judas Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucids.  There’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day.  It’s indeed the story of a miracle.

     The wider history is notable.  According to the source material, Josephus included, the Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world.  For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region.  Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

     Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors.  The Hasmoneans were Hellenized.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants.  To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.

     But replace the Seleucids with the Romans.  Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus.  Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracle of water to wine.  The Gospel writers had their backstory.  They then took the history in a completely different direction.  They took the history to Jerusalem, to Gethsemene.  They took the history to a crucifix at a place called Golgotha.  They took the history to a tomb.  They took the history to witnesses, marking a transformational moment.  The rising of Jesus.  John took the history to Tabgha, where Jesus appeared to his disciples following resurrection.  The human form became the Son of Man.

     There were a number of reasons the Gospel writers needed Capernaum in their story.  First, Capernaum was a Jewish town, unlike, say, Tiberias.  And, indeed, Jesus and his family were practicing Jews.  Second, Capernaum was known for its tranquility.  In Against Mark, Josephus elaborated, “Mark’s usage of Capernaum is not lost on me.  Capernaum was known for its quietude.  Capernaum was not a hotbed of rebellion, as Giscala or Jotapata would have been.  Neither was Capernaum a hotbed of dissension, as Tiberias would have been.  Capernaum did not rise up against the Romans during the revolt.  Capernaum was placid and from such beginnings our story builds and peaks in Jerusalem, the hotbed of consequence.”

     To the literary tool of moving from mild to a flashpoint, Capernaum also seemed to have a population the Gospel writers needed.  Capernaum seemed densely populated by those suffering from leprosy.  Jesus, as a miracle worker, found a way to drive out the disease.

     No records corroborate Capernaum as a leper colony.  Meanwhile, there are records corroborating Bethany as a leper colony.  Bethany, too, was needed by the Gospel writers as a literary tool.  Near Jerusalem, Jesus used Bethany as his headquarters.  According to Mark, he went up to Jerusalem three times from Bethany.  Meanwhile, upon his return to Bethany, he healed the sick.

     A walk through today’s Capernaum makes it clear why lepers, or Jesus’s family, or fishermen during the Hasmonean period, would want to settle there.  It’s beautiful.  It’s serene.  The land gives way harmoniously to the Galilee.  There’s a sense of history there.  There’s a sense of generations living and working there.  There’s a sense of time gone by.  There’s a sense of eternity.

     Around mid-afternoon, I made my way back to Tabgha via route 87.  I stopped for an hour.  The area is known for the lush grenery stemming from its seven springs.  In Josephus’s and Jesus’s day, the town was called Heptapegon, or seven springs in Ancient Greek.  And it’s here, according to all four Gospels, where a pivotal miracle story occurred.  According to the Book of Mark, Jesus held a conference with his apostles, who reported on their missionary work.  Jesus wanted that conference to be held in a quiet, serene place.  Certainly, Heptapegon qualified.  But something unexpected occurred.  Huge numbers of people flocked around Jesus.  The large gathering played on Jesus’s heart strings, as he saw the masses as “sheep without a shepherd.”  He began to teach.  The teaching lasted some time.  Afterward, with the people growing hungry, Jesus asked his apostles about provisions.  They discovered an inadequate amount of food, two fish and five loaves of bread.  Jesus took the provisions, looked up to heaven and said the blessing, then broke the loaves and distributed the fish.  According to Mark, all present were satiated, with another twelve baskets of leftover fish and bread.  Mark then offered a number to tally those in the crowd: five thousand men.

     Josephus, when he wrote Against Mark, criticized Mark for missing a presumed large portion of the crowd.  If there were women and children present, Mark did not say.  It’s notable what occurred then.  The evangelist Matthew came along and seemed to react to Josephus’s criticism.  In his recounting of the tale, he changed numbers.  Rather than two fish and five loads of bread at the beginning, he put the number at seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish.”  He used the number seven again, when counting the baskets of leftovers.  But, he also changed the count to “four thousand men” present, “not counting women and children.”  Was that subtle change a reaction to Josephus’s criticism of Mark?

     Matthew also made a major change to the larger story.  He moved from the initial teachings of Jesus to the section known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Of course, that sermon, with its beatitudes, became one of the most famous parts of the Gospels.  Near Tabgha lies the Mount of the Beatitudes, or the traditional site of the sermon.  Today, that spot is a primary site on the Jesus Trail, with an incredibly peaceful garden overlooking the sea.

     I didn’t stay long.  I returned to Route 90 and cycled the leg from Tabgha to Tiberias.  I had made a reservation for two nights at the Scots, once a hospital founded by a Scottish surgeon and minister, then a maternity ward, now a comfortable hotel overlooking the sea.  I checked in.  Unlike my Tel Aviv experience, management graciously allowed me to keep my bike in my room.  I took a shower and stretched out on the bed.  I meant to close my eyes for a few minutes and then go wander around town in search of dinner.  I fell asleep.

Day 21.  I woke up early.  It wasn’t the muezzin’s call to prayer that woke me.  It was the opposite.  The incredible quiet.  There isn’t much of a Muslim population, as the Arabs were evacuated under British protection in 1948.  It is a Jewish resort town, scenic, tranquil, a bit staid, poorly planned.  It didn’t used to be.  Under the watchful eye of Herod Antipas, Tiberias was founded around the year 20 of the first century.  As his father did for Emperor Augustus with Caesarea (see Week 2 of these dispatches), Herod Antipas built the city as a paean to Emperor Tiberius.  The Emperor was then about a third of the way through what would be a twenty-two year reign.  Though built by a Jew, Tiberias was not a Jewish city.  A smattering of Jews lived there during the time of Jesus.  By the time the war with Rome came, that smattering had grown to a sizeable minority.  But while the town saw some dissension against Rome, according to Josephus, it did not rise up.  Josephus then had a bit of hate relationship to Tiberias.

     The second war against Rome, also known as the Bar Kochba revolt, changed the trajectory of the town.  Following the Jewish defeat in the year 136, Rome banned Jews from Jerusalem.  Judean Jews traveled north to the Galilee.  They settled, for the most part, in two towns.  Zippori and Tiberias.

     I won’t go into the long history of Tiberias here.  But I had come to Tiberias for a reason and, while there, I made a major discovery.  There is an ancient Jewish burial ground in Tiberias.  It’s the very reason why Jews shunned Tiberias during its initial period.  Because of the burial ground built within city confines, Jews considered the town unclean.  In Jerusalem, for instance, the Jewish cemetery was built on the Mount of Olives.  That area was not in Jerusalem proper.

     Herod Antipas did not respect Jewish tradition, though.  Or maybe history got it wrong.  Maybe Herod Antipas was ordered to build the cemetery in the town.  Notably, all graves face Jerusalem in Tiberias.  That wasn’t done by accident.

     There’s a fascinating reference to Emperor Tiberius in Against Mark.  Josephus wrote that Tiberius died “in that eponymous place” and that he was buried “as a Jew.”  When I published Against Mark in Satan’s Synagogue, I cut the reference.  Truth is, Satan’s Synagogue was full of apostasy and I decided enough was enough.  I would deal with the Tiberius reference in another place.  This isn’t that place.  Another book project will go into full detail.  But suffice it to say that Emperor Tiberius left Italy undercover one night.  He traveled to the Galilee.  To Jerusalem, too.  He spent the rest of his life in the town named after him.  This is a story never before told.

     Back in Italy, a double stood in for him.  That double took the emperorship further afield, living the crazed, lascivious life in Misenum on the Gulf of Naples that Tiberius is known for.  The Tiberius double was murdered by Macro, not the real man.

     I found corroboration of that history in the cemetery in the town of Tiberias.  But, again, let me save that story for another project.  After a few days in Tiberias, I remounted by bicycle and began the ninety or so miles to Tel Aviv.  I had a return flight to New York, scheduled for the next morning.

     I woke early.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I jumped on my bike at first light.  I took Route 77 out of town.  Around the Golani Junction, noted for a Roman road that once linked the port of Acre to Tiberias, with the stone remnants a site on the Jesus Trail, I veered onto Route 65.  That road took me beside Afula, with the Nazareth hill just off to the north.  That morning was foggy, and the traffic heavy, and the shoulder minimal.  I found myself yearning for an open road. 

     I found it about an hour later.  I turned onto Route 581 heading south by southwest.  Suddenly, the heavy stream of automobiles gave way to the quiet of fruit trees.  For some forty-five minutes, I listened to the whirl of the bicycle, and the airplanes overhead dropping water on the groves, and the wind, pushing me in all directions.  The Tour de Josephus was in its final leg.  The mountain of a hill into Jerusalem, the long road to Lebanon, Tyre and Sidon, the Beirut marathon, the slog from Beirut to Nazareth, the Jesus Trail, the ride to the sea: all were a part of the bicycle’s treads.  I felt… not a sense of accomplishment, not a finality, not the end of the trip.  I felt an opening, a new chapter, the first few words of a new story.  I felt free. 

Who was the real Jesus Christ?

Who was the real Jesus Christ?

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here:

     Another funny thing happened.  As I documented in condensed form on my twitter feed, Satan’s Synagogue became hot news at the Trump White House.  Apparently, Trump put out an order, mandating the “reading of Josephs.”  Meaning me.  This would be the first time the president mangled my name.  It wouldn’t be the last.

     I received a dinner invitation from the president and the first lady.  For my “Dinner with the Donald,” as I entitled that history, or “Who is the real Donald Trump,” see:

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the centerpiece.  His Hebrew name was Joshua ben Joseph.  The Greek version has been passed down to us as Jesus.  The Gospels repeatedly declare that Jesus is the Messiah, or Mashiach in the Hebrew.  The Greek word for Messiah is Christos.  Thus Jesus Christ gained his name.  Who was the real Jesus Christ?  Here are ten brushstrokes to the Jesus portraiture:

1) Somehow, someway, we need to separate the man from the narrative.  It’s an endeavor some 2,000 years in the making.  Let’s be clear.  The narrative began to form in the immediate aftermath of the man’s death.  There was a fight, in fact, for the ownership of that narrative.  This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement.  This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to that movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist.  So the promotion of the Jesus narrative took on the quietest public form possible.  Otherwise, the promoter would have found himself on a crucifix, asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.

     A fellow named Saul won the day.  His name has been passed down to us as Paul.  He wrote more than half of the New Testament in a span of seventeen years.  But there was a period there, from about the year 61 to 63, when Paul turned incredibly prolific.

     What do we know about Paul?  The question is extremely relevant, as there’s no knowing Jesus without knowing Paul.  Let’s dig into the real Paul.  According to Acts of the Apostles, and some letters found in the New Testament canon, he was born in Tarsus, a hub of commerce located not far from the Roman center of Antioch.  His birth name, Saul, derived from the first king of Israel.  In Romans 2, Paul identified himself as a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin.  Early in the lineage of Benjamin, we find King Saul.

     We do not know the name of Saul’s father.  That’s a significant gap.  We do know that Saul’s father was a Pharisee who held Roman citizenship.  This was unusual for a Jew, and that citizenship was passed to Saul.  That’s an important detail considering the stories around his death.

     Like all Jewish children, Saul learned a trade.  As he came from the province of Cilicia, known for producing goat hair, he became a tent maker.  The point to the story?  Great men start small.

     Around the age of 10, the family sent Saul up to Jerusalem for his Jewish education.  The New Testament then shifted to Saul’s fervent disdain for the early followers of Jesus.  As a Pharisee and an educated Jew of means, he persecuted them.  His conversion on the road to Damascus changed history irrevocably.

     A momentous event occurred during Saul’s missionary work.  He was in Cypress, according to Acts of the Apostles, preaching to Greek-speaking gentiles.  The author of Acts, known as Luke, began to identify Saul as Paul.  In the text, it comes across as a small detail.  “Then Saul, who was also called Paul…”  In fact, it’s a full glottal stop.  In fact, it’s a massive sea change, a parting of the Sea.  The Jewish Saul becomes the gentile Paul. 

     Did Luke initiate the name change to symbolize the transition from Jewish to Christian?  Did Luke feel the need to throw off Paul’s early years?  Those are good questions, without specific answers.

2) But here’s some new information to consider, and it will come as a shock.  Paul’s origin story contains a whopper of a fiction.  Tarsus wasn’t his birthplace.  Let me backtrack.  Back in 2009, while I was doing critical research on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, I found a key source who disputed some of Wiesel’s fundamental storylines.  His name was Moshe Lazar.  For the full story of Wiesel and Lazar, please see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but Lazar passed on to me something unrelated to Wiesel.  He called that something his “secret stash.”

     We had a handshake agreement.  I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime.  Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012.  The question for public consumption then became: What was in his “secret stash?”

