TRUMP AND LINCOLN WALK TO CHURCH: A PLAY BY PLAY

TRUMP AND LINCOLN WALK TO CHURCH: A PLAY BY PLAY

(A word of explanation.  In the spring of 2021, I will be releasing my next book, a history that comes in two, interconnected parts.  The first part chronicles a dinner I had at the Trump White House, and my bicycle ride on my way to the dinner through “Civil War Land Central (and peripheral),” as I called it.  The second part focuses on a dossier.  The pages within that file detail a reporter’s multiple encounters with President Lincoln as the Civil War played out.  The reporter worked for the Richmond Daily Whig.  His Virginian citizenship didn’t stop something resembling a friendship from forming.  The reporter visited with Lincoln many times at the White House, and beyond.  Lincoln referred to the reporter, jocularly, as a “foreign correspondent.”  Unbeknownst to Lincoln, the reporter was a secret agent.  He reported directly to the highest ranks of the Confederate government.  He joined the clandestine operations of the “Booth Action Team,” as those conspirators referred to their group.  The dossier uncovers a history never before told.  I discovered it during my ride through Civil War Land Central (and peripheral).

Below, you will find the final chapter to my upcoming book.  The chapter is unfinished and unedited, but recent events have made its publishing necessary.  If there are unresolved references to earlier parts of the book, please be patient.  Those references will be explained when the book hits the market.  In the meantime, all of my books are available here: https://satanssynagogue.com/buy/.)

President-elect Lincoln snuck into the capital city early on the morning of February 23, 1861.  He arrived at the New Jersey Avenue Station, the terminus on the B&O railway line.  No crowds met him.  Nobody recognized him.  Most Washingtonians had never seen Lincoln, and certainly not a Lincoln with black whiskers on his face.

     Lincoln and his bodyguards took a carriage from New Jersey Avenue to the Willard Hotel on 14th Street.  Basically the carriage traveled the mile and a half on the Pennsylvania Pike.  The president-elect checked into his suite for the 10-day stay before the inauguration.  His wife and boys arrived later that night.  Their bill totaled $773.75.  Lincoln paid it with his first paycheck as president.

     The 23rd of February was a Saturday.  Early the next morning, Lincoln left the Willard alone.  No bodyguard.  Not his man, Ward Hill Lamon.  Not Allan Pinkerton, who would effectively organize the first real spy agency in this country’s history.  Not a policeman from the local precinct, not that a Lincoln beat existed at that time.  Nobody.  Lincoln liked to survey the scene as he walked.  He was not an exercise walker.  He was a slow walker.  He gathered.  He slow-walked south to what would become Pershing Park on Pennsylvania.  At that point in time, a series of stores and bars occupied the strip.  He then hung a right, westward to White House grounds.

     Lincoln would not have used the term White House to identify his forthcoming digs.  The term, though in use, hadn’t arrived as the dominant description.  The Executive Mansion, or the President’s House, was the standard address.

     An early Sunday morning with nobody around.  Lincoln, who would spend his years in office seeking solace from the chaos of wartime governance, found solitude on this, his first morning in Washington. 

     In 1861, there wasn’t a roadway connecting Pennsylvania on the South Lawn of the President’s House to Pennsylvania on the North Lawn.  The building of that roadway, now called East Executive Avenue, commenced in 1871.  Lincoln walked on the grass.  He probably soiled his fresh black boots.  Weeks earlier in Springfield, Lincoln had purchased a new suit as a gift to himself for his victory in the general election.  The suit came with new boots and a new Top Hat.  Lincoln habitually owned one suit, and he wore it everyday.  For some reason, his one suit never quite fit right, even though Mary Todd Lincoln would never have allowed her husband to go about his business in an untailored suit.

     As Lincoln walked alone, and as Lincoln never publically shared his thoughts on this walk, the historical record has no idea where his thoughts went.  Maybe, as he slow-walked beside the great house to his left, the Treasury Building to his right, his eye went to the second floor of the mansion, and the windows on the east end.  Maybe he tried to gaze into what would become his office space.  Maybe, through the years of his presidency, he stood inside that office, beside the window, and gazed out, beyond the grounds to the east.  Maybe he thought of his younger self on that first morning in Washington.

     Lincoln slow-walked to Lafayette Square.  He crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and entered the park at the southeast point, with the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in a hero pose in front of him.  Lincoln slow-walked around the statue and made for the center of the square.  There, he stood below his hero, Andrew Jackson, sculpted in bronze on his horse.  Again, Lincoln’s thoughts at that moment are not known.  Perhaps he looked up at his predecessor with hopes of following in his legacy, or the Jackson legacy as Lincoln believed.

     Here’s what is known.  A companion joined Lincoln at that moment, a rival, who would become a great ally.  William H. Seward, then known as the former governor of New York, and the great senator from the same state, lived near the corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue.  He exited his house and quick-walked, in the Seward style, into the square.  He circumnavigated the statue of Lafayette and beelined for the center.  There, he greeted the president-elect.  Rumors then had Seward as Lincoln’s choice for secretary of state.  Lincoln, though, had not communicated his plans.  At that point in time, Lincoln knew Seward only as a rival, and in his rival he saw distrust.  Seward saw Lincoln, at that point in time, as someone he could manipulate.  The two men standing below the statue of a third must have formed an awkward threesome.

     What occurred next has been documented, but never shared publically.  Seward passed his reflections of that day to his adopted daughter, who might have been his girlfriend, too.  She, in turn, passed the reflections on to her daughter.  The reflections then got passed matrilineally through the years, in Judaic tradition.

     In late May of 2020, with the Coronavirus shuttering significant swaths of America, and just prior to the massive demonstrations that erupted following the death of a black man in the chokehold of a white police officer, I interviewed one of Seward’s descendants.  I did so over the phone.  Maggie Risley was 70 years old.  She lived in Washington D.C. in a retirement home.  The initial part of our interview focused on Risley’s great fear.  Maggie Risley was surrounded by virus-related death.  When would it come for her?  For some anxiety-relief, I think, she gladly turned to the oral history of February 24, 1861.

     Like her great, great grandmother, Maggie Risley was a writer.  Olive Risley, in fact, would pen a bestselling travelogue entitled William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World.  That book was published in 1873.  Some eight years earlier, and only two months after the assassination attempt on William Seward, his wife died of a heart attack.  Seward, according to both the historical record and the oral history passed down through women, grew increasingly lonely.  He had lost his wife; he had lost his confidant in Lincoln; he had been brutally attacked; he craved companionship.  He found it Olive Risley.  She was forty years younger.  Rumors in Washington and beyond had the secretary of state conducting a salacious affair.  If those rumors were true – and, personally, I hope they were – Seward attempted to quell them in 1870.  While on a tour of the world with Risley – in China, according to Risley’s travelogue – he officially adopted her.  He changed his will to include her along the same inheritance lines as his other children.  Risley’s biological father, interestingly enough, was still alive.

     At some point during their travels, Seward told Risley the story of February 24.  Risley chose a non-writer’s tactic.  She didn’t document the story in her travelogue or anywhere else.  Instead, she formed an oral history.  When she had a daughter – some years after Seward’s death, so clearly not his – she passed on that history.  And so began the story’s line of travel.

     According to that oral history, Seward and Lincoln spent the morning of Sunday, February 24 together.  During those hours, Lincoln made his final decision.  Seward would be his man at Foggy Bottom.

     Well, let me immediately amend.  The State Department then was located in the Treasury Building, adjacent to the President’s House on the east side.  Eventually, the Treasury Building would be moved to the Seward-owned plot of land, across from Lafayette Square on Madison Place.  The Seward children would make a killing off of that sale.  Olive Risley would inherit her share.  She would then help to fund a Catholic women’s college.  A statue of her near Seward Square commemorates her efforts.

     Once the Treasury Building moved to the Seward space, the State Department became a bit peripatetic.  It moved into the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington in 1947.  So it didn’t gain its highly applicable nickname until the Truman years.

     Anyway, the burgeoning relationship between Lincoln and Seward, and how that relationship in fact changed the nation, is not the story of note here.  The historical record brims with anecdotal and harder evidence.  Here’s what the historical record misses.  Seward took Lincoln to church that Sunday morning.  Following services, Seward and Lincoln then slow-walked to the President’s House.  They had a luncheon with James Buchanan in his private dining room on the second floor.  The president then showed the president-elect and the soon-to-be secretary of state around the residence.  While that tour is a story all of its own, never before told outside the Seward/Risley familial lines, let’s leave the telling for another time and place.  Let’s focus on the president-elect at church.  And another man at church some 159 years later.

     For Donald Trump took a similar walk as Lincoln to the same church.  Trump did so on Monday, June 1, one week after the searing events of Memorial Day 2020.  On that day, the black man named George Floyd walked into a deli in Minneapolis and bought cigarettes.  He used a $20 bill.  He departed.  Meanwhile, the deli employee felt the sheen on the face of Andrew Jackson.  It wasn’t edgy, the way it should be.  It didn’t have ridges.  He called the police.

     What occurred next is caught on video.  The police found their suspected perpetrator on a sidewalk.  Their line of questioning immediately turned intensely hostile.  A white police officer, and his three fellow offices, took George Floyd to the ground.  The lead officer, a white man named Derek Chauvin, pinned Floyd to the ground.  At no point did Floyd resist.  Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck.  He held it there for nearly nine minutes.  He did so casually, like taking a stroll with his wife, like enjoying the spring weather.  Meanwhile, the pressure on Floyd’s neck grew extreme.  He struggled to breathe.  He let the officers know.  “I can’t breathe,” he said.  He died on the ground, with his hands behind his back, and the weight of Chauvin on his body.

     His death, caught on video, set off a cannon.  A country shuttered by the Coronavirus became an explosion of protest and pain, mayhem, looting and burning.  The historical record notes many race riots in this country’s history, dating all the way back to the Civil War and the antebellum era.  This race riot was like no other.  America in fear of a viral disease formed the backdrop for America in fear of race.  The next week saw an Americaquake.

     Trump responded to the Americaquake with swagger.  He called himself the law and order president.  He responded by threatening to use military force against violent rioters.  He responded with a civil rights-era inglorious tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

     Did he personally reach out to the shocked and suddenly grieving family of George Floyd?  Did he try through his channels to get the actual story of what occurred?  Did he consider making a statement of empathy, unattached to his swagger?  The historical record remains incomplete.

     A week later, he took a walk.  Or tried to.  The scene outside the north portico of the White House blocked his path.  There were thousands of demonstrators holding a protest.  They were chanting, “Black lives matter.”  They were chanting, “Defund the police.”  They were chanting, “‘I can’t breathe.’”  One homemade sign, held by a protestor, read, “End the Jim Crow days once and for all.”  Another homemade sign, held by another protestor, offered a question.  “Where is our humanity?”

     The protest, at that moment, was peaceful.  The scene the night before had not been.  Demonstration gave way to vigilante justice, to graffiti, to destroying property, to looting and fires.  Some of the looting occurred at one of Washington’s most sacred institutions, St. John’s Episcopal Church on the northern edge of Lafayette Square.  The church responded by boarding up its windows.  As the church had already been shuttered by the Coronavirus, the further shuttering seemed reasonable.  Church officials, though, had no idea that their institution was about to form the backdrop for a photo opportunity.

     At 6:15 p.m., on the evening of Monday, June 1, the press gathered in the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office on the west side of the grounds.  The president had called for a press conference to commence at that moment.  He was running late.  Though they couldn’t see the demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, they could hear the chanting.  “Black lives matter,” protestors chanted.  “Defund the police,” protestors chanted.  “‘I can’t breathe,’” protestors chanted.

     Suddenly, the chanting gave way to a new noise.  Loud booming sounds dominated the airspace.  The booming sounded like cannon fire.  A reporter in the pool would later say that she wondered if “war had come to Washington.”

     One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, Lincoln paced the President’s House, wondering when the cannon fire of the Confederates – or Rebels, as he referred to them – would come.  His level of anxiety was at an all-time elevation.  The country then, too, was experiencing an Americaquake.

     Trump arrived at the Rose Garden some 20 minutes late.  He faced west toward the Eisenhower Building.  In Lincoln’s day, he would have been looking west toward the Navy Department.  Trump had the military on his mind.  He had watched the television for a week straight.  He hadn’t made official remarks, as cameras, held by professionals and amateurs, documented the Americaquake of unrest.  In his first official remarks, Trump threatened, “If a city or state refuses” a military response in the form of the National Guard, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

     The booming to the north sounded like cannon fire.  The pool of reporters, facing east, couldn’t help looking north, toward the booming cacophony.  They couldn’t see around the west wing.

     Trump continued to threaten, “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”

     The booming to the north sounded like cannon fire.  Clouds of heavy smoke began to billow over the roses.  The smoke elicited coughing.  Nobody coughing wore a mask.  Not at the Trump White House.