     Lazar was an expert on the language of Jewish Spain, Ladino.  In his scholarly journey, he found and translated original manuscripts.  His first find was a Jewish prayer book for women, dating to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century.  Other manuscripts followed.  Most of the manuscripts’ authors, according to Lazar, were burned at the stake

     But Lazar also found manuscripts and other documents that had nothing to do with Jews of the Inquisition.  He deposited them in his “secret stash.”  His “secret stash” grew into a sizeable box.  The contents are extraordinary.  There are documents that unveil the secret life of the Jewish historian known as Josephus.  There are documents that speak to the 1st century and the growing movement known to the world as Christianity – called the Jews for Jesus movement in those times.  There are documents that detail the lives of Paul the Apostle, and Peter, and Mark the Evangelist.  There are documents on a certain Roman senator, who quietly funded and promoted the burgeoning Christian movement.  Quietly being the operative word.  Had he been exposed in those years, he would have been crucified.  Actually, that’s not quite correct.  The Romans didn’t believe in capitol punishment for their citizens.  They believed in banishment.

     There are also documents detailing the true history of the emperor, Tiberius, and his successor, Caligula, and the important emperor of the second century, Hadrian.  There are documents pointing to the Silk Road, and how a certain route came into existence.  The list of documents goes on.  I built my latest book, Satan’s Synagogue, on some of these documents.  A future book will continue that trend.

     In that “secret stash,” I came upon a letter from a fellow named Gaev to another fellow named Josephus.  Let’s identify the players.  The second player, Josephus, needs little introduction.  He was a historian whose work has been passed down to us.  There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Romans, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian of books, a favorite of Emperor Titus, a citizen of Rome.  Apparently, Josephus gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus.  In fact, Josephus switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.

     This profile of the man has come down to us from one source, the man himself.  Josephus is the only source on Josephus that we have.  That’s a significant gap, as his narrative only tells a part of the story.  There was another patron who protected and encouraged Josephus.  Which leads us to our first player.  There was a Roman senator named Flavius Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  For his full backstory, please see Satan’s Synagogue but, in June of 76, the senator wrote to Josephus.  Both men were in Rome, serving the Flavian dynasty.  Gaev, as he was known, promised protections and funding to Josephus.  So while Josephus, publicly, had the endowment of Emperors Vespasian and Titus, he secretly had the patronage of Senator Gaev.  If either emperor, or the third in the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian’s second son, Domitian, knew of the agreement, there is no record.

     The letter contained extremely important historical information.  Consider the date.  Gaev talked about the day with “a profundity of grief.”  He attributed that grief to the “banishment and sudden death, exactly a decade earlier, to the day” of his “hero” and “teacher.”  Gaev then named that cherished figure: “Paul of Giscala.”

     Who was this man?  According to Gaev, he led the “Jews for Jesus movement.  His death, as his ship capsized off the coast of Malta, something of which you yourself are familiar with, sent shock and anguish through the community.  Fortunately, his name lives on.  I am writing to you now to express my hope that you will add some ingredients that, in turn, will be used to embroider his name for all eternity.”

3) Such interesting word choice: to “add some ingredients,” “to embroider.”  Gaev, judging from the word choice, seemed to favor homebody pastimes.  But to this knot of multi-layered detail, let’s try to comb through.  There’s no definitive name to give the early church movement.  Scholars refer to the period as the apostolic age.  In Satan’s Synagogue and other writings, I used a different term, the Jesus Century.  Gaev pronounced a term then seemingly in common usage: Jews for Jesus.  When did the term Christianity officially begin?  We first see individuals identified as Christians in Acts of the Apostles, written sometime in the decade of the 80s.  We also see those same individuals referred to as Nazarenes in Acts, in accordance with Jesus’s presumed birthplace.  We never see them referred to as Jews for Jesus.  Gaev’s reference suggested a name that didn’t make it into the canon.

     But Gaev seemed to have an unidentified man as the leader of that movement.  Or, have we put too much trust around the town of Tarsus?  Did Gaev touch on some accurate history?  Was Paul, in fact, from Giscala?

     Let’s ask the question a different way.  Why would the owners of the Jesus narrative choose the town of Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace?  First and perhaps foremost, Tarsus was known then as a focal point.  There was a reason why Paul identified Tarsus, to a Roman soldier in Acts of the Apostles, as “no ordinary city.”  In Tarsus, some fifty years earlier, Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony.  They had arranged for a meeting in the city.  Cleopatra sailed in on a golden boat, with purple sails flapping high above, and silver oars guiding the boat to shore.  When the boat docked, those present, led by Roman Emperor Antony, smelled the exotic perfumes and flowers filling the boat.  Cleopatra then emerged in the dress of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.  Marc Antony, like Caesar before him, didn’t know what hit him.

     Tarsus wasn’t some Podunk place.  It might not have been Rome, or Jerusalem, or Alexandria, but it wasn’t Ashgabat either.  Ashgabat, now the capital of Turkmenistan, was once a key outpost on the Silk Road.  It’s there, according to a document I possess, that a major assassination took place.  But let me save that story for another book project.

     The question becomes: if Paul originally came from Giscala and not Tarsus, how would that have altered the legend?  Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace and childhood home established the apostle as an outsider.  While his lineage was Jewish establishment, his personage developed many miles removed from the Judean center.  The narrative could then build the burgeoning Christian movement as a step or two removed from the Jewish establishment.  Easter becomes a fundamentally different codification scheme than Passover.  With a Tarsus origin, Paul could throw off his Jewish roots on that road to Damascus: his Pharisee lineage, his parentage, his Jerusalem education, all could be shunted.  But Paul, apparently, was a Galilean.

     Notably, a later chronicler, Jerome, gave Paul’s parents the Giscala address.  Further, another letter from Gaev to Josephus delved into Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in the year 50 for a summit with Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just.  While the New Testament recorded this interview as a foundational moment in the history of Christianity, that canon missed some detail.  According to Gaev, Paul first stopped in Giscala “for a period of repose.”

     Why would Paul, on a fundamental mission, first stop at Giscala?  Consider the geography.  The town was situated in the north of the Galilee, separated from Caesarea by forty-eight miles on today’s roads.  To get there from the coast, as Paul did after reaching one of the ports, Caesarea or Joppa or Tyre, would have meant an excursion significantly out of his way.  Paul must have had a personal reason for trekking to Giscala, like visiting aging parents.

     Is it possible then that the Tarsus-as-origin detail in the New Testament is a fiction, a literary tool?  That question segues to Paul’s death.  Did he die in Rome, as various sources suggest?  How did he die?  Was he martyred, as second century missives stated?  Why was he martyred?  According to source material, the Emperor Nero condemned Paul to death.  Legend then sprouted that Paul’s body was buried outside Rome, on an estate owned by an early supporter of the Christian movement.  The Emperor Constantine built the first church on those grounds.  That’s notable given Gaev’s birth name, Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  Was Gaev an ancestor of Constantine?  Were Constantine’s Christian sympathies in his bloodlines, so to speak?  For the letter from Gaev to Josephus clearly showed Gaev’s allegiance to Paul and the burgeoning Christian movement.  Or, why else did Gaev refer to Paul as “hero” and “teacher” and more, as “friend.”

     If Paul wasn’t martyred but died in another fashion, did the martyring provide a foundational mooring for the legend?  By martyring, he fell in line with the death of Jesus, and so the age that began with martyr involved a second martyr with long-reaching tentacles.

     Gaev’s letter provided answers.  According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul was shipwrecked three times.  Gaev’s letter pointed to a fourth shipwreck, this one resulting in his death.  Gaev’s letter also touched upon Josephus’s personal history.  But the death date in the letter fell after a “banishment.”  Why was Paul banished from Rome?  Gaev gave no reason.  Certainly Roman citizens were banished all the time.  And certainly Nero loved his beheadings, as the legend of Paul’s death was built upon.  Gaev himself ran the risk of banishment for his secret association with the early church movement.

     But Gaev’s letter left all of these questions adrift and moved on to the mission, or adding “ingredients” to “embroider” the legacy.  “The movement needs a historian,” Gaev wrote to Josephus.  “As Jesus Christ was presented in a heralded light in Mark, so too must Paul fall within that glow.  From his origins to his final days, and all the days in between, he is messenger and portent.  He is oracle and apostle.”

     The letter continued.  “From our time together, I can think of nobody better suited to touch on the early history of Paul, the pre-history to the Jews for Jesus movement, than you.  It has come to my attention that you are writing a complete history of the rebellion.  If you included a last stand, I would be supremely pleased.  I would see your contribution as a quid pro quo.  To the pacified country, to the tired 10th sailing home, consider a different history.  A final protracted battle in which the overwhelmed rebels fight on against our legionnaires.  The rebels lose but along the way a rendering of struggle and tenacity comes into the world, a rendering of righteousness.  From these rebels, Paul sprouts.”

     Josephus’s immediate reaction to these marching orders remains a mystery.  Notably, as Gaev commented, Josephus was in the midst of writing The Jewish War.  Where he was in the writing process, we do not know.  But the final version of that history provided a roadmap for what Gaev had in mind.  Josephus did something incredibly inventive.  He built the fortress of Masada into a legend.  He named the band of renegades who fought the Romans there.  He linked Paul to those renegades.  (For the true story of Masada, see Satan’s Synagogue.)

4) There was another fortress not far from Masada.  And it’s there, in the Judean desert, where our story needs to go.  The fortress was called Machaerus.  It was known, in Roman Empire times, as a “sister” to Masada.  Like Masada, Machaerus was built on a mesa not far from the Dead Sea.  Like Masada, the “King of Judea,” as the Roman senate decreed Herod the Great, fortified the fortress.  Machaerus became a refuge in case of revolt, or an attack coming from Cleopatra, and Herod used the grounds to shelter his family during his campaign to secure the throne of Judea.  Herod died under the reign of Augustus and his son, Herod Antipas, became the tetrarch.

     Antipas did something his father wouldn’t have done.  He made Machaerus into a prison.  Who did Antipas imprison up on Machaerus?  These times were littered with false messiahs gathering large followings and, therefore, running afoul of both Rome and its surrogates.  When threatened, Antipas sent this “rabble” to Machaerus.  Machaerus, in fact, gained a nickname: the “false messiah haven.”

     According to the Gospel of Mark, and corroborated by Josephus, Antipas sent John the Baptist to Machaerus.  The Gospels and Josephus then veered, significantly.  The schism occurred following a singular event: the death of John the Baptist, or the Dipper as Josephus referred to him.  According to Mark, Antipas took the wife of his brother.  Her name was Herodias.  John took umbrage with this union, as Antipas’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Antipas.  This turned Herodias against John.  She held “a grudge, and wanted to kill him.”  She could not.  Antipas “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.”  Antipas therefore “protected” John.  An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose.  During the festival of Antipas’s birthday, Antipas’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch.  In a mood of elation, Antipas promised to give the girl a wish, anything she liked, up to half his kingdom.  The girl consulted with Herodias.  The request of John’s head, Mark told us, caused great distress for Antipas.  But he fulfilled his oath.  A soldier beheaded John, then presented the head on a platter at the banquet.  Mark ended this part of the story with his attention on John’s disciples, who took the body away and laid it in a tomb.  Mark, of course, ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.

     Josephus railed against Mark’s rendition.  He wrote a responsum.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, went out into the world shortly after the printing and distribution of the Book of Mark.  So for a time there, there wasn’t a New Testament.  There was the Book of Mark, and Josephus’s responsum.  It’s no wonder that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John then came into the world.  As did Acts of the Apostles, and the publishing of all the letters.  Following Josephus’s criticism, they needed to reestablish the Jesus narrative.

     Josephus’s Against Mark was lost, or destroyed.  By whom remains a mystery.  But, in a major discovery, I found the book.  For that story, see Satan’s Synagogue.

5) Let’s get to the veering.  According to Josephus’s rendition of the death of John the Dipper, Mark missed the reaction of Antipas’s wife before Herodias.  Her name was Phasaelis and she was the daughter of King Aeneas, known as Aretas, who presided over the neighboring Nabataean Kingdom.  Antipas did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her.  First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis.  Phasaelis caught wind of Antipas’s plan and she managed to escape and make her way back to her father’s kingdom.  King Aretas reacted to the news with enmity.  A further quarrel between Aretas and Antipas over boundary issues set the stage for war.  Aretas routed Antipas’s forces.  During the siege, Antipas had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed.  Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population.  “The Dipper died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war,” Josephus declared in Against Mark

     To contest Aretas, Antipas had no choice but to call for help from Rome.  Emperor Tiberius, who wanted peace in the region, took his umbrage out on Aretas.  He called for the governor in Syria, Lucius Vitellius, to bring Aretas to him in Rome, either alive in chains or dead with his head on a stick.  Vitellius mustered his legions and moved against the Nabataeans.  However, Tiberius died during the Passover and Caligula recalled the mission.  By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan.  Josephus continued, “Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story.  His neglect is glaring.”

     But then Josephus added another incredible layer.  He wrote, “In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough.  Herod Antipas’s murder of John and the subsequent rise of Jesus struck fear in the tetrarch.  He then repeated his actions: arresting Jesus as he did the Dipper, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading as part of a wider action, as he feared a prisoner revolt.”  According to Josephus, Jesus died as an itinerant orator, a subversive in the Antipas orbit, traveling the towns and the countryside of the Galilee, preaching and performing exorcisms amongst his activities.  He never made it up to Jerusalem.  He never became the Son of Man.

6) There’s a great deal to comb through in Josephus’s incredible layer.  Let’s start with his first words, “In my time in the Galilee…”  A few years before Josephus’s time in the Galilee, Jewish rebels pushed back against Rome.  What started as a protest over taxation led to an uprising.  In Rome, Emperor Nero ordered the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, to quell the uprising.  Gallus, marching into Judea with some 30,000 soldiers, reached Jerusalem.  He could not take the Temple, however.  He fell back to the coast.  On his way, he was ambushed in the hills of Bethoron and suffered heavy losses.  For a small moment in time, the Romans lost control of Judea.

     That led to a major decision in Rome.  Emperor Nero needed a General of Greatness to go and retake the region.  He turned to Vespasian who, in his career as general, had led the conquest of Britain and put down rebellions in the Rhine.  Upon receiving the appointment, Vespasian traveled overland to Syria.  Simultaneously, he sent his son Titus to Egypt to take control of the fifteenth legion and to march into the Galilee.  Titus joined the fray at Ptolemais, also known as Acre, a port on the Mediterranean.

     Meanwhile, in the Temple compound in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin held a meeting.  War plans were hatched.  Rebellion leaders were named to take control of various regions.  They gained titles as General Governors.  Josephus became the General Governor of the Galilee.  That was a major appointment.  Consider the geography.  Vespasian would be coming from Syria.  That would mean a path through the Galilee.

     Josephus then began the defense of the region, by building up strongholds and fortifications.  We all know how that war ended, with Rome butchering the Galileans and then sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple.  I won’t delve into the details here, although they are fascinating to be sure.  If interested, see Satan’s Synagogue.  But Josephus’s time in the Galilee proved incredibly fruitful in uncombing the life of Jesus.  For Josephus “heard the people talk of this man named Jesus.  Nearly two score had passed since Jesus walked the Galilee and he was still the talk of the nation.”

7) Josephus then gave a biography on Jesus.  He was born in a town called Beth Lehem Zebulun.  To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the city in Judea, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes.  Beth Lehem Zebulun could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth.  It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other.  Jesus’s family, according to Josephus, made the move to Nazareth.  There was a fundamental reason.  As Josephus wrote, “Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it, was nearby, a two-hour walk.  The town was under construction.  There was work there.” 

     “There was work there.”  It’s such a simple statement, yet it tells the tale of a migratory family in need of sustainable work.  Compare “there was work there” to what the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke did.  Matthew placed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  Matthew, who opened his Gospel by tracing an ancestral through line from Jesus back to King David to Abraham, needed Bethlehem.  David was born in Bethlehem and that city became the expected birthplace of the Messiah.  Luke came along and took the Bethlehem reference further.  He noted the census taking place throughout the Roman Empire.  According to Luke, the decree by Augustus, that “all the world should be registered,” was the first of its kind.  A man named Joseph then traveled to Bethlehem to register, as he “was descended from the house and family of David.”  With him went Mary, who was expecting a child.  Luke then put forth the notion of the manger, as there was no room at the inn.  Let’s leave that detail behind to focus on the census.  First of all, Luke was wrong.  Earlier censuses took place during the Roman Empire period.  Luke was also wrong in his dating.  Judea was declared a Roman province in the year 6 CE.  The Roman senate called for a census in the new territory for tax purposes.  That task fell to Sulpicious Quirinius, the legate of Syria.

     But the Romans, as per their mandate, made it hard on the locals.  The Romans declared that each person had to register in his city of ancestery.  Meaning: there was a great uproar in the wide movement from town to town.  The roads were filled with travelers who had to return to their ancestral homes for the simple reason of complying with Roman decree.

     According to Luke, Joseph had no choice but to travel to Bethlehem.  Notably, Matthew did not include this detail in his Gospel.  It’s a rather sizeable omission.  Matthew, a resident of Capernaum, was a tax collector.  As the reason behind the census had to do entirely with taxation, wouldn’t that detail have been important to a tax collector?  According to Matthew, Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to fulfill the Biblical commandment.  But here’s another interesting detail.  Matthew lived in the Galilee.  As a tax collector, he probably had traveled to Nazareth many times.  From Nazareth, he probably had looked toward Beth Lehem Zebulun.  He probably had traveled there.  But Matthew eschewed the Beth Lehem Zebulun of Josephus’s reference to offer the Bethlehem of David’s birth.  Luke, who wrote from the Syrian center of Antioch and might not have known Galilean geography, piled on to Matthew’s detail.  And the story went out into the world… until John and his Gospel.

     Writing some ten years after Luke, John turned the entire Bethlehem narrative on its head.  John positioned Jesus as a Galilean by birth, not a Judean.  In that mooring, John could then have the Jews of that time question Jesus as Messiah, as scripture declared that the Messiah must come from the family of David, with rooting to Bethlehem.  But let’s be clear about what John was doing.  John was writing in a political time and place when Rome clearly ruled.  The rebellion had been put down a generation earlier.  John then wasn’t interested in David and the warrior Messiah model, as earlier Gospels, written closer in time to the rebellion, were.  The story he unfolded was less political, as there was no possibility of the restoration of the Jewish nation.

     There’s also another detail to consider.  Perhaps John read Josephus?

8) In his Gospel, Mark chronicled the missionary work of Jesus, traveling the Galilee and beyond while laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word.  Along the way, masses formed around his personage and the new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.  But something dangerous came with it.  Mark touched on that danger with a parable.  He positioned Jesus at table in his house, seated beside tax collectors and sinners and scribes who were Pharisees.  The scribes questioned his choice of guests.  Mark eventually came to the nub, as Jesus answered, “‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’”  The words and tone must have struck the Pharisees as a rebellion to the old world order.  That seemed to be Mark’s point, as he immediately followed with another parable.  On a Sabbath, a congregation gathered at the synagogue.  Pharisees comprised the congregants, as did a man with a withered arm.  Jesus cured the man, breaking with the Sabbath tradition of severely restricting work of any kind, including the acts of healing.  There were exceptions, of course.  If someone was dying, a healer was called.  But to break with Sabbath traditions was to move away from piety.  Here, Jesus seemed not only unconcerned with those traditions but, in fact, disdainful of them.  He questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition.  In the Pharisees’ world order, Jesus’s behavior would have been no uncommon threat.  The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death.  They began to conspire with Antipas’s court.

     In Against Mark, Josephus responded with notable words, “The reference to Herod Antipas infused some historical accuracy into the account.  Remove the oversized miracles and the story of a rebellion against the old world order emerged, with Galileans massing around the central figure who carried the pseudo secrecy of a Messiah identity.  That identity would have been eye-popping and, indeed, would have caught the attention of both the Pharisees and the tetrarch.”

     Josephus then proved disappointing.  Nowhere in his critique of Mark did he seque to Jesus’s arrest in the Galilee, or Jesus’s imprisonment, or Jesus’s death.  That gap in story isn’t the biggest disappointment.  Afterall, Josephus was writing some forty years after the history took place.  He was basing his chronicle on the scuttlebutt and stories of his contemporaries.  Maybe they didn’t talk about the arrest stage, and its aftermath.  But Josephus never even addressed that stage of development.  His project was a complete dissection and deconstruction of Mark’s Gospel.  Not a reconstruction.

     But some detail in terms of “historical accuracy,” to use Josephus’s words, would have strengthened his telling.  Even noting a lack of detail regarding the arrest stage would have added a layer.  When did Antipas and his men arrest Jesus?  Where?  Under what circumstances?  Josephus missed the story.  Did the Galileans protest?  Did the Romans have an insurrection on their hands?  Josephus missed the story.  Did Antipas feel the need to quickly move Jesus south to Machaerus?  Josephus missed the story.  Did the Galileans’ insurrection, and Antipas’s fear of a wider rebellion, lead to the quick death of Jesus?  Josephus missed the story.

9) What are we left with?  A major statement – Jesus’s death at Machaerus before his supposed move up to Jerusalem – and a big hole.  Certainly, to read Mark’s rendition of events is to wonder why Antipas didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission.  When Jesus struck the loud chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?  Of course, Mark couldn’t have ended his story there.  To use Josephus’s words in another context, “There was work there.”  Mark needed to spin the story forward.  Mark needed the Jerusalem section.

     But some thirty-five years after Jesus’s glorified death, when Josephus heard the true version, the Galileans were in the midst of a death struggle with the Romans.  Wouldn’t the Galileans, once they embarked upon the telling of the Jesus story to Josephus, have taken the story to its conclusion?  Wouldn’t they have told of Jesus’s death in prison?  Afterall, that part of the story might have emboldened the Jews.  They might have used what the Romans and Antipas did to Jesus as a call to arms.  A slogan might have been born, “In Jesus, we rise.”

     It’s a very different message then the one we know today.  It’s a completely different form of rising.  And even with that slogan, the Galileans would have lost.  The history would have spun forward as it did.  With the sacking of Jerusalem, with Titus transporting the spoils back to Rome, with the triumph of Vespasian and Titus, and with the Arch of Titus rising above the Via Sacra for all of the world to see.

     But we would know a different Jesus today.  “In Jesus, we rise.”

10) That mantra might have been passed down through the last 2,000 years of history.  We might have heard that mantra at Saratoga in 1777, or at Waterloo in 1815, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or at Midway in 1942.

     Notably, Jews today might celebrate the life of Jesus of Beth Lehem Zebulun the way we celebrate the life of Judas Maccabeus.  There is a curious echo there.  It’s the story of Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucid Empire.  It’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day.  It’s indeed the story of a miracle.

     The wider history is notable.  The Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world.  For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region.  Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

     Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors.  The Hasmoneans were Hellenized.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants.  To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.

     But replace the Seleucids with the Romans.  Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus of Beth Lehem Zebulun.  Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracles of the itinerant orator and his penchant for exorcisms.  When the Talmud came along, a few centuries after the birth of Jesus, it would have recognized this Jesus as a successor to Judas Maccabeus.

     Of course, the writing of history went in a completely different direction.  According to that writing, Jesus did not die at Machaerus.  He died on a crucifix at a place called Golgotha.  He was buried in a tomb.  He rose three days later.  He became the Son of Man.  The Jews for Jesus movement eventually morphed into Christianity.  Christianity outlived the Romans.  An overarching age was born: the religions of conquest.  We still live in that age today.  Josephus would have rendered that age as missing the “entire truth of history with His story.  The neglect is glaring.”  Would he have been right?

Dinner with The Donald

Dinner with The Donald

(Or, Who is the real Donald Trump?)

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?  All important questions. 

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here:

     Another funny thing happened.  As I documented in condensed form on my twitter feed, Satan’s Synagogue became hot news at the Trump White House.  Apparently, Trump put out an order, mandating the “reading of Josephs.”  Meaning me.  This would be the first time the president mangled my name.  It wouldn’t be the last.  (I should also say that I have this on background.  The source does not want to go public.)

     I received a dinner invitation from the president and the first lady.  So let me break with my previous writings on this blog.  In support of Satan’s Synagogue, I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, as I promised on my twitter feed, I am offering a detailed report of my dinner in TrumpLand.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes, plus a bonus eleventh:

1) Some background.  As I documented on my twitter feed, the invitation arrived in my mailbox during the first week of June.  On official letterhead, with the presidential seal and that imposing eagle above all else, the invitation read: “The President and Mrs. Trump request the pleasure of your company for an evening of book talk.  Date to be determined.” 

     The invitation then pointed me to the Office of Scheduling and Advance to arrange logistics.  I phoned straightaway.  Setting up a time took weeks.  Eventually, both sides came to an agreement.  I made plans to travel.  I looked into airplane ticket prices.  I went to Expedia.  I began the booking process.

     Then I changed my mind.  I decided that my “book talk” in TrumpLand would fall within a wider journey.  For sometime now I’ve had it in my head to visit certain Civil War sites.  I am in no way a Civil War authority.  But I have, over the years, developed a fondness for some key Civil War historians.  James McPherson and Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and Eric Foner, to name just a few, the list goes on.  I am something of a Lincoln scholar.  Well, scholar is way too strong a word.  Something of a student.

     I do not admire the man.  Let me just establish my orientation.  I do not admire any president.  I do not admire the ego it takes to seek, and fulfill, the office.  I do not admire the bravado and enormous sense of self.  I do not admire the personality type.  The presidential personality is the polar opposite to the scholar’s personality, favoring chest-thumping to quiet confidence, favoring bluster to disciplined study, favoring the hot lights of the televised world to the darkness of waking at four a.m. to carve out research time.  I’ve never wanted to break bread with a president, or visit the White House.  So why did I accept an invitation to TrumpLand? 

     It’s simple, and complex.  I wanted to establish the psycheache of Donald Trump for myself.  So much has been said and written about the man.  What is accurate?  What is insightful?  What is apocrypha?

     I have the same questions regarding Lincoln.  Of course, I never got the chance to meet the man.  I was born one hundred and two years after his death, during the administration of Johnson.  The second Johnson.  I never thought I would meet Trump.  Suddenly, the opportunity arose.  Why would I pass it up?

     I made plans.  I rented a car.  I booked hotel rooms.  A map of my Civil War tour quickly emerged.  I would start in Brooklyn, where I live, and move into Pennsylvania.  Point number one would be Gettysburg.  The next points would fall in Virginia: Manassas, Chancellorsville, Appomattox, the list goes on.  Richmond, the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania.  Other points further afield enticed me: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Nashville.  Of course, I needed to hit D.C.