     On Pennsylvania Avenue, built by Thomas Jefferson to separate the White House from Lafayette Square, police unloaded rounds of tear gas into the demonstration.  The tear gas, or aerosolized chili powder, caused immediate crowd dispersal, and panic.  The police didn’t stop there.  Dressed in riot protection gear – full body armor, helmets, some police even wore masks under their helmets – they indiscriminately fired rubber bullets into the crowd.  The rubber bullets were made of beanbags.  They had been further weaponized into pepper balls, as they contained pepper spray.  Upon impact, the pepper spray supplemented the tear gas.  A general roar went up amongst the demonstrators.  “I can’t breathe.”

     Smoke filled Pennsylvania Avenue.  Smoke and panic, shouting, fear, running, a full-blown pandemonium.  An Americaquake.  The booming cacophony continued.  The coughing from the smoke.  The rubber bullets flying.  The cries of pain.  “I can’t breathe.”

     A recent public health study decried the use of rubber bullets.  According to the study, entitled “Death, Injury and disability from kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings,” rubber bullets are to be fired selectively at a person, never indiscriminately, never above the shoulders, never at close contact.  The study found that these “less than lethal” projectiles maim.  They break bones.  They lacerate skin.  They damage nerves.  They fracture skulls.  They break orbital plates.  The list goes on.  They cause traumatic brain injury.  They damage internal organs.

     The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd.  The rubber bullets, weaponized into pepper balls, supplemented the tear gas. The pandemonium reached to the deep blue sky of an early evening.  The booming cacophony.  The coughing from the smoke.  The Americaquake.  “I can’t breathe.”

     The authors of the public health study found that the “firing of kinetic impact projectiles had the opposite effect.”  Rather than a means of crowd-control, such actions “raised tensions, resulting in further violence.”

     The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd.  The booming cacophony.  The opposite effect.  Demonstrators in full-blown panic mode.  Crowds of people dispersing.  Rubber bullets flying.  Smoke hovering.  All of this during the Coronavirus. 

     The public health study ended on an ominous note.  In this “season of Covid-19,” the study decried, “kinetic impact projectiles will bring about a wider dispersal of respiratory droplets, leading to a wider field of possible infection.  We, the undersigned, advise the disuse of kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings.”

     The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd.  Smoke hovering.  Coughing.  Respiratory droplets widely dispersing.  None of the demonstrators wearing a mask, given the preponderance of smoke.

     Over at the press conference at the Rose Garden, the coughing grew.  A cascade of symptoms followed.  Eyes tearing up, vision becoming blurry, mucus membranes on overload, sneezing, coughing, struggling to breathe.  None of the reporters wore a mask.  Not at the Trump White House.

     Trump seemed immune.  He ended his remarks with a blurb of attraction.  “And now I am going to pay my respects to a very, very special place,” he said.  As he walked back to the Oval Office, the president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, told the press to gather on the North Lawn “in a few minutes.”

     McEnany coughed as she spoke.  She did not wear a mask.  She might have said “a few” minutes.  She might have said “fourteen minutes.”  Noticeably, the effects of the tear gas didn’t make her makeup run.  Such is the look of the women in Trump’s circles.  In this case, the outer circle.  There is the look of Botox, or chemical peel, or permanent makeup.

     According to the public health study, tear gases and pepper sprays can lead to chemical burns.

     Some twenty minutes later, Donald Trump swaggered through the front entrance of the White House.  He wore one of his many blue suits.  He wore one of his many blue neckties.  He had the American flag insignia pinned to his left lapel.  He began his walk northward.

     Who gave the order for the police to disperse the demonstration with tear gas and rubber bullets?  The question remains unanswered.  The police in Washington answer to both local law enforcement agencies and federal authorities.  Did the order come from the highest level of the federal government?  While the answer isn’t specifically known, what happened over the next five minutes suggested some serious clues.

     C-SPAN covered the action live.  To watch the seven-minute video is to see a phalanx of secret service, augmented by police in riot gear, on the path emblazoned by the president.  The press moved about in herky-jerky style, as various White House officials screamed at them to keep the president’s path clear.  The president’s direction was unknown to the press.

     Trump walked alone, though surrounded by a seeming infantry.  Members of his cabinet walked some ten feet behind him.  White House staffers joined in the walk.  Ivanka Trump was there.  Jared Kushner was there.

     Leading the strange parade, Trump walked with his shoulders raised.  Though, at the age of 73, old age and physics has turned his posture into a curve.  Clearly he strained to roll his shoulders upright.  At any rate, Trump kept his eyesight straight ahead.  He wanted to promote… what?  Confidence?  Command?  Security?  Greatness?  Swagger?  Trump swagger-walked.

     He crossed Pennsylvania Avenue into Lafayette Square.  His pace across the avenue slowed, as if he had to look both ways for traffic.  All traffic, both car and demonstrator, had been cleared.  “Targets” was the ominous word used by the police and secret service.  All “targets” had been cleared. 

     All press had been cleared, too.  A boundary of a good 20 feet separated the president from the press.  That boundary was ever-changing as the president pursued his course.

     A second C-SPAN camera caught one reporter on Pennsylvania Avenue, following behind the Trump swagger-walk.  He picked up a handmade sign.  From the viewer’s perspective, it appeared that he read the sign over and over.  “Where is our humanity?” the sign read.

     In the aftermath of these events, I reached out to the reporter.  His name was Baker Karl.  The interview took place on Zoom.  I began the interview by asking how long he’d covered the White House beat.  “Since the assassination of Kennedy,” Correspondent Karl responded.  “I had been on the congressional beat before.  That was my first assignment.  I covered Kennedy’s attempt to get a civil rights act passed through the senate.  I covered the filibuster.  That was June 1963, I believe.  In November 1963, everything changed.  I moved to the White House beat just in time to watch Johnson push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the congress.”

     To Karl, I praised the act.  It shifted America from discrimination and racial hatred toward something brighter and more inclusive, or so I’d always been taught.  I grew up in white suburbia, though.  I received a sanitized suburban education. 

     Baker Karl offered a far different take.  His ancestors, slaves who worked the tobacco plantations of northern Virginia, settled in Prince William County during Reconstruction, then traveled north during the Great Migration.  “The race riots following the Martin Luther King assassination proved that the Act of ‘64 meant little across white America,” he said.  “States still governed along racial lines.  I grew up in Chicago.  You think we saw one bit of justice on the South Side?”

     Silence followed his question.  I looked over my computer and out the window, through the dirty glass, at a series of rowhouse backyards.  I watched the cats, lounging in the sunshine.  I can’t say what Baker Karl looked at.  I felt inadequate.  I felt ashamed.  Perhaps Baker Karl sensed my shame.  He brought the interview back to its objective.  “You wanted to talk about the Trump walk,” he said.  “You suggested in your email that you saw something specific.”

     “Yes,” I replied, grateful to be redirected.  “The C-SPAN feed caught you picking up a sign on Pennsylvania Avenue.  For whatever reason the camera stayed on you for a few moments.  You seemed to have some reaction to the sign.  Can you talk about that reaction?”

     “Yes,” Karl responded.  Then he took a moment to place himself back on Pennsylvania Avenue, picking up the handmade sign, reading the words over and over.

     “The sign read, ‘Where is our humanity?’” Karl continued.  “I picked it up and thought of my father.  I was born right before Pearl Harbor.  Twenty years earlier my father walked in a protest in Washington.  Those were the days of lynchings, Brian.  There was a period there, some 75 years, when white mobs lynched nearly 5,000 black men, women and children.  My father couldn’t have been twenty years old.  He traveled to D.C.  He marched in an all-black, silent protest, demanding an end to the lynchings.  I have a photograph from that time.  There’s a man, not my father, carrying a sign.  The sign has a black man on it, being lynched from a tree.  The words on the bottom read, ‘Is This Civilization?’  That’s what I thought about when I picked up that sign on Pennsylvania Avenue.  From the 1920s to 2020, the signage remains.”

     After talking with Baker Karl, I looked up the protest.  According to the historical record, it was held on June 24, 1922.  Some 3,000 black men and women marched silently through Washington.  To look through the photographs, all of them wore their finest threads.  One man carried a sign that read, “Congress Discusses Constitutionality while the Smoke of Burning Bodies Darkens the Heavens.”  Another man carried the American flag.  The walk reached Pennsylvania Avenue, and those blocks in between the White House and Lafayette Square.

     June 24, 1922 was a Saturday.  Warren G. Harding was the man in the White House.  If Harding looked northward to the demonstration on Pennsylvania, there is no record.  There is no record of the police dispersing the demonstration, either.

     Harding, it should be noted, did take a stand on lynchings.  A year earlier, as race riots pushed through the Deep South, as the Tulsa race riot burned the businesses of a black neighborhood, Harding traveled to Birmingham.  He pushed for anti-lynching legislation, then in the congress.  The house of representative passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.  The senate filibustered it into non-existence.

     Nearly 100 years later, President Trump crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and entered Lafayette Square.  He swagger-walked around the statue of President Jackson on his horse.  Notably, his swagger-walk traveled over pavement only.  Trump’s pristine loafers never touched grass or soil.

     One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, at that same spot, president-elect Lincoln greeted Senator Seward.  Lincoln, some 10 days into his 52nd year on the planet, stooped when he shook Seward’s hand.  Lincoln had that dynamic in his body that many tall men learn.  In a world of shorter folk, they shorten themselves.  They shrink and stoop.  Also physics was just beginning to play a role in Lincoln’s body.  His body parts were dropping.

     William Seward was nearing his 60th birthday.  Though physics had clearly set in on his body parts, he did that thing that smaller men do around men of height.  He elongated.  He raised the top of his head for the deep blue sky of an early morning.  At the handshake point, both men projected an equal height.

     They set out northward.  Seward, who so wanted to lead, who so wanted the presidency and the command for himself, let Lincoln set the pace.  In Lincoln’s way, he slow-walked.  He surveyed the scene.  He gathered.  The cold of a February sky.  The White House, his future home, behind him.  The quiet of a Sunday morning in Washington.

     According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, that scene set the backdrop for what would amount to a great friendship.  “Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward hardly knew each other.  They certainly didn’t walk arm in arm.  But a ‘communion’ began with the walk.  That was the word Seward used.”

     Seward’s word choice instantly struck me.  Was he talking about communion as in the Eucharist, or communion as two men engaged in an intimate conversation, or both?

     The oral history traced Seward’s appointment as secretary of state to this date.  Had the two men not slow-walked to St. John’s, perhaps events would have swung in another direction.  Another man was greatly politicking for the position.  His name was Salmon P. Chase.  The historical record shows that Chase was always politicking for something.  He would become secretary of the treasury.  He would become the Mnuchin of his day: intensely greedy, loyal only to his bank account, a parvenu.

     The fundamental moment occurred after the slow-walk to St. John’s, and the davening that went on inside.  Lincoln and Seward walked from St. John’s to the President’s House.  Lincoln, with Seward as his guide, had a luncheon with Buchanan.  In Lafayette Square, as the two men curved around Jackson on his horse, Lincoln asked Seward to be his secretary of state, according to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley.  Seward accepted.

     Risley captured the moment.  “The two men were walking side by side as Lincoln offered the position.  Both had their eyes on the great house, across Pennsylvania Avenue.  Neither man looked at the other.  There wasn’t a handshake.  There wasn’t an elbow bump.”  Note her reference to our form of greeting here in the Coronavirus season.  “There wasn’t a halt to the walk, and a face-to-face acknowledgement of the agreement.  There was simply a head nod.  A very quick, impromptu, head nod.  Both men were head nodders.”

     As the two men walked toward Pennsylvania Avenue, with the statue of Jackson on his horse behind them, Lincoln brought Seward into his thoughts on the cabinet.  He set his sights on the justice department and the attorney general.  According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Lincoln knew he wanted a “westerner,” or an outsider.  He knew he needed “a Republican, but a former Whig.”  He knew he needed someone with evolving positions on the slaveocracy.   Not an ideologue.  He knew he needed someone who could “stand the test of time.  Not someone who is easily dismissed.”

     Seward replied, “Basically, you are looking for yourself.”

     Was Seward’s retort an attempt to gain the president-elect’s confidence?  Was it pure sycophancy?  The retort hit its mark.  According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Seward noted Lincoln’s reaction.  He “tilted his head to the left.  His left eyelid drooped severely.”

     Maggie Risley probably didn’t understand the gesture, although she might have chalked it up to the actions of a “head nodder.”  Perhaps Seward would come to witness that change in Lincoln’s physiognomy, and what it signified.  In this case, it signified an energized Abe Lincoln.

     The historical record shows that Lincoln appointed the man from Missouri as his first attorney general, Edward Bates.  Bates had a little Jeff Sessions to him.  Like Trump’s first attorney general, Bates was a bigot who wanted a larger title.  Sessions wanted the presidency.  Bates wanted a Supreme Court justice appointment.  Neither succeeded. 

     Lincoln kept Bates until the end of 1864.  Then he appointed another “westerner,” James Speed.  Speed was nothing like the current attorney general in personality and principle – Speed was an abolitionist from birth, Barr stands for nothing – but a similarity formed in that both men did the bidding of their bosses.  In Speed’s case, he gained his position due to cronyism.  Though he fit the profile as Seward laid it down, he was the brother of Lincoln’s great friend and business partner from earlier in life, Joshua Fry Speed.