     As the summer progressed, I set out for a three-week journey.  I left my apartment at four in the morning to beat the traffic.  I took along necessary provisions: some food, a credit card, a GPS watch, my road bike, a tent and sleeping bag, an ipad.  This is not the place to do a deep dive into my Civil War tour.  That’s a story for another time.  But let me say this about Gettysburg.  There was a two-month span there that altered the entire history of the United States, and the Confederate States of America, or C.S.A.  The Battle of Gettysburg occurred during the first few days of July 1863.  Two months earlier, despite double the manpower, the Union lost a decisive battle at Chancellorsville.  The general of the Union, “Fighting Joe” Hooker, didn’t cover his flanks.  Stonewall Jackson used the fatal strategy to crush Union forces.  An estimated thirty thousand soldiers died at Chancellorsville, thirteen thousand of whom fought for the C.S.A.  Those dead included Stonewall Jackson.

     Lincoln, it should be noted, never used the term C.S.A.  He referred to the South with a one-word pejorative, “rebels.”

     Flash forward two months.  For the South, the victory at Chancellorsville signaled something profound: the beginning of the end for the Union.  One more victory, particularly in the North, and the war would be won.  Only the clean up would remain. 

     The scene was then set for what occurred at Gettysburg.  But something unknown to President Lincoln also occurred following the loss at Chancellorsville.  The Booth Action Team, as the Confederate Administration called John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts, postponed their plans.  Numerous kidnapping schemes were then in the works.  The South was running short of men, and the North held thousands of prisoners of war.  In addition, the North had an untapped supply of soldiers, particularly with the Irish coming over and instantly joining Union forces.  The thinking went that if the Confederacy kidnapped Lincoln, and returned him only in exchange for prisoners, that exchange would greatly enhance Southern ability to wage war.

     The South’s victory at Chancellorsville put that plan on the backburner.  The staggering loss at Gettysburg revved up kidnapping plans.  Those kidnapping plans morphed into assassination plans.  Again, this is not the place for a deep dive into the thinking of the Booth Action Team.  But a question does emerge.  How do I know such an organization existed?  There are, for instance, no references to the Booth Action Team in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.

     I found a dossier.  There was a spy in Lincoln’s White House.  Well, that term hadn’t yet come into the world.  There was a spy in Lincoln’s executive mansion.  He went by a pseudonym during the war years, Joshua Frye.  This is not the place for the long history but suffice it to say, he met Lincoln on a train in February 1861.  Lincoln, then the president-elect, was sneaking into Washington via the backdoor route through Maryland.  Frye just happened to be on the same train.  Coincidence?

     Late one night, while most on the train slept, the two men got to talking.  Frye introduced himself as a reporter for the Richmond Daily Whig.  Indeed, the man wrote a column.  Lincoln introduced himself as “Honest Ape,” or the pejorative then in common usage in the South.  A friendship quickly developed.  As the years of the Civil War passed, that friendship became some small solace for Lincoln.

     Frye, it turns out, was a member of the Booth Action Team and he reported directly to the second most powerful man in the South, Judah Benjamin.  In Frye’s reportage to Benjamin, he never used the full name for the kidnappers.  He used an acronym: bat.  Notably, he didn’t capitalize the letters and he didn’t use periods.  For a modern-day reader, the bat usage in those reports comes across as nonsensical, a bizarre and nutty non sequitur.  In fact, the reference to the Booth Action Team made complete sense.

     Lincoln, of course, had no intelligence on bat.  His anxiety, though, as the May defeat at Chancellorsville morphed into the July victory at Gettysburg, was never higher.  Word is that he suffered from insomnia and constipation.  He medicated himself on two supposed elixirs, Blue Mass and Laudanum.  The effects were crippling, but more on that in another writing project.

     Joshua Frye happened to visit the executive mansion in between these two transformative battles.  Lincoln tried for some non-war news, perhaps as a diversion.  “If the war’s progress isn’t bad enough,” he said, according to Frye, “the heat has set in and the city stinks from the rot of that God-damned canal.”

     Frye registered the moment as unusual, or “the only time I ever heard the President take the Lord’s name in vain.”  Lincoln continued, “Something needs to be done.”

     Something was done.  In the autumn of 1871, under the orders of President Ulysses S. Grant, Tiber Creek was filled in.  President Trump would argue that the rot remains.

     I spent that night, the first on my Civil War tour, at the Willard InterContinental, or the Willard as it was known before the buyout.  It was here, during the four-month interregnum between election and inauguration, that President-Elect Lincoln conducted business.  Of course, assassination threats were swirling around the man and only the protection of the Pinkertons kept Lincoln alive.

     It was also here that the Peace Conference convened.  In February 1861, in a last-ditch effort to save the nation, delegates from over half the states gathered.  Presided over by the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, the conference came down to Virginia.  If Virginia voted to secede, Maryland would follow, and there would be the war.

     “And the war came,” as Lincoln documented in his second inaugural address.  Some five months after the Peace Conference, and some four months after Lincoln left the Willard for the executive mansion, the first major battle was fought.  The Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, was a rout.  Northerners were a cocky bunch in the days leading up to the battle.  A slogan coursed through Union lands, trumpeted by the Northern press and a number of over-confident politicians, “Forward to Richmond!”

     It took four years for the Union to reach Richmond.  Lincoln toured the capital of the South just days after its fall, and days before his fall, but more on that in a bit.

     One early morning, I left the Willard, jumped on my bicycle, crossed the Long Bridge, and cycled the twenty-five or so miles to Manassas.  This route would have been, more or less, the one used by Union forces some one hundred and sixty years ago.  Going by bicycle held a unique advantage.  My pace decreased.  The forty-minute car ride took over two hours.  I was traveling at a 19th century pace, at a horse and buggy pace.

     The crowds who left Washington on horse and buggy for the Manassas battleground went for the sheer spectacle.  They thought this would be the one and only battle.  They carried picnic lunches.  I carried a few energy bars.

     I returned to the Willard in the mid-afternoon.  I took a shower and walked over to the White House, following the exact line Lincoln would have used back in 1861.  Left on F St., right on 15th, left on Pennsylvania.  Lafayette Square would have been around in Lincoln’s day.  So would the statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse.  Lincoln might have taken a moment to notice the War Department Building at 17th and Pennsylvania.  That building, with its telegraph office, would become a regular part of Lincoln’s day.  He would walk over to the telegraph room to check on war news.

     There wouldn’t have been a West Wing in Lincoln’s day.  The Eisenhower Executive Office Building wouldn’t have been built.  At that location, Lincoln would have gazed at the Washington Jockey Club, where all things horse racing happened.  There was a livery behind the club.  Lincoln, on occasion, hired horses from that stable.

     Andrew Jackson, by the way, was the first executive to nearly incite the House of Representatives into pursuing the articles of impeachment.  His constitutional violations were rather gross.  Still, Congress did not formerly take up a bill.  That would come some thirty-five years later, during the presidency of the first Johnson.  Of course, here in TrumpLand, we are versed in impeachment talk.

     All of this was an interesting sidebar as I stared out at Trump’s White House while standing beside Andrew Jackson on his horse.  At that time, Trump had already made the call to his Ukrainian counterpart.  The whistleblower hadn’t yet come forward.  As should be obvious, I am not the whistleblower.

     Nor did I visit Trump on that particular Sunday.  My invitation called for the following Sunday.  I did however take this photograph of the White House.

2) Okay, okay, I didn’t take the photograph.  It’s credited to Mathew Brady in the year 1860.  Here’s what we should remember about Brady.  He was legally blind.  Of the nearly 3,500 Civil War photographs credited to Brady, very few were actually taken by the man.  A corps of anonymous field photographers did most of the work.  After the war, the blind and impoverished Brady sold his entire portfolio of wartime photographs to the U.S. government for twenty-five thousand dollars.

     I like the photo because it represents what Lincoln saw as he looked at the executive mansion from Lafayette Square on that first day.  Lincoln, by the way, was the first president to put a photographer on staff.  To be sure, the world around Lincoln thought of that hire as strange and extravagant.  Strange and extravagant as in Grover Cleveland hiring a personal dentist.  Strange and extravagant as in Eisenhower hiring a psychiatrist.  Strange and extravagant as in Reagan hiring a psychic.

     The view of the executive mansion from Lafayette Square in LincolnLand contained a statue that would not have greeted Donald Trump, had he stood in the square on his first day.  The bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed in 1874.  I suppose the president of that time, Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, didn’t much care for Jefferson.  Grant had seen the brutal carnage Jefferson’s slaveocracy created.

     That Monday morning, I drove north into Maryland.  My day called for the drive south to Richmond.  I wanted to visit the multiple sites of the American Civil War Museum.  Lincoln made the trek to Richmond just ten days before his assassination, and I wanted to do some research in the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig concerning that visit.  How did Richmond respond to Lincoln?  How did Lincoln, in turn, respond to the Richmond mood?  Those were my questions and I thought the leading newspaper of the day would have documented such thoughts.

     In the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig, I found the Joshua Frye dossier.

     Before driving south to Richmond, I visited the Antietam battleground in Sharpsburg.  History records that battle as the bloodiest day of the war.  Combining both Confederate and Union losses, nearly 27,000 soldiers died in just under twelve hours of battle.  The fighting hinged upon the tenacity of General Hooker, as he made a name for himself there and during the Peninsula campaign.

     Lincoln received a telegram from Hooker.  He reported his immediate reaction to the staggering losses to Joshua Frye.  “I wanted to close that door and hide under this desk,” he said.  According to Frye, a smile crossed Lincoln’s face, the one that “gnawed on your internals.”  Lincoln continued, “Not that I could fit.”

     Five days later, Lincoln issued the initial Emancipation Proclamation.  It should be said that support for Lincoln in the North took a nosedive.  In midterm elections, some eight weeks later, the Democrats made major strides against Lincoln Republicans.  Talk filled Northern newspapers, labeling Lincoln a “one-term President, as fraught for the Country as Old Buck.”

     That quote, from an article written in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, didn’t need to spell out its meaning.  But Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, hated the office of the presidency and his term reflected his disdain.  He went home to Pennsylvania and wrote a biography.  His own, the first of many presidential memoirs.

     History seems clear.  Had it not been for the Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln would have been a one-term president.  The North would have elected the Democrat, General George McClellan on his pledge of suing for peace.  The North, in fact, had had it with war.  In the hands of McClellan, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been abandoned.  Sort of like the United States withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change here in TrumpLand.

     In the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig later that day, I came across a treasure trove of articles.  They documented Lincoln’s few days in the Confederate’s capital.  He came as a peacemaker, not a conqueror.  He came essentially without guard, as only a few sailors from the USS Malvern protected him.  He came as a father, as his son Tad toured the city and the still-smoldering ruins by his side.  He came as a hero, as former slaves quickly surrounded him.  Frye, covering the scene for the Daily Whig, recorded the “sea of Negroes on their knees, looking up at the tall man in the top hat with expressions aglow to something close to divinity.  I suppose their reaction mimicked the Galileans during the feeding of the 5,000.”

     That reference to the Gospels underlined a fundamental, and often overlooked, difference between the North and the South.  The North was a democracy, built upon the separation of Church and State.  The South was a theocracy.  Jefferson Davis was as much a cleric as he was an elected official.  Had the South won the war, the government of the C.S.A. today would have resembled Iran, or Israel.

     According to another article in the Daily Whig, Lincoln made his way to Jefferson Davis’s mansion, which served as the Confederacy’s executive office.  Davis had departed for Danville days earlier, according to the article, but Lincoln hoped to meet with General Lee.  Lee didn’t show.  A delegation of Southerners stood in his place.  According to the Daily Whig, the highest-ranking member of that delegation was Joseph Mayo, the mayor of Richmond.  During the discussion – focused on bringing the war to an end – Mayo handed his resignation to Lincoln.  Richmond wouldn’t have a new mayor for three months.

     The Daily Whig missed the backdoor deal.  In a closed room, “away from all Southern eyes,” according to a document in Joshua Frye’s dossier, President Lincoln met with “the Jew.”  The document continued, “the President and the Jew greeted one another as friendly combatants.  They clearly had a past relationship.”

     The “Jew” was Judah Benjamin and, in the Confederacy, he served as Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man.  His titles included both Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

     The intersection between Lincoln and Benjamin seems to date to the 30th Congress of the United States.  Back in 1847, both men were first time representatives to the national body.  The 30th Congress had a rather significant piece of legislation to consider: a peace treaty with Mexico following President Polk’s war.  Lincoln, a Whig from Illinois, and Benjamin, a Whig from Louisiana, worked together on the “Spot Resolution.”  Both men wanted to know the exact spot where the war began.  Both men thought it was in Mexico territory, making President Polk guilty of invading a foreign country, and selling the country a faulty premise for war.  President Polk, in his way, prefigured President Bush in his war with Iraq.  The second Bush.

     While the “Spot Resolution” fizzled, the national careers of Lincoln and Benjamin began in earnest.  Benjamin would go on to become a senator, an advocate of the slaveocracy, and a secessionist.  He met Jefferson Davis in 1853, during a state dinner held to inaugurate Davis as the Secretary of War under President Pierce.  The two men formed a bond that would last over a decade.

     During the covert meeting with President Lincoln at Jefferson Davis’s mansion in Richmond, Judah Benjamin revealed the “second spot resolution,” as Lincoln called it.  According to a document in the Frye dossier, the “second spot resolution” contained a whopper.  It turns out that Jefferson Davis hadn’t escaped to Danville, along with the Confederate government, as history records.  Instead, Davis and Benjamin remained in the capital to “go down with the sinking ship.”

     They didn’t go down.  Lincoln, clearly thinking about the future, saw Davis as “a key to the new nation.”  According to the Frye dossier, Lincoln told Benjamin that “the face of war becomes the face of peace.  This is what history teaches.”

     Lincoln then allowed the escape of both Davis and Benjamin.  Davis went to Georgia, to reunite with Southern leadership.  Benjamin went to Great Britain, where he lived out the rest of his life.  History records that Benjamin fled with Davis to Georgia.  That is false.  He sailed to Great Britain, according to the Frye dossier, “on a Union ship.”

     How did he gain access to a Union ship?

3) On an early Wednesday morning, I began a long slog of a drive.  My day called for a 16-plus hour trip due south to Key West.  Unfortunately, I hit Southern Florida in the dark, so I didn’t get to look out at the pristine beaches of Palm Beach, or the density of the Everglades, or the bridges and islands of the Keys.  I arrived in Key West just in time to nap for a few hours before catching a ferry to the western most island of the Keys, known as Dry Tortuga.

     I spent two days in relative quiet.  Dry Tortuga is the least visited national park in the United States.  It’s a small island that houses the remains of a fort.  There is no electricity on the island, no running water, no food source.  Visitors bring in all of their needs.  I spent two days in quiet relaxation, swimming, snorkeling, walking the length and width of the island, reading Civil War history, thinking about my upcoming tour of TrumpLand.

     I also discovered Dry Tortuga’s Civil War past.  Back in the 1820s, the United States needed a southern outpost to suppress the piracy, then running rampant in the Caribbean.  Eventually, Dry Tortuga was chosen.  The building of Fort Jefferson commenced in 1846.  The name seems apt, for slaves built the fort named after a founding father of the slaveocracy.

     In the early days of the Civil War, the Union fortified Fort Jefferson in an effort to dissuade the Confederacy from invasion.  The Union then used the fort as a prison for its own soldiers.  Early in the war, the Union executed those soldiers found guilty of desertion.  By executive order, President Lincoln substituted imprisonment on Dry Tortuga for execution.

     That executive order, it should be noted, came right after Lincoln suspended habeas corpus.  Did he dangerously overreach in executive order?  Did he set a precedent for future presidents to carve out some highly harmful policy?  The record suggests so.

     It should also be noted that confinement on Dry Tortuga was not the wonderful quiet of the 21st century.  Confinement meant hard labor under a relentless sun. 

4) Early on Sunday morning, I made the 4-plus hour drive north to West Palm Beach.  I arrived at my first stop.  I suppose I could have rented golf clubs at the Trump International Golf Club but I had heard of a funky store and I wanted to check it out.  Big Bob’s Sporting Spot on Jefferson Road, adjacent to the Norton Museum of Art, is much more than golf, and much more than sports.  First of all, Big Bob himself, who works the floor everyday, looks like he’s never done anything sporting in his entire life.  He is as the name suggests: a rotund fellow with an awkward, terribly unathletic gait, who habitually wears a fisherman’s hat.  On the front of the hat, Big Bob has pinned a photograph of a Southern Florida icon.  The great Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino throws a touchdown pass.  “It hides my bald spot,” Big Bob explained to me.

     “What does?” I asked.  “The photo of Marino or the hat itself.”

     “Both,” Big Bob replied.  “My bald spot is big.”  In fact, Big Bob is bald.  His shop could be called Bald Big Bob’s Sporting Spot.

     On the walls of the Sporting Spot, there are license plates from all around the world.  It’s a collection unparalleled.  According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the Sporting Spot houses the most license plates “per cubic inch” worldwide. 

     “I don’t recall how it started,” Big Bob explained, “but customers come in and sniff around.  Days later, sometimes weeks later, they send me their plates.”

     He walked over to one.  The second, apparently, in the collection.  “This was back in the 1980s,” Big Bob recalled.  “A couple walks in, barely speaks a word of English.  They’re from some place I don’t know where.  I don’t know their language.  They rent some fishing gear.  They like my store.  At that time, I think, I just had the one Florida plate up on the wall.  The local.  Palm Beach County.  I hadn’t even ventured south to Broward or Dade.  Weeks later, they send me this plate.  I think to myself, why not hang it up?”

     The plate, it turns out, was one of the last issued by East Germany.  It has an October 3, 1990 registration.  It was registered in the State of Brandenburg, with Potsdam as the place of registration.

     Two things dawned on me.  First of all, Big Bob did recall how the collection began.  The next customer who saw the East German plate on the wall sent in his plate, voluntarily.  That plate was from West Virginia, a town called Martinsburg.  (More on Martinsburg soon.)  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred, or an increasing on itself.  The collection expanded. 

     Secondly, that East German plate must be worth more than the Sporting Spot.  It was registered on the very day that East Germany ceased to exist.

     Big Bob was happy to rent me some clubs.  “Where you gonna play?” he asked, “West Palm?”

     I thought about lying.  Did I really want to receive the reaction I knew would come my way?  I didn’t lie.  “Mar-a-Lago,” I answered.

     Big Bob thought I was kidding, I think.  He answered, “What, you got a golf date with DonnyTerrific?  I do hear he’s in town, you know.”

     “Donny Terrific?” I answered.  “I love that name.”

     “No, you’re saying it wrong,” Big Bob replied.  “DonnyTerrific.  One word.”

     We both laughed.

5) I did have a golf date with DonnyTerrific, with dinner to follow.  In my follow up arrangements with the White House’s Office of Scheduling and Advance, I was invited to play a round of golf at the Trump International Golf Club, a five-minute drive from Mar-a-Lago.  The invitation mentioned eighteen holes with “the President and a special guest.”

     I first reacted with a bit of golf etiquette.  “According to my math,” I wrote to the Office of Scheduling and Advance, “that forms a party of three.  Will there be a fourth?”

     “The President likes threesomes,” the Office of Scheduling and Advance replied.

     Really, you can’t make this stuff up.  Was the Office of Scheduling and Advance aware of the sexual reference?  I assume so.

     I replied, “I wish to thank the President for the invitation but my golfing career ended long ago.  I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.  I cannot grip a golf club.”

     The Office of Scheduling and Advance responded, “We are sorry to hear of your affliction, but the President will be the judge of your capability.  You have a tee time at eleven a.m.” 

     The invitation then stated that a tour of Mar-a-Lago and dinner in the Trump residence would follow.  I was also invited to spend the night in “one of the estate rooms.”  I assumed, and hoped, that the president would pick up the tab.

     I arrived at the golf club at ten.  I wanted to get situated, suss out my surroundings, hit a few balls at the driving range.  To be honest, I hadn’t tried to hit a golf club in years.  Maybe I could.  I did buy some very grippy golf gloves at Big Bob’s Sporting Spot.  “They’ll make you feel like you’re wearing glue,” Big Bob advertised.

     At a few minutes after ten, as I made my way from the pro shop to the range, I was struck by the quiet.  It was Dry Tortuga-like.  Where was everybody?  Before I could formulate an explanation, the next sight answered my question.  President Trump was already on the course, warming up at the putting green.  Secret service requirements called for an empty course while the president played. 

     Mao Tse-tung, it might be noted, went by a similar dictate when flying.  Whenever the chairman took to the skies, all other planes were grounded.  That meant all across the width and length of China.  Talking about a Dry Tortuga-like quiet.  President Trump would have liked that kind of quiet all the time, but more on that in a bit.

     The next sight on the Trump International Golf Club was something to behold.  It wasn’t so much the president dressed in typical golf wear: white polo shirt, black slacks with black belt, white golf shoes, a white baseball cap with “USA” embroidered and emblazoned in big letters.  The sight was something to behold given the president’s golfing partner.  He was dressed like the president.  Same clothing, same color scheme, same baseball cap color, though this one had a red cardinal perched on a baseball bat on the front.  Both men greeted me with the same smile, teeth showing.  Their incisors looked identical.  Fangs.

     The president shook my hand.  Too strongly, I might add.  But anyone suffering from arthritis would report that.  “This is Big Rush,” the president said of his companion.

     I shook Big Rush’s hand.  He, too, shook my hand too strongly.  “The president tells me that you wrote a great book,” Big Rush said.  “Maybe you’d like to come on my show and talk about it.  Over thirteen million Americans listen to me everyday.”

     Later, I looked up his statistic.  Rush Limbaugh wasn’t lying.  His radio show brings in some 13.25 million listeners for at least five minutes per day.

     The president looked at my hands.  It was – how should I put it? – strange.  He seemed to be suspecting my hands, as if I didn’t suffer from arthritis, as if I’d been lying, as if I needed an excuse not to play golf.  “They don’t look too beat up to me,” he said.

     Big Rush chimed in, “You could hit a Wainwright fastball with those babies.”  Later, I looked up his reference.  Adam Wainwright, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, throws his fastballs in the low nineties.  Healthy hands or not, I certainly couldn’t hit a Wainwright fastball.

     “Let’s go hit a few balls,” the president said.

     The three of us walked over to the range.  In truth, I used to be a decent golfer.  I could hit my woods straight and true.  I wasn’t bad with my iron game.  I wasn’t a long ball hitter but, from tee to green, I was adequate.  My short game had some touch to it.  I could putt.

     I put on my grippy Big Bob bought gloves.  I did indeed feel the glue effect.  I pulled a seven iron out of my bag.  I set up for a shot, feet shoulder length apart, knees bent.  I felt good, sturdy.

     I didn’t even swing the club.  I couldn’t.  I just simply couldn’t grip the handle. 

     Plus, I was afraid the club would fly out of my hands and hit Trump squarely in the USA.  I was afraid the secret service would haul me off to Raiford, where I would be accused of attempted assassination with a golf club.  It would be sort of the perfect murder.  “7-iron flies out of arthritic golfer’s hands, smacks into the President, causing a subdural hematoma,” the coroner’s report would read.  Certainly, it would rival the assassination of President Harrison back in 1841.  Officially, he died of pneumonia.  Modern-day epidemiology suggests typhoid fever.  Clearly, salmonella ran rampant in Tiber Creek.  There was no sewage system in Washington City.  But I’m here to tell you that an assassin planted the salmonella in Harrison’s water supply.  Admittedly, I don’t have a Frye-like dossier confirming my belief.  I have undertaken some sound detective work, though, but more on that at another time.

     “I’m sorry,” I said to Trump.  “I can’t.  My hands won’t allow it.”

     The president responded in a strange way.  He took off his white USA hat.  He scratched his head.  He slicked back his pumpkin hair.  He then put on a new cap.  This one was the sister of the previous cap.  Same USA in big, embroidered letters.  Same manufacturer.  However, there was a color change.  White became red. 

     Later, I went to a website identifying the idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump.  When he wears a white cap, it means he’s in a friendly mood.  A red hat represents his disdain.  Apparently, he’s that idiosyncratic, and transparent.

     Big Rush changed into a red cap, too, though this one had a cardinal perched on a baseball bat on the front.

6) I spent the day at Mar-a-Lago.  Aside from checking in and napping in a very regal estate room, a staffer showed me around.  His name was Anthony Senecal and he’d worn many hats over the years at the club.  Today, he is known as the house historian, but that title is relatively recent.  He began his long Mar-a-Lago career in 1959.  “I was eighteen,” he told me, as we strolled the main house.  “I got hired as a duster.  I think Mrs. Post saw my mustache and she thought to herself… duster.”

     Senecal, as he did back in 1959 and for most of the years in between, wears a walrus mustache, thoroughly covering the area between his nose and his upper lip.  Of course, in 1959, at the tender age of eighteen, the color of the mustache was “jet black,” according to Senecal, “the color of a panther.”

     Sixty years later, the color is “dove white,” according to Senecal.  “But I’m still Panther-like fierce.”

     I ignored his last words.  I studied his mustache further.  It looked like a dust brush, minus the handle.

     Senecal continued, “I was the longest serving duster in the history of the place…  Officially, I should say, Mrs. Post called me an ‘errand boy.’  But really what she wanted… better yet, what she insisted upon… was dust removal.  All of the tiles had to be pristine clean.  Mr. Trump likes it the same way.”

     That’s not the only similarity between Post and Trump, but more on that in a bit.  There are some 36,000 Spanish tiles layered upon the floorboards, a majority of them flow in arabesque lines.  “Mrs. Post loved the style,” Senecal described, “but not the people.”

     I responded to his line with a quizzical look, but more on that in a bit.

     Marjorie Merriweather Post built the estate from the swampland up, beginning sometime in 1923.  Construction took four years.  She imported a world of building materials from Italy and Spain.  She wanted “a Mediterranean feel to the place,” Senecal told me.

     Frescoes from Rome cover the walls.  “Mrs. Post was big on frescoes,” Senecal continued.  “She used to say to me, ‘Tony, I am the fresco queen.’”