     All of this history can be traced to Lincoln and Seward slow-walking southward in Lafayette Square to the President’s House.  One hundred and fifty-nine years later, Trump swagger-walked northward in Lafayette Square.  The video on C-SPAN shows the perimeter around Trump.  Nobody punctured the perimeter.  Not a reporter, though they lobbed their questions into the perimeter.  Not a White House staffer.  Not Ivanka Trump.  Not Jared Kushner.  Not William Barr, though the video repeatedly catches the attorney general sort of rolling behind Trump.  Barr didn’t walk so much as wobbled.  He wobble-walked.  Still, he never wobble-walked beside Trump’s swagger-walk.  Trump crossed H Street alone, but with the world watching.

     Noticeably, Trump crossed at the intersection of H and 16th.  He crossed against the traffic light.  Not that it mattered.  The established perimeter cleared all traffic in the area.  Had Trump turned to his left, he would have swagger-walked beside the Hay-Adams Hotel.  In Lincoln’s day, that plot of land belonged to the Adams family.  John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States, built a “retirement” home there and, after his one term in office ended in 1829, he moved in.  Adams’s “retirement” included a return to congress.  Unlike any other president, the man won a seat in the House of Representatives.  He became a staunch abolitionist.  He died in the Capital Building in 1848, according to the historical record.  Another representative in the House witnessed the death scene.  His name was Abe Lincoln.  When Lincoln became president, he appointed Adams’s son to the Court of St. James.

     After President Adams’s death, the house on the corner of H and 16th went to his wife, then to their son, then to their grandson, the historian Henry Adams.  A deep irony then left a terrible stain on the Adams family legacy.  The human rights of John Adams, who so strenuously called for the abolition of slavery, and the human rights of John Quincy Adams, who so vigorously argued for the rights of slaves in the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court, met the deep and troubled anti-Semitism of Henry Adams.  He basically believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy some two decades before The Protocols of the Elders of Zion found publication.  Another Henry funded the English-language version of that book.  As Henry Ford funded The Protocols, an ultra-nationalist, fervently anti-Semitic organization in Germany murdered the Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau.  As history would have it, his death in Berlin occurred on the same day as the all-black, silent protest against lynchings coursed through the streets of Washington, D.C., where a demonstrator bravely held a sign.  “Is This Civilization?”

     Adjacent to the plot of land owned by the anti-Semite Henry Adams, John Hay built a home.  Hay, all of 23 years of age when he moved with Lincoln from Springfield to Washington, spent the Lincoln administration as a secretary in the President’s House.  Early in the presidency, Hay and his co-secretary, John Nicolay, asked Lincoln if they could write his biography.  Lincoln agreed.  The Lincoln biography then set a precedent.  Not only was it the first biography on a president from an insider, working with complete access to the subject, but the book became the first bestselling presidential biography.  Even though he split the profits with co-author John Nicolay, Hay made enough to purchase the choice location, and build a house.

     The Adams/Hay plots of land eventually became the Hay-Adams Hotel.  The Obamas stayed there in the two weeks prior to his inauguration.  I’m sure their bill totaled a bit more than $773.75.

     Four days after Trump crossed the intersection at H Street, Mayor Muriel Bowser closed off 16th Street for two blocks.  A paint crew hit the pavement.  Within a short time, huge yellow letters filled a two-block radius.  “BLACK LIVES MATTER” could almost be seen from space.

     Mayor Muriel took the order further.  She renamed that radius, “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

     Let’s get back to the Trump swagger-walk.  When he crossed the intersection at H Street, he turned to his right.  C-SPAN’s camera then panned to St. John’s Episcopal Church.  An advance team had clearly set the staging area.  Trump knew exactly where he wanted to stand.

     He stood in front of the church, but not directly in front.  The entrance to St. John’s from H Street has six steps leading up from the sidewalk.  The steps end at the main door.  The door, on this day, had been boarded up.  The frame around the boarded up doorway was painted in white.  The church itself was painted a pale yellow.  Two large windows on each side of the doorway occupied the facade.  All four windows were boarded up on this day.  All windows had frames around them, painted white.

     Trump stood on the sidewalk to the right of the steps.  Stage right.  He wanted to project a right-leaning president.  As he stood in front of the window furthest to the right of the doorway, he wanted to promote a hardliner.  A law and order president.

     Off-camera, someone handed Trump a bible.  The video shows Trump holding the bible with both hands at tummy level.  He held the spine facing out, so that everyone could identify the book.  The obviousness of the messaging was comical.  Had Trump held the spine up against his body, would anyone have identified the book as one of the many books credited to him, like Trump 101: The Way to Success or Think Big and Kick Ass?  In front of a church, what other book would a person display?

     Trump stood tall.  Or, as tall as a man of his age and declining physics can stand.  He pursed his lips into a thin line.  He appeared… what?  Devoted?  Faithful?  Stentorious?

     He shifted the bible to his right hand.  He raised it up to shoulder level.  A reporter yelled a question, “Is that your bible, Mr. President?”  Trump answered, “It is a bible.”

     Why did Trump differentiate?  Why did he answer at all?  When historians write about the Trump epoch some years from now, I hope they note the moment.  It’s the most honest thing he’s ever said.  I hope the historians also note Trump’s actions.  He never opened the bible.  He didn’t quote from John, which would have been entirely applicable.  Maybe the raising of Lazarus would have signified the rising of humanity.  Instead, he stood for the cameras.  Is this civilization?

     Another reporter asked for his thoughts at the moment.  Trump thought for a moment.  Noticeably, he looked to his right.  His advisers – members of his cabinet, White House staff, Ivanka and Jared – all stood off-camera, stage right.  He then turned back to the camera, but not the reporter, and answered, “This is the greatest country in the world.  We’re going to keep it that way.”

      Trump then called for certain members of his staff, and cabinet, to come stand with him.  It’s noticeable what happened.  William Barr joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s right.  Chief of Staff Mark Meadows joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s right.  Kayleigh McEnany joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s left.  Surprisingly, Trump didn’t call the only military in the crowd, General Mark Milley in his camouflage, to the sidewalk.  Trump also didn’t call his daughter, Ivanka.  Perhaps the black mask covering Ivanka’s face led to that decision.  Ivanka was the only person in the entire scene to wear a mask.

     The foursome all stood quiet on the sidewalk, shoulder-length apart.  They all social distanced.  Did they mean to social distance?  Nobody was wearing a mask.  Not at the Trump White House.

     As I watched the video on C-SPAN, I was reminded of my negotiations with the White House Office of Scheduling and Advance a year earlier, as we set up my visit with the president.  I had been invited to play a round of golf with Trump before dinner.  The invitation mentioned 18 holes with “the President and a special guest.”  I reacted the way a golfer would, wondering who would comprise the fourth player.  The Office of Scheduling and Advance replied, “The President likes threesomes.”

     Apparently the president went with another image in front of the church, with the world watching.  The golfing foursome, somehow wholesome and good.  Perhaps that traditional quartet explained Trump’s decision not to call General Milley to the sidewalk.  Still, that decision must have been difficult.  Trump, who always has golf in mind, sure likes a man in camouflage.

     A reporter asked a question.  The audio could not be heard in the C-SPAN feed.  All four faces reacted.  To the right of Trump’s face, Barr and Meadows looked to their left, for their boss’s response.  To the left of Trump, McEnany’s face looked at the reporter.  She looked impressed, like the reporter had waded through the layers of the event to ask a provocative question. 

     Trump was not impressed.  He pursed his lips into a thin line.  He switched hands with the bible.  He pointed aggressively at the reporter with his right index finger.  He then ran that finger dictatorially over his pursed lips.  Shut up! – his gesture screamed – Or else!

     The reporter’s response has been lost.  Trump’s has not.  He did not enter the church.  Nor did he let church elders know of his visit.  Instead, he began his swagger-walk back to the White House.

     One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, Lincoln and Seward slow-walked northward across H Street, at the intersection of 16th.  They didn’t turn to their left, and the Adams house, but rather to their right.  At that moment in time, according to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, St. John’s was undergoing a cosmetic makeover.  “The white church was being painted a pale yellow,” she described, “to differentiate itself from the great house across Lafayette Park.”

     On this Sunday, I would imagine, there weren’t painters present.  Seward led Lincoln inside.  Seward led Lincoln to his pew in the front.  A question immediately arises.  Did Lincoln know the president-related history of the church?  Did he know that James Madison began to worship there after the church’s official opening in 1816?  Madison, it should be noted, took a different route from the President’s House to the church.  He didn’t walk through Lafayette Square.  Instead, Madison walked northward on Madison Place. 

     Did Lincoln know that Madison then began the tradition known as the presidential pew?  The presidential pew at St. John’s sat front and center and every president since Madison sat there for services.

     There were two exceptions.  Abraham Lincoln never sat in the presidential pew.  According to church records, Lincoln attended services many times at St. John’s.  Mainly in the evenings.  St. John’s wasn’t his official church during his presidency, but Lincoln walked across Lafayette Square often enough.  Lincoln sat in a pew in the back.

     According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, the back pew “was a refuge, a shelter.  Lincoln could enter without any attention, any notice from the other parishioners.  He could sit there and listen to the sonorous voice of Reverend George Williamson Smith.  He would always attend alone, and he would always arrive just after the service began and leave just before it ended.”

     The vignette, though entirely believable, struck me as curious.  How did it make it into the oral history of William Seward?  I asked Maggie Risley.  She responded, “The secretary of state sat in his pew in the front, just adjacent to the presidential pew.  He routinely had an inclination, a premonition, that Lincoln would attend.  Midway through the service, he would turn his head and look behind him.  He would catch a glimpse of the president in the back.  His wife, Frances, would then give him a soft elbow.  She knew that many eyes were on her husband and she didn’t want anyone to question his attentions.”  His attentions were on Lincoln.

     Who is the other U.S. president never to sit in the presidential pew at St. John’s?  Donald Trump, who has never entered the sanctuary.

     Back on Sunday the 24th of February 1861, Seward and Lincoln walked to the front of the church and sat down in Seward’s pew.  According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Seward’s attentions were on Lincoln.  Apparently he was the lone observer.  “Nobody recognized Lincoln,” Risley reported.  “To most people in Washington, he was known by pictorial representation.  Those representations presented a hard-looking man, clean-shaven, western-rough.”  The Lincoln with whiskers, in a new though ill-fitting black suit, presented a different image.  Frances Seward, who did not attend services with her husband that morning, thought of Lincoln as “almost good looking,” according to Risley.

     That’s a compliment, I suppose.

     Services began on February 24 and the oral history went quiet.  The rector of St. John’s, Dr. Smith Pyne, presided over services that morning.  According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Lincoln “listened to the accent, Pyne’s Charleston upbringing mixed with his Oxford education.  The accent turned Lincoln inward.  Seward and Lincoln exchanged not a word.”

     What was Lincoln thinking that morning in church?  As there are no records, I can only presume.  As he listened to the strange Southern/English accent of Pyne, I wonder if the accent didn’t turn his thoughts to the accents of the West.  The accents of Kentucky, where he was born.  The accents of Indiana, where he was raised.  The accents of Illinois, where he began his career and raised his family.  I wonder if his thoughts went to distance.  He was almost 900 miles removed from his 8th Street residence in Springfield.  How would that distance impact his decision-making?  Who would he become in the capital, so far removed from his homeland?

     Lincoln and Seward sat through the whole of Dr. Pyne’s services.  Pyne was famous, or infamous, for going on for hours.  Lincoln was then a little late for his luncheon with President Buchanan.  Still, he slow-walked southward across Lafayette Square.  The world was waiting for him and he was in no hurry.

     One hundred and fifty-nine years later, Donald Trump swagger-walked southward across Lafayette Square.  He was in a hurry.  Trump had never walked out of the White House before, through the front gate and into the city.  Though it seems like Trump is a much-traveled president, the historical record documents the polar opposite.  In travel, Trump pales to the Bushes, and to Clinton, and to Obama, and to both Roosevelts.  The second Roosevelt traveled halfway around the world by ship to meet with Stalin and Churchill in Tehran.  Trump mainly travels to Florida and New Jersey.

     Lincoln walked out of the White House all the time.  Though he never made an international trip – Theodore Roosevelt would be the first president to leave the country on official state business, with his secretary of state, John Hay, beside him – Lincoln was probably the most traveled president.  He used the Lincoln Express to visit battlefields.  He used his horse, Old Abe, to ride out to the Soldiers’ Home.  He used the presidential carriage to take him and his wife to many theaters and concert halls across the city.  Lincoln was in his element when traveling.

     Trump was out of his element.  What was he thinking as he swagger-walked back to the White House?  Where were his thoughts as he saw the great house from the statue of Jackson on his horse in the middle of Lafayette Square?  Did Trump have a Lincoln-like moment, looking up at his predecessor with hopes of following in his legacy, or the Jackson legacy as Trump believed?  What does Trump know of Jackson, other than the face of a $20 bill?  The answers aren’t known.

DISPATCHES FROM HOLY LAND CENTRAL (AND PERIPHERAL)

DISPATCHES FROM HOLY LAND CENTRAL (AND PERIPHERAL)

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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     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 mountofolives.co.il.  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.

DISPATCHES FROM HOLY LAND CENTRAL (AND PERIPHERAL)

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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     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.

DISPATCHES FROM HOLY LAND CENTRAL (AND PERIPHERAL)

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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     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: https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/11/08/dinner-with-the-donald/.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     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: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     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, https://www.salon.com/ 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.  https://www.golfdigest.com/story/how-good-is-donald-trump-the-golfer.)

     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.

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

(My latest book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Or two thousand years in the making.  Did Jesus Christ die at a prison called Machaerus years before he took his mission to Jerusalem?  Did a book, written in that era, document his death?  What happened to that book?  All important questions.  For answers, see Against Mark at: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.)

Nearly two thousand years since the Book of Mark went out into the world and scholars remain thoroughly confused.  Who was this Mark?  Why did he put forth his Gospel?  When did this Gospel find its first printing?  Was it the first in line, an original so to speak, predating Matt and Luke and John?  Or, did it fall sometime after Matt, as order in the New Testament suggests?  To add to these questions, scholars believe that one significant book went missing.  Known as the Q or Quelle, German for source, it was a book of sayings and deeds.  When the book was written remains a mystery.  Assuming the book was written during the time of the Synoptics, the scholars’ question became: Did the Quelle help to explain the contradictions found in the Synoptics, and the sea change between the Synoptics and the Book of Revelation?  And speaking of Revelation, why did the Jesus movement of that time need an expansion on their story, an outsized, furiously dramatic, heart-pounding, drums booming, lightning strike of a story that transformed the Synoptic narrative from man into God to God into man?  Maybe John, the supposed writer of the work and apostle allegedly imprisoned on an island, was fighting off sea creatures left and right as he wrote?

     Unfortunately, I have no records to share on Revelation.  The historical record remains thoroughly perplexed.  But something of remarkable consequence got uncovered during my travels and travails.  A truer perception of Mark the Evangelist can now be pieced together.  What follows is a portraiture in ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with some literary history.  As I uncovered in a crypt in Nazareth, there was a book written during the time of the Synoptics.  This book was not a Gospel.  It was not written in the traditions of hagiography and foreshadowing and allegory.  It did not use biblical figures, like Isaiah, as a latent prefiguration for the Passion story.  Rather, this book was a history, in the Greco-Roman tradition, introducing factual and credible information on its subject.  This book, in the Jewish tradition, was a responsum.  What was it responding to?

     The title gave it away, Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  This responsum then firmly established the Book of Mark as the first Gospel.  Against Mark struck out against 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.

     Two questions quickly emerge.  What specifically was in the book and who was its author?  Let’s leave the first part of that question for the moment and attempt to answer the second part.  Modern day readers of the Jesus Century will know the name Flavius Josephus (for my portraiture on the man, see https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.)  There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Roman lava flow, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian, a favorite of Emperors, a citizen of Rome.  The latter was unheard of in those days.  Jews did not become Roman citizens.  Josephus apparently gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus.  According to Josephus, he switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.

     This profile of a man has come down to us because of Josephus.  He is the only source we have.  He is not a reliable source (again, see my profile).  For Christians, though, throughout the centuries, Josephus was a very important author.  In fact, there was a time when his name held quasi-scriptural authority.  In around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed the large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.  But a reference in Antiquities made the book particularly relevant to Christians.  For Josephus, apparently, profiled Jesus.  That profile came as a two-part sketch.  The most explosive sketch work came in the first entry, or in volume 18.  Aside from calling Jesus a “wise man” and “a teacher” who “performed surprising deeds,” aside from telling a part of the Passion story (condemned to the cross, appearing to his followers on the third day), Josephus called Jesus the “Messiah.”

     Later scholars pounced on the term, suggesting that a Jew of his time would not have used the reference.  Such a term, for a Jew, would have been blasphemy.  The term then suggested that a Christian came along and interpolated the profile onto Josephus’s pages.  Thus, the Testimonium Flavianum, as scholars called Josephus’s profile of Jesus, seemed flawed.

     The scholars were wrong.  Josephus did, in fact, use the term.  There was no interpolation.  He had two reasons for his word choice.  The first revolved around identification.  Let’s step away from the emotion of the rhetoric.  What seems clear is that Josephus had many men named Jesus in his sightline.  That is to say, Jesus was a very popular name in the Roman Empire period and Josephus needed some way to differentiate between this Jesus and that Jesus.  Rather than identifying Jesus with his birthplace, as the Gospel writers did, Josephus chose what turned out to be inflammatory words.  Josephus did not choose Jesus’s birthplace as identification because Josephus knew the Nazarene characterization to be inaccurate, but that’s a story for another time.  His word choice was not inflammatory to himself, which brings us to the second reason for Josephus’s use of the term.

     Josephus lived a complicated life.  He was a Jew and enforced that identity until the day he died.  But, there was pressure exerted on him to become a “Jew for Jesus,” a common term then apparently, an abomination now.  He therefore used the term “Messiah” to quell the pressure.  He had little choice.  He had to satisfy a secret patron in Rome.  Either call Jesus the Messiah or face condemnation on the cross.  Either promote the narrative or find yourself asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.

     It turns out that Josephus’s patron secretly followed the early Church movement.  Who was Josephus’s patron?  His name was Gaev and he was a Roman senator who considered the apostle Paul “a teacher.”  He quietly promoted Paul as the mouthpiece of the burgeoning Christian movement.  This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement, as is evidenced by Paul’s letters.  This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to the Jesus movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist.  So, this senator’s promotion of Paul took on the quietest form possible.  His approach was the antithesis to that in the Book of Revelation.

     This history, as surprising as it may seem, seems conclusive.  It is a secret history never before told.  For more on Gaev, please do see my portraiture on Josephus on this blog, or my book Satan’s Synagogue.  My next book, it should be noted, will form around Gaev’s incredible life story.

2) But there’s more to this particular story.  Apparently unknown to Gaev, Josephus published a history.  He did so without attaching his name to it, but Josephus was the author behind Against Mark.

     The title, it should be noted, fell in line with Josephus’s polemical career.  His final book was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on important figures like Homer.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish, and in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews, rendering Moses as a leper.  Calling Moses a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, Apion’s manuscript 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.  Notably, content in Against Apion appeared, in fragmented form, in Against Mark.  Josephus was playing with some ideas.

     But let’s get back to our story.  Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world as the year 70 began.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in Galilee, according to his narrative.  He soon became a favorite of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.

     But the book did not die.  We now turn our attention to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  As the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire began in the year 66, and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle removed books from the Temple library.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  Josephus, who was on scene as translator, perhaps donated the edition himself.

     The beadle, as he did with other books in the library, squired them away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, as burial within Jerusalem would have been a heresy in Jewish traditions.  The Jewish cemetery edged up to the City of David, or the first incarnation of the city we call Jerusalem.  The Jewish cemetery, then and now, existed on the Mount of Olives.  To Romans, who most certainly knew of the beadle’s movements, it looked like the deceased wanted to be buried with their favorite books.  In actuality, it was a brilliant scheme devised by the beadle to maintain the lifeblood of a people.  But the beadle took his scheme further.  In the case of Against Mark, he let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say, notably among the JDDs, one famous and important figure stands out.  He was the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-18th century all the way into the years of the First World War.  His name was Franz Joseph and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1869.  Unknown to the historical record, Joseph attempted to find Josephus’s book.  He failed.  This is a rather incredible discovery, for many reasons.  But one reason shines like the halo later painters gave Jesus.  Franz Joseph, the great Catholic, descended directly from Josephus, who descended from Jewish high priests.  The Jewish royalty in Franz Joseph’s bloodlines dated back many millennia.

     This JDD history got passed to me.  I received a particular piece of mail from a relative.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done, with the exception of Franz Joseph.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  This one was Christian.  Meaning: this burial ground would be in the bottom layers of a church.  I found the book.

3) With the authorship of Against Mark firmly established, let’s now turn to our second question.  What specifically was in the book?  And even more importantly, what can be learned about Mark in Against Mark?

     Actually, let’s take one more detour.  To get at those questions, let’s first try to understand Against Mark’s target, the Book of Mark.  Let’s go back to some deeply steeped Jewish traditions.  Let’s identify a force known as a dybbuk.  The concept of evil spirits dates back to antiquity.  Dybbuk MiRuah Ra means a cleaving of the evil spirit.  Dybbukim were disembodied souls who couldn’t find a resting place after death.  They attached to the bodies of living persons.  A possessed person then had souls at war with one another.

     As dybbukim gained a foothold in Jewish tradition, a counterforce arose.  In Jesus’s time, they would have been known as maggidim, or itinerant orators.  They traveled the countryside, preaching and performing exorcisms among their activities.  In Jesus’s time, maggidim were so plentiful, they might have formed a profession all to themselves.  To doubt them and their “babble,” as the Romans referred to the maggidim in Latin, was normal operating procedure.  In the early 17th century, bastardized Latin, in the forms of Italian and French, rendered a new term for the maggidim: charlatanry.

     At about that time, the maggidim morphed into the baalei shem, or masters of the name.  These charismatic preachers traveled the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, and sometimes far wider.

     At the end of the 17th century a remarkable baal shem was born, though his powers were hidden for decades.  His name was Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht.  The Gospel of the Besht recorded multiple exorcisms, including the expulsion of a dybbuk from a madwoman.  The Gospel of the Besht has tentacles reaching directly back to the Gospels of the New Testament.  But that’s a story for another time.

     To understand the Book of Mark is to focus in on dybbukim, maggidim, and in particular one baal shem.  His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.  In Mark’s worldview, the lands known as the Galilee, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis housed the sick and the decrepit.  Jesus as baal shem then went about exorcising possessed persons everywhere.  But the dybbukim and their possession of individuals were only the starting point for what truly ailed the nation.  As Mark rendered, all rulers, from local landowners to regional Pharisees to Temple Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the vassal king for the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas, to the Romans themselves, suffered from serious affliction.  Power warped their minds.  They acted with deleterious effect.  In Mark’s rendering then, Jesus then moved from Jesus as baal shem to Jesus as seditionist.  His actions forced the hand of the ruling parties.  The seditionist had to die.

     This synopsis brings us to the “Place of a Skull,” known as Golgotha.  In Mark’s rendering, all of Jesus’s suffering on the crucifix formed in the Aramaic words, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Or, as Mark immediately translated, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

     From there, death came for Jesus, with witnesses to document the drama.  The witnesses were women.  Mark will use this device at the tail end of his narrative, as the women visit Jesus’s entombment and note, with amazement and fear, the empty crypt.

     This is the narrative in condensed form.  It went out into the world in the late 60s of the Jesus Century.  It caught the attention of our man, Josephus.  At that time, he was a prisoner of Rome, held by Vespasian’s forces in the Galilee.  As the historical record shows, he immediately embarked upon a criticism.  Did he feel personally bruised by Mark’s narrative?  I believe so.  Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took the work as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Against Mark is a correction.

     Who read Against Mark and how was it received?  There are no records to answer those questions.  If Against Mark established Josephus as a historian of note, there would have been some tremendous irony.  The readership for The Book of Mark would have grown.  Maybe The Book of Mark, and the subsequent Gospels, became famous because of Against Mark as correction.

     Some two thousand years later, Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or Judaism in the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

4) Let’s now turn to our questions: What specifically was in Josephus’s book?  And, more importantly for this study, what by extension can be learned about Mark?  Let’s be blunt: Josephus rendered a very different Jesus to Mark’s version.  To read the full text, please do see Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, but let me here give a few noteworthy details.

     Mark opened his narrative with the prophet Isaiah as a herald, with John the Baptist and his illuminating words, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark’s very next words then introduced Jesus the Nazarene.  The introduction bothered Josephus.  He criticized in his book, “We learn nothing else of Jesus’s early history in Mark.  We learn nothing of his genealogy, nothing of his origins, nothing of his birth.  We learn very little of his family.  It is a rather curious omission, considering what Jesus will become.”

     Notably, something similar might be said of Mark.  What really do we know of the man?  According to Church traditions, he was born in Cyrene, an important town within the Egyptian Pentapolis in modern day Libya.  The Pentapolis was really a Decapolis, but that’s a story for another day.  Further, according to Church traditions, Mark became a traveling companion of Peter somewhere around Antioch, during Peter’s missionary run to Rome.  Peter died in Rome on the orders of Nero.  He was crucified, traditions purport, as the Great Fire consumed Rome.

     If so, the year would have been 64.  By then, Mark would have turned to the Church movement, fled from Rome, and returned to Egypt, putting down stakes in Alexandria.  There, he founded a church.  According to Church traditions, he then began the writing of his Gospel, using his notes taken during his journey with Peter.  It seems that Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in those churches from Antioch and up into Galatia and Bithynia and over to Corinth and onto Rome.  The Gospel of Mark went out into the world sometime during the years 66-70.