     Actually, she was the cereal queen.  Her father, C.W. Post, jumped on the cereal craze near the end of the 19th century.  He formed the General Foods Corporation.  Dry cornflakes made the family into millionaires.  C.W. and his wife had one child.  Marjorie’s inheritance made her the wealthiest woman in the United States.  Some say her wealth rivaled the Queen of England.  Well, that comparison would have begun around 1952, when Elizabeth’s reign began.

     Elizabeth outlived Marjorie by many decades.  Post died in 1973.  In her will, she bequeathed the estate to the federal government.  She wanted Mar-a-Lago to serve as a White House south.  It didn’t turn out that way.  Deemed too expensive to maintain, the federal government returned the property to the Post Foundation in 1981.

     Senecal, on the kitchen staff back in the early 1970s, remembered Post’s death.  “I was so broken up,” he reported.  “She was the Dowager Queen to all of us.  I heard the news of her death in the kitchen.  I don’t know why but I got out a box of cornflakes.  I arranged the flakes to look like Mrs. Post.  Someone took a picture.  We hung it over the main fireplace in the big house.”

     It doesn’t hang there anymore.  There is a painting of Trump in tennis whites hanging over the main fireplace.  Senecal turned somewhat secretive.  His dust brush mustache seemed to shrink.  “I’ve been in other homes in the Palm area,” he confided.  “Same exact painting.  Only the head is different.”

     The Post photograph, of Marjorie in cornflakes, fills a wall in Senecal’s office.  He walked me into his private residence.  Sure enough, Senecal, age thirty-two at the time, had arranged Post’s likeness.  I immediately googled Marjorie Post.  The similarity was striking.

     Notably, Senecal did the same for Trump.  The picture of Trump in cornflakes hangs in Senecal’s private residence, too, over his bed.  “It’s a shame Mrs. Post and Mr. Trump never met,” Senecal told me.  “They were cut from the same cloth.”

     “Or corn,” I interrupted.

     Senecal liked that.  He laughed, with his dust brush mustache jumping up and down.  “I should tell Mr. Trump that one,” he said.

     “Do you ever call him President Trump?” I asked.

     “Never,” Senecal reported.  “I met the man back in 1985.  He was Mr. Trump then and he’s Mr. Trump now.  He’s the most patriotic man I’ve ever met.”

     “Okay,” I responded.

     “He was born on flag day,” Senecal continued.

     It might be said, figuratively speaking, that Anthony Senecal is the offspring of Donald Trump and Marjorie Post.  While his “parents” came from different eras, different geographical settings, different cultures, there are lines that comingle, arabesque style.  Both Post and Trump came from money.  Their fathers were notoriously big personalities, who, behind closed doors, were ruthless and authoritarian father figures.  Both Post and Trump could never match the wants and desires of their fathers and that showed in their psychologies.  They had the psyche of perfection embedded into them, but no way to measure up to that perfection.

     That dynamic can be found in their multiple marriages, and divorces.  Post married four times.  Trump married three times, so far.  Both Post and Trump produced children with different spouses.  Neither gave much effort in child rearing.  Post entrusted the raising of her children to a nation of nannies.  Trump did the same, with his wives thrown somewhere into the mix.  Post saw herself as the “Dowager Queen,” to use Anthony Senecal’s description.  He clearly didn’t use the actual definition in his description.  He meant in style and substance.  The same applied to Donald Trump.  To echo Senecal, it’s a shame the two never met.

     Donald Trump bought the property in 1985.  Senecal became the club’s official doorman.  He held that title for five years.  “I was the longest tenured doorman,” he reported.  “I so thoroughly enjoyed the position.  I was the portal for all of Palm Beach.  They came to this great establishment for Mr. Trump.  But they had to enter through me.”

     Senecal’s sense of self-importance reminded me of another doorman, perhaps the most famous of the 19th century.  His name was Edward McManus and he served as the doorman to the White House, or executive mansion as it was then called.  He began his career during the second Adams and he retired when Lincoln died.  The story goes that he was too broken hearted to greet Lincoln’s successor.  Lincoln called McManus “Old Edward,” and he, too, was a portal.  For the masses who formed and sought an audience with the president, there was no other way up to Lincoln’s second floor offices then through Old Edward.  According to Joshua Frye, Old Edward liked to brag that he alone “determined Lincoln’s schedule.”  He alone “kept out the riffraff.”

     Anthony Senecal echoed those same words, but more on that in a bit.  In Old Edward’s case, he never said no to wounded soldiers.  They came en masse to see Lincoln.  Old Edward let them through the door and Lincoln would listen to each and every story of battle.  Each and every story of battle affected his life.  Lincoln was a man both buffered and beaten down by war stories.

     Trump isn’t much into stories.  He’s not a storyteller and he’s not a story listener.  Isn’t it ironic then that he would invite a writer to dinner?

     Under a row of palm trees connecting the big house to Trump’s private residence, Senecal continued with his history.  “I only left my doorman position to become mayor,” he said.  “Do you know the first thing I did in Martinsburg?  I hired a doorman for my office.”

     To check the records in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where Senecal served from 1990 to 1992, is to see the employment of four different doormen during those years.  Apparently Senecal hired doormen like Trump and Post found spouses.

     Senecal’s tenure in Martinsburg was notable for one certain policy proposal.  He wanted all panhandlers to carry permits.  His proposal got an endorsement from the boss.  “I got a letter from Mr. Trump,” Senecal reported.  “‘Tony,’ he wrote, ‘this is so great.’”

     Senecal, it turns out, loves his prejudices.  He refers to panhandlers as “riffraff.”  He refers to Muslims as “muzzies.”  He thinks all American cities should be cleared of their “muzzy” populations.  “We need to bomb ‘em out,” he declared.  “I could care less if they’re in the U.S.  I don’t want them in the U.S.  They don’t belong here.  They belong in the sand dunes where they came from.” (See Gary Legum, “Why Donald Trump’s racist butler actually matters,” Salon, 2016/05/13/why_donald_trumps_racist_butler_actually_matters/)

     His reference to “sand dunes,” conveying his prejudice for all things Muslim, connects back to his talk of arabesques.  Senecal holds on to many errors.  Like all Arabs are Muslims.  Like all Arabs live in the desert world.  Sometime back in the early 1960s, I would wager, Senecal saw the movie version of “Lawrence of Arabia.”  His knowledge of the Arab world started and ended there.

     His intolerance of “muzzies” reached the White House.  During Barack Obama’s tenure, Senecal kept up the birther myth.  He called Obama a “Kenyan fraud.”  He also kept up the myth of Obama as a secret Muslim.  Senecal turned awfully belligerent, “This prick needs to be hung for treason.”  He “should have been taken out by our military and shot as an enemy agent in his first term.”

     Senecal returned to Mar-a-Lago in 1992.  Trump hired him as his butler.  “I was the longest serving butler in Mar-a-Lago’s history,” Senecal reported.  “I retired in 2009.  Mr. Trump, though, wouldn’t hear of it.  He told me, ‘To retire is to expire.’  I became the house historian.”

     I predicted Senecal’s next words, and sure enough, they came.   “I am the longest serving historian in Mar-a-Lago’s history.”

     Mar-a-Lago is an economy all to itself.  It is a place to be seen.  It is a place to be recognized.  It is a place to throw your money around.  There are world-class restaurants on site.  There is a ballroom, built by Trump to be grander than Versailles’.  There is a beauty salon.  There is a spa.  There is a swimming pool, a tennis pro shop, five clay tennis courts, a croquet court.  “Mrs. Post loved croquet,” Senecal reported.  “These days, it’s hardly used.”

     “What does President Trump love?” I asked.

     Senecal nodded his head.  His dust brush mustache jumped up and down.  “He has some prized possessions,” Senecal answered.  “You’ll see them shortly.”

     We arrived at the residence.  Senecal knocked on the door.  Notably, there wasn’t a doorman on location.  There were secret service agents all around.  A secret service agent did not open the door.  The president’s private secretary did.  “Welcome to Trump-a-Lago,” she said.

7) Her name, I immediately learned, was Maddie.  She had been the president’s private secretary since 2017.  She didn’t yet know it but she had about a week left on the job.  After Mar-a-Lago, the first family flew up to New Jersey, to vacation at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.  Maddie apparently got all liquored up at a dinner with reporters and spilled a few Trump family secrets, along with her drink.  The alcohol left a small smudge.  Her running mouth left an acid stain.

     Maddie greeted me with a big smile.  It’s the same smile worn by all the women in Trump’s orbit.  It’s the smile that suggests a compliment is coming, an ego stroke.  All the women in Trump’s orbit, I suppose, have learned the smile to survive Trump’s ethology.  Notably, though, the smile is only the beginning, the portal so to speak.  All the women in Trump’s orbit – both the inner and outer circles – look a certain way.  Those women in the inner circle – his wife and ex-wives, his daughters – look like they’ve just come from the plastic surgeon’s scalpel.  There is a cutting away effect, a sheep shearing process, plus noticeable implantation.  Those women in the outer circles – Kelleyanne Conway, Rhona Graff, Nikki Haley, the list goes on – look like they’ve just come from the plastic surgeon’s office.  There is the look of botox, or chemical peel, or permanent makeup.

     “You look relaxed,” Maddie said to me, as if she knew my stressed out look.  “I trust you had a wonderful day.”

     I smiled softly. 

     “Come,” she said, “let’s go meet everyone.  They are very excited to meet you.”

     A part of me wanted to run away.  I freely admit, I felt a bit caged at Trump-a-Lago.  As the evening progressed, I was never able to escape that feeling.  That feeling led to a late night decision.  I didn’t spend the night in the estate room.  I fled.  I drove north through the night.  I wanted out of Florida altogether.

     The first family had gathered in the “the trophy room,” as everyone called it.  Trump houses all of his golf trophies there.  He has several hundred, it seems.  I snuck a peek or two as I met the gang.  Most of the trophies celebrate his distance off the tee.  His distance off the tee reminded me of something Anthony Senecal said.  Apparently, the two men hit golf balls from Mar-a-Lago into the Intracoastal Waterway.  Neither man, apparently, cares about the build up of plastic on the ocean floor.

     According to Senecal, the conversation between the men always has to do with distance.  “‘How far was that one?’” Trump would ask.  Senecal would answer, “‘With that first bounce, maybe 300 yards.’”  In actuality, Senecal confided, “The distance couldn’t have been more than 225 yards.”

     Later, I googled “Trump as a golfer.”  An article in Golfworld critiqued his game.  The reporter wrote, “He was not particularly long off the tee – averaging about 230 yards.”  He was straight, though.  Which is more important.  Trump was not a technician of the game.  “I think of golf as a very natural game,” he told the reporter.  “I never really wanted to know a lot about my technique.  I really trust instinct a lot, in golf and a lot of things.” (Jaime Diaz, “How Good is Donald Trump the Golfer?” Golfworld, January 17, 2017.

     Maddie introduced me around.  First Lady Melania Trump was there.  I was struck by her height.  She is slightly taller than me, just shy of six feet.  Her son Barron was there.  I was struck by his height, too.  At age thirteen, he was the tallest person in the room.  Tiffany Trump was there.  Daughter of Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, she was the only person born in Palm Beach in the room.  She was a day old when she first entered Mar-a-Lago.

     Ivanka Trump was there.  Maddie introduced her as “Yael Kushner,” using her Hebrew name.  I suppose Maddie did so in relation to my Jewish roots and to my book so clearly dealing in the Jewish realm.  Trump corrected her.  “Call me Ivana,” she said to me.

     Ivana was the only Trump offspring from her father’s first wife present in the room.  Neither of the sons showed.  Ivana, it should be noted, is one of the wealthiest women in America.  She might be the Marjorie Merriweather Post of the 21st century.

     Ivana’s husband, Jared Kushner, was there.  I immediately sized him up as an honorary member of Trump’s orbit of women, the outer circle.  That’s not to say that Kushner is a female.  But he looks the part to fit into Trump’s ethology.  It’s as if he’s just come from the plastic surgeon’s office.  He doesn’t have a laugh line on that smooth face of his.  There’s not even a smidgen of beard growth.  It’s like his hair follicles have been permanently removed by some kind of laser treatment.

     I soon realized the true story behind Kushner’s wrinkle-free face.  I met Kushner’s parents.  Charles, or “Charlie” as he insisted on being called, reminded me of Donald Trump.  The two men yearn for attention.  Maybe Jared and Ivana got together because they subconsciously recognized the wound in one another’s psyche, the searing effect caused by fathers who need to be put on pedestals.

     Seryl, I learned during introductions, was the first in the room to read my book Satan’s Synagogue.  She passed the book onto her daughter-in-law.  To Ivana, she called the book a “must-read, on all things Jewish.”

     I realized that, when it comes to “all things Jewish,” there is a dividing line between Seryl and Ivana.  Seryl is wary of Ivana’s non-Jewish roots.  Worse, Ivana’s mother was born in Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  Seryl has questions regarding the Zelnickova clan of Moravia, and what they did, or did not do, during the war years.  Ivana’s conversion to Judaism, to marry Seryl’s son, only partially answered some of Seryl’s question.  Seryl seems to be on some kind of mission to educate Ivana.  It leads to some tension between the women.