     Let me just say outright.  That entire narrative is wrong.  Except for the birthplace and the publishing of the Gospel.  As I noted in Satan’s Synagogue, there was an epilogue to Against Mark.  A series of letters between Peter and Mark offered essential detail.  Those letters, with Peter in Jerusalem and Mark in Alexandria, established Peter as an authoritative witness and, as Peter granted full access to Mark, established Mark as expert.  Those letters also noted the deteriorating health of Mark and Peter’s hope that Mark would join the one they call the Christ in heaven.  The last letter permitted rare access into Mark.  He called his finished work his “last will and testament” and expressed his final wishes: to die a quiet death and for his testimonium to gain notoriety.  Those wishes have been fulfilled.  Mark died in his bed, not, as Church traditions purport, with a rope around his neck and dragged through the streets.  That’s just plain legend building, martyrdom silliness.

     The last letter between Peter and Mark dated to the year 68.  The year, of course, sets off alarm bells.  If accurate, Peter did not die in Rome during the Great Fire of 64.  He returned to Jerusalem.  He outlived his friend and protégé Mark.

     If all of this is considered some serious heresy to Church traditions, let’s add some more.  In Against Mark, I claimed that those letters had gone missing.  They hadn’t.  When I found Josephus’s lost manuscript, I found the full manuscript, epilogue included.  Truth is, I kept the letters for myself.  I plan to use those letters to build the true personages of both Mark and Peter in my next book.  Then, and only then, I will restore the letters to their rightful place as the epilogue to Against Mark.  Selfish, you might say of my plan.  I agree.  Welcome to the world of scholarship.

     Mark and Peter, it should be noted, did not meet in Antioch or any other town in Anatolia.  Their intersection is clear, at least according to their letters.  They met in Jerusalem, in the year 50, during, arguably, the most important conference in the entire history of Christianity.  In a quiet room at a local inn not far from the Temple, Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just welcomed Paul and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, both of whom had just returned from their missionary romp around the Mediterranean.  Mark attended on the invitation of his “cousin” Barnabas.  Cousin here is used in the Latino definition, centuries before that definition came to identify anyone in the neighborhood.  Apparently Egypt and Cyprus, Barnabas’s birthplace, were neighbors.  Mark was a scribe, and a scribe was needed to document the conference.  A bond was formed between Peter and Mark and when the Church elders decided to send Peter out on his missionary tour, Mark went along as scribe.

     With their origin now firmly established, let’s get back to our story.  As Mark introduced Jesus as a Nazarene in his Gospel, Josephus set the record straight.  He wrote, “In my days as Governor General of the Galilee, I 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.  As I understood that talk, he was born in a place called Beth Lehem Zebulun.  To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the polis in Judea, on the road to Jerusalem, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes.  This Beth Lehem could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth.  It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other.  But as Beth Lehem Zebulun was a place of obscurity, Mark gave Jesus the distinction of a Nazareth birth.  Nazareth, at that time, was the sister city of the famed Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it.  Nazareth had status.”

     Clearly, those reading The Book of Mark across the Empire would have heard of Nazareth.  They would not have heard of Beth Lehem Zebulun.  This accounts for the change in birthplace, according to Josephus.  But what’s also interesting in Josephus’s rendering was the talk of Jesus.  Forty years later, he remained on the Galileans’ mind.  He therefore left some legacy.  Josephus continued, “I now turn to Jesus as he traveled the Galilee whole and beyond, into the Decapolis, over to Tyre and Sidon, and up to Jerusalem, laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word.  Along the way, masses formed around his personage and a new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.”

     The Galilean section of the work centered around the town of Capernaum.  It centered around Jesus-as-balm, Jesus-as-curative.  It centered around the cleansing of unclean characters.  It centered around a doctrine of silence.  According to Josephus, Mark established a “story-telling device” from the very first unclean character.  The demons knew the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus rebuked the demon, “‘Be silent, and come out of him.’”  The demon obeyed.  As Josephus wrote, “Mark recycled this device again and again.” 

     To the brushstrokes established so far – Jesus-as-curative, Jesus as private of his true identity – Josephus infused more color.  He transitioned to Jesus as lawgiver.  In The Book of Mark, we find Jesus at table, 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.  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 and questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition.  The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death.  They began to conspire with Herod’s court.

     Josephus rendered the story along the line of a “Moses motif.  Mark made Jesus into a lawgiver.  He positioned Jesus as rebel and iconoclast.  Jesus’s actions provoked the powers that be.  These are the foundational traits of Moses in the Exodus.”

5) A question struck Josephus.  The reference to Herod “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, Herod.  Josephus wondered why Herod didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission, or as he wrote, “When Jesus struck the chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?”

     As Josephus let the question linger, let’s push on.  According to Josephus, Mark took a “detour” with his narrative.  He focused on Jesus’s family, both the blood relatives and the external characters known as his disciples.  In this “detour,” as Mark rendered the narrative, Jesus made official the appointments of his disciples.  The appointments included Judas Iscariot, “who betrayed him.”  While we learn biographical details of other disciples along the way – James and John were fishermen, so were Simon and his brother Andrew, Levi collected custom duties – Judas carried the mark of the betrayer from first mention.  According to Josephus, “This set the stage for the climactic scene.  It is a loose literary technique, but Mark, at this point in narration, had other biographies in mind.”

     He moved from the disciples as a family of sorts to the reaction of Jesus’s actual family.  As Mark told us, they tried to “restrain” him, as general reaction to Jesus claimed that he had “gone out of his mind.”  According to Josephus, “Familial restraint came across as a saving technique, as if the family attempted to save Jesus from himself.  Such a rendering spoke of a false prophet.  Perhaps owing to the restraint, Jesus rejected his mother and brothers when they asked to see him.” 

     But there’s more to this brushstroke.  As Josephus noted, Jesus-as-rebel posed a serious threat to his family.  Rome and the tetrarch would have eradicated the family after eradicating the rebel.  Mark framed the family as outside the ministry.  He took the framing further with Jesus’s rejection of his own family.  According to Josephus, “Mark’s passage then served as a protective layer for the family against Roman rule.  Mark, writing nearly two score after these events, suggested that Jesus’s family continued on with their lives after these events occurred.”  That may have been the case.  The historical record goes silent on Jesus’s family and what happened following these events.  With one exception.  “That exception formed around James, also known as the Just,” Josephus wrote.  “He was stoned to death in and around the year 62.  The High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus, used the lack of imperial oversight to convene his Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin found James guilty of breaking the laws of Moses.  James offended even the most fair-minded observers.  In Jerusalem, we knew him for his eccentric behavior.  He was mad and considered ‘out of his mind.’  As per Sanhedrin doctrine, he was stoned to death.  Jerusalem did not object.”

     To this rendering of James the Just, let’s be clear.  There has been much scholarship on the question of whether this James was the biological brother of Jesus.  The New Testament seems rather clear.  He was.  Later Church fathers, however, needed to foster the perpetual virginity of Mary and so Jesus’s siblings had to be removed a step or two from his biological line.  They became half-siblings, or cousins.  In Mark’s rendition of events, there wasn’t a question.  Mark did not recognize a human father of Jesus.  Joseph never entered the picture.  Matthew and Luke recognized the hole in the story and introduced Joseph as the husband of Mary.  Much confusion then reigned when considering Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Josephus expressed no confusion, however, in his portrayal of James the Just.  The Jewish world knew him as the biological brother.  They considered him mad.  Later Church fathers would spin this James as beloved by his followers.  Both could be true, of course.  As for the history, Josephus’s writing formed the only known reaction to James’s death.  And, Josephus only recorded the reaction of the Jewish population.  In Antiquities, Josephus returned to the subject.  His colorization of James went out into the world.  It would be interesting to note the other side.  How did early Christians react to his death?  Was he viewed as a madman or a martyr?  Did the martyr framing come later, as builders of the faith needed to further perpetuate Christian martyrdom?

6) Let me now skip over some sections of Mark, and Josephus’s reaction.  To be clear, there is great redundancy in Mark.  The whole “Parable” and “Miracles” section should be cut.  Josephus recognized this.  He wrote to his readership, “I won’t bore you with a recount.”

     Mark then changed the setting to the Decapolis.  He introduced a man named Legion.  He gave Legion distinct characteristics: wild, incredibly strong, uncontrollable.  Even chains, Mark wrote, were useless on him.  When Legion saw Jesus, he rushed to him for help.  Jesus demanded that the unclean spirit come out of the man.  Jesus then spoke to the spirit, who implored Jesus not to send him and the many other unclean spirits out of the district.  Taking a look around, the spirit suggested that Jesus send the spirits into the pigs feeding nearby.  Jesus did as asked.  The herd of pigs then rushed into the lake, where they drowned.  Quickly the news spread and the townsfolk came out to see the scene.  There sat the man, now in health, with Jesus.  The townsfolk reacted in fear and begged Jesus to leave.  The man reacted by asking to go with Jesus.  Jesus opposed the man’s request.  Instead, he gave the man instructions: “‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’”  The man then spread the news throughout the Decapolis.  Mark shifted to reaction, as the residents were “amazed” by the man’s story.  While Mark turned to the next story in his catalog, Josephus examined.  He found it noteworthy that the unclean spirit was given a Roman name.  “Nowhere else in Mark’s account do we come across a spirit with a Roman reference,” he wrote.  Mark gave the spirit incredible strength, suggesting the power of Rome.  Mark then moved to Jesus-as-curative.  “The purification suggested the warrior Messiah ridding the Jewish body of the Roman parasite,” Josephus interpreted.  “Mark had the entire spirit population die in the bodies of pigs.  The pig is a stupid animal.  In Mark’s story, they rushed to their death.  The story then read as an anti-Rome allegory.  Jesus cured the Roman of his Jewish hatred.  He then banished that hatred to the population of pigs.  He then drove that population to their death.  Such is our nation’s reaction to the yoke of Roman rule.  This passage reflects supremely on our current climate, as well as the situation nearly two score ago.”

     This last line is extremely important in evaluating Josephus’s criticism.  Both Josephus and Mark wrote their works in the age of rebellion.  These were incredibly bloody times.  When the Romans conquered the Galilee and Judea, they eradicated towns.  They butchered all citizens.  They left the most important on crucifixes.  They burned everything to the ground.  This is the imagery that Josephus, and Mark, had in mind.  Who then was The Book of Mark written for?  Was the narrative used to show that, indeed, the overthrow of Rome was soon to commence, led by the miraculous General-Governor-Lord known as Jesus Christ?  Was it, in a way, a patriotic call to arms? 

     Maybe Josephus interpreted it as such.  Maybe that’s why his criticism comes off as deeply personal.  He didn’t believe in Jesus as savior.  He didn’t rush into the open arms of Jesus’s new beginnings.  He witnessed the brutality of the Roman landscape.  He could never escape that landscape.

7) Mark next turned to the troubles of a synagogue president named Jairus.  He approached Jesus with desperate news of his daughter’s terminal illness.  He begged Jesus to save her life.  Jesus consented and the two began the walk to Jairus’s house.  Along the way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years approached.  She touched Jesus’s cloak and was cured.  Jesus felt the “power had gone forth from him” and turned to confront the transgressor.  In the crush of humanity, however, he couldn’t identify the person.  The woman, in fear, came forward.  Yet, Jesus did not reprimand her.  Rather, he rewarded her, claiming that her faith had healed her.  At that time, a messenger arrived from Jairus’s house with the news that the daughter had died.  Jesus responded directly to Jairus, “‘Do not fear, only believe.’”

     That line struck Josephus.  He wrote, “From Torah to Tanakh and the Haftorah, there are references ad nauseam to the words, ‘Be not afraid.’  Beginning in Genesis and flowing through Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, appearing in Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, moving to Job and Jeremiah and Daniel and, importantly for this work, Isaiah, ‘Be not afraid’ forms the most common phrase in the large and wide literature.  By speaking them here, Jesus established himself as the representative of the ancients.”

     The party pressed on to Jairus’s house.  There, Jesus claimed that the girl was only asleep.  Those present laughed at Jesus’s words.  With only the girl’s parents present, as well as a few of the disciples, Jesus told the girl to rise.  Mark left those words in Aramaic while the rest of the text is in Greek.  Mark immediately included a translation of the Aramaic.  The girl rose.  Mark emphasized her age of twelve years.  That number conjoined with earlier references (the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, the twelve disciples) to symbolize God’s power and authority.  While those present reacted with amazement, Mark told us, Jesus demanded secrecy.  And so the same themes continued: Jesus-as-curative, a pervasive sense of amazement from those present, Jesus calling for secrecy.  Further, Mark gave Jesus the power of life and death.  Jesus could now raise the dead.  If anyone questioned such a rising, Mark added witnesses.  All of this struck Josephus as “a literary tool.”  Mark needed others present to corroborate the details of the story.  Otherwise, the story “came across as more of an entertainment than a truth,” Josephus commented.