     What does this dynamic have to do with Jared Kushner’s wrinkle-free face, or my initial judgment of him as an honorary member of Trump’s orbit of women?  Let’s dig deeper.  Jared’s grandparents, Charlie’s father and mother, were Holocaust survivors.  They came from a town in modern-day Belarus but on Polish soil back during the war years.  When the Germans and the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939, they secretly partitioned Poland in half.  A month later, the town of Navahrudak fell into Soviet hands.  Life for Jews was difficult, but tolerable.  That changed when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.  The Nazis, as per their normal operating procedure, constructed a ghetto.  In 1941, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto of Navahrudak primarily by firing squad.

     Jared’s grandmother, Reichel “Rae” Kushner, led an escape in the days before liquidation.  As it became clear that all Jews would be eradicated – Rae Kushner’s mother in fact died by firing squad – Rae Kushner and her brigade began to build a tunnel underneath the ghetto, connecting them to the outside world.  They fled through that tunnel.  They joined a famous Jewish partisan group led by the Bielski brothers.  They survived the war.

     In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Rae Kushner returned to Navahrudak.  She found what all returning Jews found: a completely inhospitable environment, with locals having taken over all Jewish possessions and threatening more harm.  The Kushners fled to a DP camp in Moravia, Czechoslovakia.  Eventually, they made their way to the United States by way of the USSR.  When they arrived, they brought with them the baggage of massacre, the baggage of the ghetto, the baggage of displacement.

     What did that leave them with?  Amongst their survivor traits, they have little sense of humor.  That mark can be seen on Jared Kushner’s face.  There are no laugh lines.  The smoothness of his skin, the laser-like glassiness, has nothing to do with the plastic surgeon’s office.  The smoothness is a product of his grandparents’ history.

     Notably, the Trumps have no sense of humor, either.  Maybe that helps to explain Jared and Ivana’s comingling, arabesque style.

     Suddenly, the door to the Trophy room swung open and in walked the president of the United States.  To those in the room, other than Maddie and me, he’s Donald.  His thirteen-year-old son, notably, calls him Donald.  Weird.

     Jared, I immediately noticed, didn’t use a name.  He lived in that odd space, with his father-in-law as president and boss.  In the outside world, it was easy.  “Mr. President” rolled off the tongue.  But here, in private, awkwardness crept in.

     Maddie introduced me to the president but, of course, I’d already been introduced.  As he did out on the golf course, Trump shook my hand too hard.  For a split second, he looked down at the handshake.  “Sorry if that hurts,” he said, although his tone clearly didn’t express any sort of remorse.  “Mr. Josephson suffers from arthritis,” he announced to the room.  “He couldn’t play golf today.”

     I ignored Trump’s mangling of my family name.  I ignored the power play.  I ignored Trump’s need to establish himself as alpha.  I am not a dog. 

     “Brian,” I said.

     “What?” the president replied.

     “Call me Brian.”

     Trump didn’t seem to hear my response.  Or rather, he seemed to have his next line ready to go.  “What are you drinking?” he said.

     I then noticed that nobody in the room held a glass in hand.  I determined that this was the normal operating procedure.  When Trump entered the room, everything commenced.

     “Whatever you’re drinking,” I responded.  I’m not much of a drinker but I suppose I was up for anything: a martini in Roosevelt style, the madeira favored by the first Adams, the champagne of James Madison, the whiskey of the first Johnson, the scotch whiskey in a plastic cup of the second Johnson.

     Lincoln, by the way, walked a fine line.  He grew up on Knob Creek.  His father worked at the distillery that made bourbon.  During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the cagey-as-all-hell Douglas inferred that Lincoln ran a saloon.  For a man running for political office, barman status was a death sentence.

     The history is a little sordid.  Lincoln never ran a saloon but he did in fact apply for a liquor license from the state of Illinois in the days before seeking high office.  He and his business partner operated a grocery store.

     As president, Lincoln only tasted the alcohol in front of him, so he wouldn’t offend his host.  He was considered the driest of all presidents.  Until Trump.  Trump makes Lincoln look like the second coming of Martin van Buren, arguably this country’s greatest drinker while in office.  Or George W. Bush, during his party days before finding some sort of sobriety.

     Trump ordered “daiquiris for the boys, and D.C.’s for the ladies” from the waiter.  While we waited, I presented the president and the first lady with a gift.  In the weeks leading up to the dinner, I struggled to find something worthwhile.  I mean, what do you give a billionaire president?  I decided on some artwork.  My mother, Susan, has been a painter since I’ve known her.  In more recent times, she’s focused on abstract digital work.  I thought about giving the president and his wife this one:

It’s called “The Pickle Sisters,” and my mother made it for her granddaughters.  Strangely, it somewhat resembles the president and the first lady, particularly the hair.  I didn’t give “The Pickle Sisters” to the president.  Given the low level sense of humor in the room, I thought the gift would fall flat.

     A notable moment occurred when I presented the wrapped package.  Nobody made a move to unwrap it.  Perhaps presidents and their families don’t unwrap gifts from invited strangers.  Perhaps that’s a job for handlers, or the invited stranger.  I unwrapped the gift.  Here is what the room saw: 

My mother entitled the work, “A Star with a Hole in it.”  I think it’s quite wonderful and I have it on my computer as a screen saver.  Also, let’s be real.  It’s applicable.  The anti-Trump crowd would think the title fits the man.

     I didn’t notice Trump’s reaction as the waiter arrived with the drinks.  Trump handed me a glass.  “To Joseph and his great writing,” Trump toasted, meaning me.  “And to whatever that is.”  Meaning the artwork.

     Again, I ignored the mangling of my last name.  “Please, call me Brian,” I said.

     “What?” the president said.

     The “boys” drank virgin strawberry slushies.  The “ladies” drank Diet Cokes.  I did notice one of the “boys” add a little something from a bottle of Knob Creek to his slushy.  I won’t say who but I promise it wasn’t Barren.  This “boy” then passed the bottle to a “lady” who added a healthy pour to her Diet Coke.  I suppose this is life in the Trump White House.  You have to be subversive with your alcohol.  Trump might interpret a drink as a terrible disloyalty.

     While the subversiveness was going on, I heard a Yiddish word.  It was odd, of course.  Why would anyone speak Yiddish in a room full of English-speaking Americans?  My Yiddish, it should be noted, is merely a smattering of words.  In this case, though, I understood the speaker’s word.

     “Shmendrik.”  The word translates into English as a stupid jerk.

     I looked at the speaker.  It was the first lady.  Why had she uttered the word?  Why in Yiddish?  Was Yiddish a part of her polyglot mind?  And who exactly was she describing?  These were the questions that instantly formed in my mind. 

     Trump, by the way, missed the entire scene.  He was already making his way to the dining room.

8) The Trump dining room in the residence at Mar-a-Lago looks like a scene straight out of an opulent king’s dream landscape.  The room itself is encased in gold.  Gold floors.  Golden walls.  Gold ceiling.  The table, the chairs, the plates, the cutlery, the stemware, all have golden hues.  The symbolism is clear.  Well, symbolism isn’t the right word, as there’s nothing indirect or suggestive in the room.  The meaning is clear.  Trump is a winner.

     There is one exception to the golden rule.  Stretched over a large wall hangs a flag, encased in a fine wood frame.   The circular presidential coat of arms occupies much of the flag space.  The eagle – that ultimate symbol of the American presence – fills the center of the flag.  The eagle looks to his right, at the olive branch in his talon.  He seems to ignore the shield on his chest with the thirteen bands running vertically.  He seems to ignore the scroll emanating from his beak, with the Latin words “E PLURIBIS UNUM” in capitals.  His focus is on the olive branch and its symbol of peace.

     Don’t ask me why but I started to count the stars surrounding the eagle.  I counted clock-wise.  I started at the top, or the twelfth hour on an analog clock face.  I anticipate fifty stars but, at first glance, there looked to be far fewer.  Reaching the third hour on the clock face, I counted nine stars.

     The president did not notice.  He sat at the head of the table, with the presidential seal to his right.  The first lady sat at the opposite end, with the presidential seal to her left.  I sat to the president’s immediate left, with the president’s eldest daughter to my left, and her husband to her left.  The three of us had a direct view of the flag. 

     It looked old.  It looked tattered.  It offered a notable juxtaposition to the shining gold imagery of the Trump dining room.  The president ignored the flag, and my interest in it, and snapped his fingers.  Anthony Senecal entered the room, carrying a set of golf clubs.  He set the clubs down, near the corner of the table, between the president and me.

     “Mr. Joepeser,” the president said, meaning me, “this is one of my favorite gifts.  Tiger Woods gave me these clubs this past May.  According to Tiger, he won his first Masters with them.”

     The president pointed to the driver.  Tiger had autographed it.  “The driver is my favorite club,” the president continued.  “I gave Tiger the Medal of Freedom and he gave me these clubs.  Now that’s quid pro quo.”

     I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  I initially thought about his mangling of my last name.  I thought maybe now was the time to emphatically correct him.  I didn’t.  I then thought about my gift to the president and his wife.  Here’s how I interpreted the president’s meaning: “Tiger found a gift I could cherish.  You found…”  How did he put it?  “‘whatever that is.’”  Meaning the artwork.

     My next response was to think about the president’s Latin phrase.  A question quickly formed in my head.  How much Latin does the president know?  An ancillary question formed.  Could the president translate the inscription on the presidential seal?

     The answers remain unknown.  Here’s what’s known.  The president loves to utter “quid pro quo.”  To him, the phrase wins every argument.  But, notably, the phrase best describes his psychology.  Everything in TrumpLand is a barter.

     I turned from the golf clubs to the flag on the wall.  My attention went to the count.  From the third hour on the clock face to the sixth hour, I counted another nine stars.  Simple math identified eighteen stars from the twelfth hour to the sixth.  Shouldn’t there have been twenty-five stars?

     While that was going on, I heard more Yiddish.  It was odd, of course.  “Oy Gevalt!”  The expression could translate in many different ways.  It could mean an expression of alarm, as the German word gewalt means force, violence.  It could mean an expression of incredulity.  It could also mean an expression of dismay, sort of the English equivalent of “oh my gosh.”

     I looked at the speaker.  It was the first lady.  Why had she uttered the expression?  Why in Yiddish?  And for whom was she uttering it?  These were the questions that quickly formed in my mind.

     My attention then went to the ethnic component in the room.  The breakdown totaled equal Jews to non-Jews, with the ninth person claiming either side.  The Kushner parents are unequivocally Jewish, as is their son Jared.  They are observant.  I am unequivocally Jewish, too, though not observant.  That made for four Jews in the room.

     The Trumps are unequivocally non-Jewish.  Donald, Melania, Tiffany and Barron are as goy as goy can be.  The anti-Trump crowd might use more pejorative Jewish terms, sheigetz and shiksa, to describe the Trump White House.  Both words stem from the same root word in Hebrew.  They come with unclean connotations.

     Ivana Trump goes both ways.  She was brought up in the goy world of Donald and her mother Ivana.  To marry Jared, she converted to Judaism – and modern orthodoxy, at that.  Which side then does she claim?  I guess it depends upon which way the wind blows.

     Trump, by the way, missed the Yiddish entirely.  His attention was on Senecal, who had taken away the golf clubs and returned with another gift.  Senecal set the gift on the golden table.  It was a baseball.

     “Mr. Joséffer,” the president said, meaning me, “this is another great gift.  The great Yankee closer, Mariano Rivera, gave me this ball.  It just so happens that Mo, as I call him, is my favorite Yankee of all time.  And, as I’m sure you know, the Yankees are my team.  Someday I’m going to buy Steinbrenner out.”

     The president pointed to Rivera’s autograph.  He continued, “I gave him the Medal of Freedom and he gave me this ball.  Now that’s quid pro quo.”

     Again, I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I was struck by the president’s mangling of my name.  He pronounced the name with an accent mark, in the Spanish speaking way.  Then, I thought about Trump’s use of the Latin phrase.  I then thought about Trump’s nickname for Rivera.  I am not a Yankee fan but I do live in New York, where everyone refers to Rivera as Mo.  It’s just the standard nickname.

     I then thought about Senecal.  I thought about his history at the club.  Here, in his dotage, he works as the house historian.  But is that accurate?  Hasn’t he returned to his original work description?  He got hired originally as a “duster,” to use his word.  But his official title then was “errand boy.”  He sure seemed like Trump’s errand boy to me.

     I turned from the baseball to the flag on the wall.  My attention went to the count.  From the sixth hour to the ninth on a clock face, there were another nine stars.  Twenty-seven so far.

     While all of this was going on, I heard more Yiddish.  The first lady uttered, “What a shanda fur die goy.”  Or, what an embarrassment.  But unlike earlier Yiddish words uttered, this phrase identified the subject in the first lady’s sightlines.  Her phrase didn’t incite a list of questions in my head.  “Shanda fur die goy” means that the non-Jew, or the goy, has embarrassed himself, and/or his people.

     Trump, by the way, missed the words entirely.  His attention went to the hubbub.  At that moment, a team of waiters entered the dining room.  There were nine waiters in all, each carrying one gold plate.  Each plate had a gold covering.  The waiters set down their gold plates, in unison.  The waiters lifted the gold covering, in unison.  It was quite a show.