     This last line, in my opinion, comes across as a tell to Josephus’s own writing career.  In the events he alone portrayed at Masada, and in his testimony of his battle against the Romans at Jotapata, Josephus added witnesses.  They survived these events and went on to tell the stories.  If Josephus didn’t add witness account to his tales, would his narratives appear as “more of an entertainment than a truth”?

8) To read Josephus’s full portrayal of the events at Masada, or Jotapata, please do see my earlier book, Satan’s Synagogue.  But, let’s take a jump in story.  According to Josephus, Mark did “something curious with his story.  He took a break.”  He had Jesus command his disciples to go out into the Galilee and to continue their curative work.  He then used that “dispersion” to return to an earlier story.  What began on the first page of Mark’s narrative ended here, with the death of John the Baptist.  Mark told his tale by noting Herod’s reaction to Jesus.  As whispers of Jesus’s power reached Herod, Herod focused on a past beheading.  While others in Herod’s court gave Jesus a prophetic profile, Herod announced, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” 

     Josephus saw that announcement as “curious.  In turning to the story of John’s beheading, Mark missed what might have been the true story of this character named Jesus.  In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough.  Herod’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 John, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading.  Mark took his story in a different direction.  That story comes across as an entertainment.”

     As Mark wrote, Herod took the wife of his brother.  Her name was Herodias.  John the Baptist took umbrage with this union, as Herod’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Herod.  This turned Herodias against John.  She held “a grudge” against John, “and wanted to kill him.”  She could not.  Herod “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.”  Herod therefore “protected” John. 

     An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose.  During the festival of Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch.  In a mood of elation, Herod 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, according to Mark, caused great distress for Herod.  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 ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.

     Josephus hated all of it.  He wrote, “As I am determined to respect the truth of history, permit me to point out the neglect in Mark’s story.  Mark missed the reaction of Herod’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.  Herod did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her.  First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis.  Phasaelis caught wind of Herod’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 Herod over boundary issues set the stage for war.  Aretas routed Herod’s forces.  During the siege, Herod had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed.  Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population.  John died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war.  To contest Aretas, Herod had no choice but to call for help from Rome.  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 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 in that eponymous place and Caligula recalled the mission.  By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan.  Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story.  His neglect is glaring.  To call such a story an entertainment is a miscalculation on my part.  With such a story, he enters the underworld, a place of darkness and deception, a place built by artifice, a place that can best be described as Satan’s Synagogue.”

     Wow.  That was my reaction when I first read this passage in Against Mark.  This is, simply, some watershed text.  Let’s start with the last words.  I believe this is the first reference to Satan’s Synagogue.  I believe the author of Revelation took from Against Mark.  Notably, the author inverted Josephus’s phrase, going with the Synagogue of Satan.  Or, at least those are the words that have come down to us in Gospel translations.  Perhaps the original echoed Josephus. 

     To that notable, add another.  What is this reference to Emperor Tiberius dying “in that eponymous place”?  According to the historical record, Tiberius died in the great Roman port of Misenum in the province of Naples.  What did Josephus know that the world did not?

     To that notable, add another.  Earlier I wrote of Josephus’s “bruised” feelings.  I noted that Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took The Book of Mark as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Here, Josephus seemed to get his feelings hurt.  He then lashed out.  Perhaps Josephus’s attack had to do with John the Baptist.  He was Josephus’s hero, it seems, and Josephus could not stand by as a falsification went out into the world.  Notably, Josephus lost the war of words.  His criticism disappeared from view while the Gospels became the book on which much of western civilization is based.

9) To all of this notable, let’s add another.  Jesus died at the prison of Machaerus, beheaded under the orders of Herod.  Josephus came back to that incredible detail.  According to The Book of Mark, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples.  The question on the table concerned identity: who did the people think Jesus was.  He heard various responses: John the Baptist, Elijah or other unnamed prophets.  He asked the disciples for their thoughts.  Mark put important words in Peter’s mouth.  “‘You are the Messiah,’” Peter declared.

     According to Josephus, this declaration acted as “a narrative shift.  In a literary foreshadowing, Jesus replied that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected by the ruling hierarchy, must be put to death, and he would then rise three days hence.  With these words, the inexorable march to these events began.  That the climax comes in Jerusalem was necessary, for Jesus had to confront the ruling hierarchy in the Temple.  That Jesus’s words transcended the earthly authority of Rome was necessary too, for this Messiah story moved far beyond the prophetic stories of our ancient past.  Was Jesus the Messiah?  Mark, who took great pains to build a middle passage story for the Messiah in the Galilee section of his work, now moved the narrative to the only place a Messiah could truly be identified.  But, my experience in the Galilee, and most notably during the battle at Jotapata, where all was lost, contradicts Mark’s narrative.  The teaching of Jesus was a story that people still talked about.  But his rebellion was put down.  He died at Machaerus.”

     Let me point out the obvious.  Because people talked about Jesus and his death some thirty-five years later, and because Josephus heard the scuttlebutt, doesn’t mean the history actually played out that way.  Stories tend to get corrupted.  Eyewitness testimony tends to embellish, or omit.  Josephus, though, certainly believed that Jesus died at Machaerus.

10) Did Peter and Mark address such a death in their letters?  They did not.  Did they quietly accept Jesus’s death at Machaerus while loudly, in the form of the Gospel, proclaim the Passion story?  There are no conclusive answers.  But without going into too much detail, as I want to go into depth in my next book, let me say this about the letters: there is an undertone.  There is a sense of building.  The story needed some construction.  Peter and Mark became the chief architects.  They recognized their roles, or as Mark wrote to Peter, “The voice of the Gospel is mine, but you are the sound engineer.”

     As sound engineer, Peter made himself important.  The Romans, in their writing of history, elevated the eyewitness.  They developed a term: thereness.  A history gained greater credibility with eyewitness thereness.  Peter relished his thereness and Mark went along for the ride.  The problem is, there wasn’t a check on Peter’s testimony.  Mark was not a scholar in modern day terms.  He did not seek corroborating sources.  He gave his mentor a gift: free reign.  Peter then grabbed a spotlight and became a kind of co-star.  The thrice denial section of the Gospel speaks to this dynamic.  It feels contrived.  If Mark questioned Peter on his role during the trial of Jesus, there is no evidence in the letters.  What does that say of Mark?

     Here’s what we know.   Mark dictated the Gospel to an unnamed scribe.  Mark was moving ever closer to death and he didn’t have the vigor to actually do the writing.  He spoke the story.  A scribe transferred the narrative to parchment.

     Mark was irritable.  Part of his irritability stemmed from ill health.  Part of his irritability stemmed from life experience.  Part of his irritability stemmed from his general makeup.  Mark was an irascible sort of fellow.

     In his letters to Peter, he complained about most everything: the oppressive heat of Alexandria, the lack of Sea breezes, both the tardiness and the earliness of his scribe, the cost.  The scribe did not come cheap and Mark had no money.  Being a major player in the Church did not lead to a life of luxury.  My, how things have changed.

     Mark might have been senile at this point on his life.  In Against Mark, Josephus railed against Mark’s basic misunderstanding of Galilean geography.  For instance, Mark placed Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee.  According to Josephus, Bethsaida resided north of the Galilee, in Gaulanitis.  Bethsaida was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Ram.  Philip the Tetrarch built up a neighboring town to Bethsaida and named it in honor of both Rome and himself, Caesaria Philippi.  Both towns play a role in the first part of Mark’s Gospel.

     Why did Mark move Bethsaida into the Galilee?  Perhaps senility played a role.  Perhaps he had another agenda.   The other disciples all came from the same place, the Galilee, with the exception of Judas.  But then the narrative of Judas is an exception, so that makes narrative sense.  Perhaps Mark simply wanted the origins of the disciples to line up.

     Mark considered himself a “Jew for Jesus.”  He proclaimed it over and over again in his letters.  The term then suggested an evolving sect of Judaism, outside and at odds with the dominant cultures governing the religion.  In Mark’s day, the Christian schism with Judaism had not occurred.  There were no Christians then.  There was, though, a thorough dislike and distrust for the dominant Jewish cultures.  As a Jew for Jesus, Mark railed against the power structure.  This was a part of his irritability.  The authorities in Jerusalem and their tentacles in the Galilee were a bane in Mark’s worldview.  It’s no coincidence then that, in the Gospels, Jesus questions and embarrasses the power structure relentlessly.

     Did Mark develop an inner hatred for the Jewish nation?  Consider his description of Jerusalem in the Gospel.  Decay, corruption, tradition gone asunder: these were the primary markers of Mark’s Jerusalem.  His setting struck a tone of usury, and all debts must be repaid.  The letters between Mark and Peter speak to this characterization.  Both men want Jerusalem “torn down.”  The term didn’t suggest the razing of the city, as the Romans did.  And the city left in rubble for sixty years, as happened between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.  The term suggested “a new beginning… a shining light.”  To Mark and Peter that light hadn’t existed “since the Hashmona’im.”

     It’s a curious reference to the Hasmonean dynasty.  Begun by Judas Maccabeus and furthered by his brother, Simon the Wise, the dynasty threw off the rule of the Seleucid Empire and formed an independent state.  Perhaps that history accounts for Mark’s and Peter’s evaluation of the Hasmonean years.  But, the Hasmoneans were Hellenized and that must have disturbed the Jews for Jesus movement.  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 of the soil,” to quote Peter in a letter.  To them, Jesus was the way of “reduction, and restoration.”

     The Hasmoneans were not.  In addition, their independent state survived about fifty years.  The Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for 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 Gospels.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

    But if Peter’s and Mark’s reference to the Hasmoneans comes across as a bit convoluted, their inner hatred for the Jewish nation seems apparent.  To Mark’s description of Jerusalem in his Gospel, let’s consider a second example.  Pilate, as representative of Rome, displayed nothing but forbearance for Jesus.  According to Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish realm pushed Pilate toward capitol punishment.  Mark seemed rather clear in his conviction.  The Jews killed Jesus.  Mark then employed a literary technique.  He had Pilate whip Jesus.  That whipping set up the suffering that would follow.  But the true enemy, as Mark spun his story, formed around the ruling Jewish culture.

     Mark, nor Peter, lived to see the death of that Jewish culture.  But it did die.  The Second Temple period, which began with exiled Jews returning from Babylon, ended essentially with the Bar Kokhba revolt.  A new exile would come into existence, with the Romans booting all Jews out of Judea.

     Bar Kokhba, it should be noted, was ruthless to the Jews for Jesus movement, as those followers refused to fight against the Romans.  Here was the break in history.  The followers of the early Church movement choose to sit out a war against Rome.  They could not support the dominant Jewish culture.  Bar Kokhba punished them for their conviction.  Meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Hadrian, opened the door of leniency.  And the new movement, known as Christianity, walked right through.  But that’s a story for another day.

     Mark wanted a final letter, to be sent to Peter after his death.  His scribe complied.  According to that death scene, Mark uttered the words Jesus once had at Golgotha, while suffering on the crucifix.  “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Mark uttered them in Aramaic.  His scribe did not translate the words into Hebrew, as Mark did in his Gospel.  His scribe left the words in their original language.

     It would be fascinating to know Peter’s reaction to these words.  Mark’s deathbed cry basically ends their correspondence.  I can interpret… but let me save that for a later book project.

Turning the page:

I usually don’t telegraph my upcoming work but here’s a coming attraction.  My next profile – related to Against Mark, and my earlier book, Satan’s Synagogue – sketches a very different character.  A funny thing happened with Satan’s Synagogue.  It became hot news at the Trump White House.  Recently, I took a meeting.  For my reportage of that meeting, please tune in next week.  Same Bat-time (next Friday).  Same Bat-channel.  But this Bat has nothing to do with the caped crusader.  This Bat is an acronym.  It tells the true story of a kidnapping plot against the president.

Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?

Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?

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 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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part six.  In earlier profiles, I 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, and a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani.  All of those profiles are available further down this page.  Here, I am profiling another Holocaust survivor, the last on my list.  His name was Eli Pfefferkorn.  He was a born and fantastic storyteller.  He was a professional provocateur.  Nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name.  There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.  There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history.  Let’s jump into that history:

1) I met Pfefferkorn back in 2008.  I had just begun a research project on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  Who was the real Wiesel?  That was the question I had in mind.  How did the persona match the man?  I stumbled upon an anti-Wiesel article by the muckraker Alexander Cockburn on his website, CounterPunch.  Cockburn had an agenda: to put the torch to Wiesel’s story in Night.  The article was downright mean, with echoes of Holocaust denial.  Further, Cockburn had an obsession with Wiesel.  A Google search on “Elie Wiesel” and “CounterPunch” brought up too many articles, all with incendiary titles.  Cockburn’s issue with Wiesel traced to the Levant.  Cockburn took the Palestinian side and saw Wiesel as an Israeli extremist.  Wiesel never used his public platform to criticize Israel.  For that, Cockburn clearly loved to hate Wiesel.

     Yet, despite the general derision, sections of Cockburn’s article contained some merit.  For instance, Cockburn’s writing introduced me to Pfefferkorn.  According to Cockburn, the views cited in his article were “vigorously expressed” to him by Pfefferkorn.  To have met Pfefferkorn was to understand Cockburn’s description.  Pfefferkorn was a bundle of learned energy.

     To Cockburn, Pfefferkorn framed Wiesel as a sell-out.  Naturally, I wanted to know more.  I phoned Pfefferkorn at his home in Toronto straightaway.  My notes from that initial conversation touched on some Pfefferkorn truths.  “Curiosity, intuition and cunning” were the words I used to describe his psyche.  “Charming and smart, learned,” I continued.  “He is very much the camp survivor.”

     That last part cannot be understated.  Pfefferkorn, like most camp survivors, carried a duality within.  His demeanor would change in a heartbeat.  He would go from affable and playful to threatening and curt.  His worldview would be condensed down to one preoccupation.  Sometimes that preoccupation was a person.  Wiesel, as an example.  Sometimes that preoccupation was a wrong done specifically to him.  Sometimes that preoccupation was food.  When Pfefferkorn experienced hunger, he would be transformed back to that teenager in the camps.  He would shut down all activities in an effort to eat.  Once satiated, he would flip back to his more affable self.  I gave this duality a label: the Majdanek Syndrome.  The effect did not fit into the modern psychological profile of bi-polar behavior.  Rather, the effect was a historically based form of survival.  Very raw.  Very needy.  Very animalistic.  Very much the camp survivor.

2) Wiesel, it should be noted, suffered his own form of Majdanek Syndrome.  For instance, he was litigiousness personified.  It’s a little known fact.  He had a pugilist of a lawyer on speed dial, back when speed dial was an exception, and he used that line relentlessly.  The pugilist on the other end of the line was an Auschwitz survivor named Samuel Pisar.  As I traced in my research, Wiesel received a fundamental education from Pisar.  Lawsuits asserted control.  Lawsuits took back the control lost at Auschwitz and other death camps.  For Wiesel, lawsuits became a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  In his case, there was a total preoccupation over perceived wrongs.  There was then a way of fighting back.

3) More Majdanek Syndrome.  Within the general framework of the disorder, there is a tendency to both idealize the world and to falsify it due to perceived ugliness.  To understand, let’s jump into Pfefferkorn’s biography.  He was born in the Polish town of Radzyń Podlaski in 1930.  He entered the milieu of Hasidism.  If not for the events of September 1939 and its aftermath, his trajectory would have gone towards study, and the family business.  His name suggested a history.  I learned about that history some eight years after first meeting Eli, as I traveled to his home in Toronto upon his invitation. 

     Pfefferkorn had moved to Toronto in the late 1980s, after he landed a teaching position.  Upon arrival, the Pfefferkorns commenced a housing search.  Pfefferkorn and his wife, Sarah, bought a condominium in a fine neighborhood near Humberwood Park.  The condo, at 151 Pfolkes Court, stood out from the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.  The rest of the homes were one-family dwellings.  Pfefferkorn’s two-bedroom condo filled a corner of a 15-floor highrise building.  Never one to own a house – “too much upkeep, Josepher,” Pfefferkorn explained – Pfefferkorn and family moved to Pfolkes Court.  The letter similarity between Pfefferkorn and Pfolkes struck me as comical.  Pfefferkorn didn’t see the humor.

     By the time I visited, nearly thirty years after the family’s purchase of the apartment, Pfefferkorn’s daughter, Vered, had become an adult, gotten married and divorced, and settled in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Pfefferkorn’s wife had contracted Alzheimer’s, gone into a nursing home, and passed away.  Pfefferkorn lived alone.  Except he was rarely alone.  The highrise building on Pfolkes Court included a series of elevators for transporting the residences up to their units.  Those elevators served a secondary function: they provided a social setting.  Pfefferkorn spent a good deal of time riding the elevators, up and down from the 13th floor, kibbitzing with this person and that.  In my three days with Eli, I met the proctologist Bruno, and the editor Markus, and the woman who believes in ghosts, Rita, and the psychologist couple who practiced illegally out of their condo, and Professor Thomkins, who taught English literature at Humber College’s northern campus nearby. 

     Pfefferkorn, being Pfefferkorn, knew intimate details of the elevator cast of characters.  He shared these details with me, immediately after the person departed the elevator.  For instance, Rita apparently lived in a furniture-less apartment.  The furniture, she believed, attracted the ghosts.  No furniture meant no ghosts.

     Pfefferkorn’s unit was nicer than I’d anticipated.  He employed a “putzfrau,” as he called her, or a cleaning lady.  She came often.  Sometimes she would come to clean, and sometimes to cook, and sometimes to just pick up after Eli, and sometimes just to talk, or so it seemed.  Her name was Erma and she also served a function unknown to her.  She provided Pfefferkorn with some sexual fantasy storylines.  Pfefferkorn, as will be discussed in more detail soon, kept his libido in full roar.  How he was able to do that later in life, I have no idea.

     There was no art on Pfefferkorn’s walls.  There were books everywhere.  There were piles of papers filling his office space, which also served as the guest bedroom.  There was perfectly serviceable, though nondescript, furniture.  Pfefferkorn, like most men, had his favorite chair.  That chair, positioned near the window, looked out toward the park. 

     Our three days together were spent near that window, or riding the elevator, or walking in Humberwood Park.  We both had topics we wanted to talk about.  I realized, shortly into my stay, that Pfefferkorn had a proposal to make.  I wasn’t there for my sake.  I wasn’t there for a visit.  I was there as part of Pfefferkorn’s agenda.

     I did, however, get Eli to talk about something he never had before.  Despite a life as a storyteller, despite the writing of his own memoirs, Eli had never talked about his family history.  His daughter, for instance, did not know her grandfather’s first name.  Pfefferkorn simply couldn’t talk about it.

     Except, in a moment perhaps of candid trust, he did to me.  Actually, he talked about borscht.  Unknown to most of us in the West, different regions in Eastern Europe favored different borscht recipes.  Polish borscht, for instance, was more spicy and more sweet than its counterparts in Lithuania and Belarus and Russia and Romania and Armenia.  Polish borscht used more pepper and less vinegar.  Someone should do a study.

     The Pfefferkorns of Radzyń Podlaski became suppliers to the borscht industry.  This occurred hundreds of years before Eli Pfefferkorn came down his mother’s birth canal and out into the world.  According to Pfefferkorn, the family took its name from the business.  “What was the name before the business?” I asked.

     Pfefferkorn shrugged.  There wasn’t a family name.  If family names grew out of location, like Isaiah Berlin or Jerzy Petersburski, or biblical figures, like Joseph and Abraham, the majority grew out of profession.  There was only Pfefferkorn.

     The Pfefferkorns were never wealthy.  While they may have cornered the pepper market in Radzyń Podlaski, pepper did not have the profitability of either vanilla or safran.  Pepper was a cheap commodity.  Further, Poland maintained cordial relations with those countries on the trade routes from India through Turkey or the Caucasus and up to Poland.  Pepper was accessible.  The Pfefferkorns lived in the middle class spectrum.  “We weren’t the Potockis,” Pfefferkorn said.

     The reference, I later learned, would be like an American saying, “We weren’t the Rockefellers.”

     The last Pfefferkorn to sell pepper was Eli’s father, Avraham.  The pepper business ended for the Pfefferkorns at the end of 1939.  Months later, Avraham Pfefferkorn was shot and killed.  What was he killed for?  He made a business transaction, illegally.  The Germans, along with their Polish sympathizes, had just decreed that Jews could not own businesses.  The government of Poland, by the way, made it illegal to even write such a sentence in the year 2018.  Those blaming the Poles, even in part, for Nazi atrocity face a heavy fine and a jail term.  I’m not going to Warsaw any time soon.

     Eli Pfefferkorn didn’t want to talk about his father’s last business transaction.  He didn’t want to talk about what happened next.  The Germans shot Avraham Pfefferkorn dead on the street.  There was a witness.  “I was there,” Pfefferkorn said.  “I know.”

     Silence followed.  Pfefferkorn needed a moment to collect himself.  I stared out the window, at the park.  I thought about fathers dying brutally, and sons watching.  I thought about the sea change that produced.  The immediate and radical new direction.  The unrecovery.  Pfefferkorn’s next words then went to the nub of my visit, at least for him.  “Will you write about me?” he asked.

     “What?” I asked.

     “It doesn’t have to be a book,” Pfefferkorn laid out the parameters.  “It doesn’t have to be the Gospel According to Eli Pfefferkorn.  You could write a fiction.  You could create a character based on me.  I just want you to use my name and my story.”

     What Eli wanted, I realized then, was for a different death than his father.  His father died without any sort of memorial.  His father didn’t leave a record.  Only Eli carried him, and Eli wouldn’t talk about him.  Eli wanted to be remembered, and he wanted a colorful memorial.  He died in October 2018.  Hopefully, in Satan’s Synagogue, I provided a colorful memorial.

     Let’s get back to the Majdanek Syndrome.  Like all camp survivors, Pfefferkorn recognized two birthdates.  The first, naturally, had to do with biology, or when the person came down the birth canal and into the world.  The second had to do with camp life.  The day the survivor entered the concentration camp universe became a birthdate.  Pfefferkorn traced his second birthdate to 1940.  He entered that universe through the ghetto of Miedzyrzec-Podlaski.  That portal led to the death camp Majdanek, then to the slave labor ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna, then to the Czestochowa labor camp, then a death march to Buchenwald, then to the satellite of Rehmsdorf, then to another death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt.  He was liberated by the Soviets in May 1945.

     Something fascinating happened to this history.  When he moved to Israel in 1948, following a period in Britain, Pfefferkorn concocted a false biography for himself.  He made himself a flight survivor.  According to his false biography, he escaped from Europe at one of the last possible moments, on a 1939 Kindertransport to Britain.  This fiction became his standby.  He told it to his wife and daughter.  He only came clean in the 1980s in America.

     Why did Pfefferkorn concoct a fake history?  He answered with one word.  Pity.  To be a survivor in Israel in the years following liberation was to be viewed as a passive, cowardly victim who did nothing to fight the swarm of the Hitler nation tidal wave.  “Pity is an ugly word,” Pfefferkorn would answer.

     But let’s take a wider look.  Pfefferkorn’s fake history highlighted what became known as the Israelization of the Holocaust.  The Israelization did not dwell in victimization, in the Jeremiah aphorism of sheep to the slaughter.  The Israelization emphasized heroism.  The original enabling legislation underscored that dynamic.  In 1953, the Knesset created the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.  That body created Yad Vashem.  The Knesset also passed Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah, or the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.

     Upon immigration, survivors were expected to Sabra-ize.  Those valued characteristics of Israeli society revolved around the muscular build, tanned, ready, proponents of strength, of action.  The Sabra stood in direct opposition to the scholar of the European diaspora.  The Sabra didn’t flinch in the face of the enemy.  For survivors like Pfefferkorn, the survival mode learned in the camps kicked in.  In a way, his Kindertransport story became the denouement to his Holocaust journey.  He had learned to survive in the ghettoes and the camps.  He called himself a rough elbower.  When he immigrated to Israel, he rough elbowed a fake story.  That fake story became his preoccupation, his Majdanek Syndrome.

     Why did Pfefferkorn come clean in America?  The Americanization of the Holocaust contained none of the bravado, none of the musculature of the Sabra.  Unlike Israel, survivors didn’t comprise a large part of the overall population.  They weren’t needed in the army, or the work force.  Their history meant nothing to the national narrative.  Survivors then didn’t need to alter their personage to fit their location.  The Americanization of the Holocaust followed the traditional Jewish dictate.  Be a Jew in your home and a man on the street.

4) More Majdanek Syndrome.  In December 2008, only a few months after our initial phone conversation, Pfefferkorn came to New York.  Over the course of two interviews, we formed a unique bond.  Pfefferkorn, I soon realized, spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies.  He saw me as an irony.  I won’t go into my personal history here, as this profile is not entitled “Who was the real Brian Josepher?” but suffice it to say that a Colorado kid, like myself, living in New York is most definitely ironic.

     Anyway, while our conversations focused on Elie Wiesel, and Pfefferkorn, I had another subject in mind.  Years earlier, back in graduate school, I wanted to write about sex-as-fantasy in the death camps.  I think the prisoners created a vivid fantasy life.  What would they fantasize about?  Revenge comes to mind.  Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush.  But revenge is only the half of it.  I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex.  I think sex became a preoccupation.

     I soon learned, in the 1990s, that any sort of fantasy talk was taboo amongst survivors.  Nobody wanted to talk about any subjects related to fantasy, revenge for instance.  Starvation, deprivation, slavery: these were the foundational plot lines of the survivors’ narrative.  These were the comfort foods, so to speak, as the decades passed and the survivors became a platform presence. 

     But as Pfefferkorn opened up, sort of, and as we developed a kind of friendship, I touched on the subject that has gnawed at me for nearly thirty years.  “What about sex?” I asked Eli.  “Do you think that prisoners in the camps thought about sex as a form of revenge?”