     Each plate, I immediately noticed, was full of meat.  While the waiters departed, I heard more Yiddish.  I could only identify one word out of the phrase.  The first lady uttered, amongst other words, “beheyme.”  The literal translation – a cow’s head, and certainly a number of cows died for our dinner – also contained an insult.  A fool, like a putz.

     Trump, by the way, missed the words entirely.  He was already cutting into his meat.

9) The Trump plate featured steak, and meatloaf sandwiches, and French fries.  The fries tasted frozen.  The chef hadn’t warmed the Ore-Ida long enough.  There was nothing green on the plate.  Not a hint of vegetables.  There was a sizeable dollop of ketchup (for dipping, or to spread on the sandwich).  In the Reagan White House, ketchup was considered a vegetable.  Maybe the Trump White House agrees.

     I took a quick look around the table for reaction.  Notably, nobody offered an objection to the meat overload.  Notably, nobody asked for a vegetarian plate.  Notably, everyone’s head was down.  Not in prayer.  But, rather, staring at the contents on the plate.  I then realized that the general reaction was a part of the Trump ethology.  There is no objection around the Trump dinner table.  There is a whole lot of staring at the food.

     There was one wide grin.  Barren could barely contain himself.  And I realized, too, that this meal was a kid’s dream.  No broccoli or asparagus to contend with.  No fancy sauces to taste, and discard.  No arugula to disdainfully swallow.  Just meat and fried potatoes.

     The steak was overcooked.  And I don’t mean by a few degrees.  I could barely cut into the beheyme with my steak knife.  The meatloaf was only slightly less rock solid.

     I looked over at the president.  He couldn’t have been happier.  He didn’t wear the Barren grin.  That’s not in Trump’s ethology.  But his body language suggested total happiness.

     As the eating commenced and continued, and as the conversation ebbed and flowed, with Trump always in the center, never a peripheral player, I came to a realization regarding the president’s strongest attribute.  There is nothing hesitant about Trump, nothing remotely introspective.  The man is the least wonkish president of all time.  He makes George W. Bush look like an academic.  He’s all presenter, focused supremely on his vision.  His focus is otherworldly.  His focus is his guiding light.  But in that focus, he has no ability to see the wider picture.  His narrowness is stunning.

     I glanced surreptitiously up at the flag.  Though, let’s be honest, I didn’t need to be so surreptitious.  The president wouldn’t have notice.  I counted stars.  Between the ninth hour on the clock face and the twelfth, I anticipate another nine stars.  But I was wrong.  There were ten.  A quick math in my head identified thirty-seven stars.  I was surprised by the number, dubious.  I thought I should undertake a recount.  I did, surreptitiously.  Again, I didn’t need to be so surreptitious.

     Meanwhile, the president snapped his fingers.  Into the Trump dining room walked Anthony Senecal.  He carried a basketball in his hands.  He bounce passed the ball to Trump.

     The president pointed to the autograph.  It was awfully fresh looking.  It turns out that the great Celtic, Bob Cousy, had signed the ball just a few days earlier.  The president pointed to the signature.  He said, “Cousy is a great champion, and we love champions.  I gave him the Medal of Freedom and he gave me this ball.”  I predicted Trump’s next words, and sure enough, they came.  “Now that’s quid pro quo.”

     While I wasn’t sure how to respond, I didn’t run through responses in my head.  Instead I heard some Yiddish coming from the other end of the table.  “Oy-yoy-yoy,” I heard the words, “what a moyshe kapoyer.”

     The first part of the sentence translates into English as an expression of sorrow, or a shaking of the head.  The second part speaks to someone who does things the wrong way, leading to a hot mess.

     I looked at the speaker.  It was the first lady.  This time, though, I didn’t have time to question her Yiddish usage.  I heard more Yiddish.

     “It’s a narrishkeit.”  Or, a foolishness or folly.  I looked at the speaker.  The words came from Seryl Kushner.  She sat beside Barren, who sat nearest to his mother.  They had their backs to the flag on the wall.  I looked at Kushner’s plate.  She hadn’t touched the meat.

     I then realized something.  This was the normal behavior pattern.  To his face, the president needs constant reinforcement.  Compliments go a long way, ego strokes.  The president wears his fragility on his tie knot and a word or two of disagreement can lead to a sea change in behavior.  But passive-aggressive behavior, like talking in disdain in a language the president couldn’t possibly know, bypasses the president’s psyche.  Why?  It bypasses the president’s psyche because Trump has no ability to listen.  This is the Trump ethology practiced by those closest to him.

     Trump, by the way, didn’t notice.  The Yiddishkeit was almost drowned out by the noise of airplanes overhead.  Trump yelled for the house historian.  “Tony,” he barked, “call the tower.”

     Senecal peeked his head into the room.  “Right now,” he replied.

     Later, as Senecal walked me to the main house from the presidential residence, he explained the noise sensitivity of the president.  The noise of airplanes drives him crazy.  He hates his residence at the Trump Tower, Manhattan, for this reason.  High on the fifty-eighth floor, the buzz of airplanes is incessant.  Notably, he likes his residence at the White House.  The executive mansion falls within a flight-restricted zone.  There is no airplane noise to contend with.

     While Senecal called the tower at the Palm Beach International Airport, Trump segued from airplane noise to dessert.  He snapped his fingers and, again, nine waiters appeared.  As before, each waiter carried one gold plate.  Each plate had a gold covering.  The waiters set down their gold plates, in unison.  The waiters lifted the gold covering, in unison.

     The Trump dessert plate featured chocolate.  There was chocolate cream pie with vanilla ice cream.  There was a sizeable piece of chocolate cake.  I looked around at the nine plates.  Trump’s plate included something the others didn’t.  His plate came with two scoops of ice cream.  The other plates had one.

     “Mr. Josephus,” the president said, meaning me, “eat your chocolate cake.  It’s the world’s best.  I should know.”

     “How do you know?” I responded.

     “I’m the king of chocolate,” he replied.

     Here’s some irony.  I work in a place in Brooklyn called The Chocolate Room.  We make chocolate cake.  To customers, I call the cake “world famous.”  How does Mar-a-Lago’s chocolate cake compare to The Chocolate Room’s chocolate cake?  I wouldn’t know.

     Here’s some more irony.  I don’t eat chocolate.  I am a migraine sufferer.  Chocolate is forbidden.

     The president noticed my untouched plate.  “Eat your cake,” he said again, in a tone that suggested an order.

     “No thank you,” I responded, “it’s not for me.”

     “Why?” the president said.

     I explained my migraine affliction, and the trigger foods.  The president responded, “You can’t play golf because of your arthritis and you can’t eat chocolate cake because of your migraines.  What kind of life do you lead?”

     There were all kinds of responses I considered.  I nearly chose some Yiddish.  “Nem zich a vaneh” seemed appropriate.  Or, go jump in a lake.  Instead, I asked about the flag on the wall.

10) The president told a story.  “I love flags,” he began.  “I was born on flag day.”

     “So I heard,” I responded.

     The president didn’t hear my response.  He was focused on his story.  “That flag flew two times in its history,” he continued.  “The first time, at President Lincoln’s second inaugural.  There is a famous photo.  It’s used in all the history books.  Lincoln stands on the portico, giving his speech.  John Wilkes Booth stands behind Lincoln, on a platform off to the side.  Everyone is so wrapped up in their close proximity, they miss the flag.  You can see it off to the president’s right.”

     Is that why the president sat with the seal to his right, a symbolic gesture to Lincoln?  Did Trump somehow see himself as the 21st century’s equivalent to Lincoln?

     He continued, “The second time it flew was a month later, on the day Lincoln died.  They raised it to half-staff.  There wasn’t a president for a moment there.”

     I had never heard the story.  Nobody else had, either.  No history book recounts the tale.  No Civil War historian or Lincoln scholar offers documentation.  Later, I searched through that famous photo of Lincoln during his second inaugural.  The up close photo of Lincoln, and the supposed Booth, doesn’t display the flag.  It does, notably, display the American flag.

I then looked for a photograph with a wider lens, something that showed a broader view.  Again, I didn’t see the flag.

     “Where did you get it?” I asked the president.

     “A great historian gave it to me,” the president responded.  He then named names.  “Conrad Black.  He lives just down the road.”

     “Conrad Black?” I repeated, perhaps in an octave too high.

     “Yes,” the president responded, in the same octave.  He then returned to his normal voice.  “I gave him a full pardon and he gave me the flag.”  Again, I predicted his next words, and sure enough, they came.  “Now that’s quid pro quo.”

     I ignored the disparagement.  I thought about the historian.  Conrad Black is sort of the perfect historian for the Trump age.  When you read a Conrad Black book, you feel like he’s somehow the main subject.  There’s great ego in his writing.  There’s self-promotion in the research.  When I read his biography on Roosevelt, I felt like I learned more about Black than FDR.  And the book went on for 1,300 pages.  That’s a lot of Conrad Black Me Time.

     Black wrote a biography on Trump, it should be noted.  He published that hagiography in May 2018.  One year later, to the day, Trump pardoned Black for his crimes of fraud, embezzlement and obstruction of justice.  Talk about quid pro quo.

     “He’s a good friend,” the president said, “and a great guy.”

     Here’s the thing about the flag.  The stars on the seal are farkakt, to use a Yiddish word the first lady might have uttered, had she counted the stars.  A flag flying in 1865, baring the presidential seal, would have had thirty-six stars on it.  Two states were added during the Civil War era, West Virginia and Nevada.  Thethirty-seventh state, Nebraska, was added in 1867.  Someone was playing a trick on Trump.

     Farkakt translates into English as messed up, ridiculous.  Literally it means full of crap.

11) As noted earlier, I checked out of Trump-a-Lago after the dinner and jumped into my rental car.  I drove north on the Interstate.  I’m not sure what I thought about in that car, alone as the miles passed by.  There was much to process.  But at some point, I think it was as I crossed into Georgia, I had a realization.  We didn’t talk about my book at all.  Nobody asked a question.  Nobody made a reference.  Nobody complimented or critiqued.  Did anybody in the Trump White House actually read the book?  I have no idea.

     I nearly reached Savannah.  I thought about visiting another Civil War site that morning, the place where General Sherman ended his march.  But I had a different destination in sight.

     I pulled over and slept for a few hours in a rest stop.  Three hours later, I was back on the Interstate.  Some eight hours later, I arrived in D.C. 

     I pulled up near the west end of the National Mall.  I walked over to the Lincoln memorial.  Aside from the dedication written on the wall over the president’s head, two of Lincoln’s famous speeches greet the visitor, his Gettysburg address and his second inaugural.  I walked over to the second inaugural on the north wall.

     As President Trump noted, the proximity between Lincoln and Booth, if indeed the assassin attended the second inaugural, is what we fixate on today.  Much has been forgotten.  Saturday, March 4, 1865 was a cold, rainy day.  Less than one thousand people attended the inauguration.  Photographs of the event make the crowd look so much bigger.  However, every major newspaper in the country printed the president’s speech.  So hundreds of thousands of Americans read it.  The second inaugural was the shortest inauguration speech in presidential history.  Only seven hundred and three words.  Lincoln, who was a notoriously slow reader, gave the speech in under six minutes.  Imagine a president today giving such a quick address.  And yet Lincoln’s second inaugural is the greatest inauguration ever delivered.

     The beauty of the speech lies in its ability to listen.  It’s as if Lincoln, while speaking to a torn in half country, was listening for any and all response.  Lincoln spent the first half of the address determining blame for the Civil War.  But before he blamed the Confederacy, he decided that humanity has its faults and grievances and only God has the ability to render judgment.  At a time when Lincoln could have gloated, at a time when his supporters wanted him to condemn the South, he chose a higher ground.  He chose the invocation of God.  He chose moral strength and charity over the extremism of retaliation.

     His final paragraph might be the highest point in American history: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

     I sat down on the steps leading up to the statue of Lincoln in white marble.  I thought about a few words in particular: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”  The words are remarkable.  They don’t speak to the winner or the loser.  They speak to the participant.  They speak to the greatest of sacrifice.  They suggest a future.  If victors write the history, Lincoln would have listened to the losers’ stories.  Listening would have gone a long way during reconstruction.

     From those steps leading up to the statue of Lincoln, I looked at the White House.  The sun had set and the gloaming surrounded.  The entirety of the estate was lit up, as is normal operating procedure.  The president’s private residence was dark.  As I knew, the president wasn’t at home. 

Disclaimer: I’ve left out many details.  I’ve left out a great deal of the conversation around the dinner table.  I’ve left out some of the food served during the dinner.  My reportage makes it sound like just meat was served, and chocolate cake.  There were multiple courses to the meal.  There was a beautiful salad.  There was a fruit plate.  There were appetizers.

     Why did I purposefully neglect to add these details?  This is a long story.  The first lady might have uttered a great Yiddish word used to describe an interminable tale.  A megillah.  I had to make some cuts.  Perhaps I should publish the entire story in book form.  If I do, I would change the title to Trump-a-Lago.  Trump-a-Lagowould add to my shelf of faux histories.