     “You’re talking about rape?” he replied.

     “Yes, rape as a weapon,” I answered.  “In the camps, Eli, did you fantasize about raping a kapo, or a German, or anyone with authority?  I’m not talking about a sex act.  I’m talking about power and control and a way of abusing the abuser.”

     “I don’t know,” he answered.  “Listen, Josepher, why would we fantasize about rape when we could fantasize about pulling the trigger of a gun?  Why would we fantasize about ejaculation when we could fantasize about murder?”

     “Because murder with a gun has some distance to it,” I answered.  “There’s separation.  Rape is intensely personal.”

     “I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he answered.

     I knew what I wanted from Eli, and really, it wasn’t rape-as-revenge.  I’d gotten sidetracked.  I took a moment to think things out.  We were sitting at a Starbucks in Harlem (talk about ironies) and I noticed two police officers sitting nearby.  Neither of them seemed to notice their surroundings.  It dawned on me: cops are typically oblivious to their surroundings.  Shouldn’t the opposite exist?  Shouldn’t the surroundings be a cop’s total preoccupation?  Talk about ironies.

     I came back to the subject at hand.  “Eli, I want to know what you fantasized about during your imprisonment in the camps.”

     “Food,” he answered.  “Always food.  We were starving.”

     “Yes, I understand.  But that’s the stock answer.  Wasn’t there anything else?”

     “Anything else?” he replied.  “Food wasn’t enough?”

     “I’m not arguing with you,” I said.  “And to alter one of your lines, ‘I wasn’t there.  I don’t know.’  But, I’m wondering if camp inmates didn’t fantasize about sex.”

     Pfefferkorn took a second.  His attention went to a napkin, idling on the tabletop.  “There was sex,” he said, when he came to it.  “A lot of homosexuality.  You know we were divided, right, the men from the women?”

     My mind at that point made a connection.  In my research, I had recently spoken to the survivor Siegmund Kalinski.  He’d spoken about “homosexual friendships in camp” and “zärtlichkeiten,” as “caresses were exchanged.”

     His reflections caught me off guard but I wondered, as I spoke to Pfefferkorn, if Kalinski offered a self-reference.  Was he admitting to his own behavior?  Did he have homosexual relations in the camp and did that continue later in life?
     I also realized that homosexuality was easier for survivors to talk about then sex-as-fantasy.  Even if they disdained such a sex act – and most of them did, coming from that generation and reared in an orthodox, homosexuality-as-deviant mindset – they could register such sexuality without being personally touched.  Sex-as-fantasy, of course, had a different construct to it.  There was a personal involvement.

     To Pfefferkorn, I corrected my thoughts.  “Not sex per se.  Not the act.  I’m not interested in that.  I’m interested in sexual thoughts.  Where did the mind go?  You were a teenager, Eli.  It wouldn’t have been abnormal for you to fantasize.”

     Pfefferkorn answered with a dismissal.  “I didn’t fantasize about sex.  I fantasized about food.  I fantasized about potatoes.  I fantasized about onions and carrots.  I fantasized about Kielbasa.”

     The potato reference didn’t strike me in that moment.  The sausage reference did.  “Kielbasa?” I answered.  “Not exactly kosher.”

     “Well, what exactly was kosher during the Shoah?”

     Food as the total preoccupation: this was the standard line.  In nearly every memoir written by nearly every camp survivor, in nearly every interview given over the decades, the storyteller describes the moment.  Two prisoners lie in a bunk in a death camp late at night.  They’re talking about a Seder table, in whispers.  They’re talking about the specific foods on that table.  They’re not talking about candles and lighting the lights of Shabbat.  They’re not talking about the Kiddush.  They’re not talking about the Ha-Motzi.  They’re talking about challah.  The color, the texture, the way the bread melts in the mouth.  They then go into incredible detail about each and every dish on that table.

5) More Majdanek.  Back at the Starbucks, I noticed a presence overtake Pfefferkorn.  His surroundings closed in on him.  All that noise, the hustle of a coffee rush, New York in its relentless ebb and flow, seemed to attack him.  I saw Pfefferkorn on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 

     “Are you okay?” I asked.

     “I need to eat,” he said.  As I didn’t know the area, we asked the police officers for a “meat” restaurant, as Eli termed it.  He wanted steak.  They recommended something nearby.  The food was terrible, cheap, gristly.  Pfefferkorn loved it.  He picked up the bones and chewed on them.  He ate my bread.

     This was all a part of his Majdanek Syndrome, I learned.

     Two different meals at two different restaurants over that weekend with Eli, and the visit to a Starbucks, permitted a window into Pfefferkorn’s psyche.  Here’s what I noticed.  Pfefferkorn picked the tables in all places.  He picked a back table, against a wall.  He chose his seating place in an instant, with his back to the wall, facing the room.  He did not consider his companions’ needs and desires.

     Another observation.  Walking with Pfefferkorn was another form of the Majdanek Syndrome.  He started slowly.  It took him awhile, for instance, to zip his coat.  But then something kicked in.  He picked up the pace.  He zoomed.  He didn’t talk while walking.  He didn’t pay any attention to his companion.  His companion had to keep up.  If he wanted to say something while walking, he slowed down.  Actually, he stopped his forward momentum.  He said whatever was on his mind, then he picked up the pace again.  He didn’t wait for his companion’s response.

     “Where were we?” he asked, over cheap steak.

     I had no idea.  “Tell me about your childhood,” I said.  “Tell me about Poland.”

     Pfefferkorn didn’t talk about Poland.  He talked about Israel.  He immigrated in the spring of 1948.  He arrived in the immediate aftermath of independence.  I asked why he went after the war.  With Israel about to form a nation-state and with war clouds hovering, wasn’t there a call, a pressure, to go to Israel to fight? 

     “Pressure?” Pfefferkorn responded.  “From those in Israel?  Yes.  In Europe, not so much.  I was in England.  I was told, ‘You’re a Holocaust survivor, why would you fight in another war?’”

     My thoughts drifted to 1967 and the run-up to the Six Day War.  I asked about that pressure.  “Totally different scenario,” Pfefferkorn responded.  “Jews were arriving from everywhere – Europe, America.  The pressure was enormous.  Israel couldn’t have lost that war.  We wouldn’t have survived.”

     Who was “we” in Pfefferkorn’s recollection?  Israeli Jews?  Diaspora Jews?  Would there have been an Israel had the Six Day War gone sideways?  New research, on the 50th anniversary of the war, suggested a contingency plan of action, had the war looked lost.  According to the retired brigadier general Itzhak Yaakov, Israel put in place a “doomsday operation.”  That operation called for an atomic device to be detonated on top of a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula.  Yaakov’s reference shed some light on Israel’s nuclear program, a long-held secret.  Apparently, Israel had atomic capabilities then.  But Yaakov commented on the doomsday approach, “Look, it was so natural.  You’ve got an enemy, and he says he’s going to throw you to the sea.  You believe him.  How can you stop him?  You scare him.” (William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “‘Last Secret’ of 1967 War: Israel’s Doomsday Plan for Nuclear Display,” The New York Times, June 3, 2017.)

     “Where did you serve?” I asked Eli, half-expecting him to say the Sinai.

     Pfefferkorn answered with a story.  While he served in the Navy, he wasn’t on the call-up list in the spring of 1967.  When war broke out, he went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly in Tel Aviv.  He stayed for two more Bergman movies, all dealing with themes of God and faith.  After the war, a child came up to him on the playground and asked what it was like to operate a submarine.  According to Pfefferkorn, he was caught by surprise.  In that instant, he looked at his daughter, age six or so.  Vered Pfefferkorn winked at her father.  Acting as the good father, Pfefferkorn played along with Vered’s tale.  But as he interpreted, Vered was embarrassed.  While other children were bragging about their fathers as soldiers, Vered’s father watched the Bergman triptych.

6) More Majdanek.  Sometime after his visit to New York, Eli called with a proposal.  He knew I needed to visit the archives of the Holocaust Museum down in Maryland, to conduct my research.  He offered to be my guide.  In the 1980s, during the building of that museum, Pfefferkorn held a title of cache.  Under the chairmanship of Elie Wiesel, he was the director of research.  Back then, Pfefferkorn was Wiesel’s right-hand man.  In fact, he was Wiesel’s alter ego.  Unlike Wiesel, he could say what he wanted.  He had no ambition to be the Man of Conscience, no ambition to win a Nobel, no ambitions to hold a Presidential appointment, no ambition to have people stand when he entered a room, figuratively speaking, and therefore Pfefferkorn was not beholden to an audience.  He was the wild card, the schemer, the operator, the rough elbower.

     I took Pfefferkorn up on his proposal.  For the full story of that trip, in a section entitled “The Pfefferization of History,” please see Satan’s Synagogue.  But in that archive, I heard a most surprising line.  Hours into the day, I decided to go for a walk in the huge warehouse.  I wandered for some time, slowly, just getting some headspace away from the records.  Near the bathroom, I came across Pfefferkorn.  He was talking to a young intern.  Her name escapes me all these years later.  She was pretty and tall, and she was interested in the archivist profession.  That landed her a position at the warehouse.  She did not know a detail about the Holocaust upon arrival.  But, having spent some time in the archive, she’d learned certain things, like names of death camps.

     Eli had his back to me, but I noticed he inched toward her, almost imperceptibly.  He leaned into her, even if she stood a foot taller.  When he spoke, his mouth was below her neck.  “I survived Majdanek,” he said.  “If you’d like, I could tell you about it.”

     I walked away at that point.  I was amazed.  I couldn’t believe that Pfefferkorn would use the death camp as a pickup line.  Hours later, as I drove Pfefferkorn back to his daughter’s apartment in Silver Spring, I asked if the line worked.  “You heard that?” he said with feint surprise.  “Yes of course it worked.  It always works.”

     The intern gave out her phone number.  That was Pfefferkorn at age 80, and all the years before and the years after.  He was prurient as could be.  He slept with his students, his colleagues, the beautiful stranger in the elevator (if she was interested, Pfefferkorn was not about sexual harassment).  It was the hedonism in him talking.  Maybe it, too, was a part of the Majdanek Syndrome.  The preoccupation.

7) More Majdanek.  Pfefferkorn broke with Wiesel sometime in the mid-1990s.  By a circuitous way of explanation, he told a story.  A conference was held at Haifa University with the literary critic George Steiner serving as the keynote speaker.  Pfefferkorn and Steiner maintained a professional friendship, as both served the field of literature.  Following Steiner’s talk, he and Pfefferkorn stood outside the hall together.  According to Pfefferkorn, Wiesel came hobbling out.  An injury was bothering him.  “He limps like Goebbels,” Steiner remarked.

     Such a sinister remark: that was my initial reaction.  But then again, wasn’t that Pfefferkorn’s point?  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of betrayal.  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of corruption.  Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of turning his back on his core constituency, the survivors.  Edging Wiesel up against Goebbels, who unquestionably walked with a limp, played into Pfefferkorn’s accusations.  Not only was he trying to be provocative but he could then talk betrayal.  Which he did.  “It’s close to a tragedy,” he remarked.  “By turning against the survivors, he was turning against himself.”  Pfefferkorn then threw out a statistic.  “He became a eulogist of the dead, but he didn’t raise his mellifluous voice against the wrong done to survivors, thirty-five percent of them below the poverty line in the U.S.”

     That statistic came without corroboration.  Nor could I corroborate the Steiner commentary.  But Pfefferkorn’s point spoke to the fall.  He wanted a Wiesel rooted to Holocaust-specific causes and history.  He got a different Wiesel, a persona that I termed a “one-man State Department” in Satan’s Synagogue.  He couldn’t reconcile the two Wiesels.

     But it dawned on me at some point in our time together.  Pfefferkorn needed justice.  That was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  That was a part of the slavery experience in the concentration camp universe.  Of course, he couldn’t find justice.  What was done to him in the 1940s was embedded, engorged, and nothing could cure the infection.

     But that didn’t stop Pfefferkorn from trying.  He sought justice everywhere he turned.  Wiesel, who did indeed want to play world politics, got in Pfefferkorn’s sightlines.

     But it dawned on me.  Pfefferkorn was Job.

8) Well, let me rephrase.  Pfefferkorn was Job, as rendered and reimagined by Elie Wiesel.  Back in the 1970s, Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends.  He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job.  As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war.  Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed.  “Wounded, robbed, mutilated.  Certainly not happy.  Nor resigned.”

     That was Pfefferkorn, for sure.  That was the Majdanek Syndrome explained, partially.

     Wiesel continued.  He rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.”  He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall.  “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.”  He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”

     The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included.

     Wiesel continued.  He imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence.  Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty.  His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”

     The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe and survived, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included.  The guilt of survival, while witnessing the senseless deaths of all those surrounding, could not be overcome.  To be a camp survivor was to wade forehead deep in guilt.

     Wiesel continued.  In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero.  “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.”  He made his words “quiver.”  He made his words “scream.”  Words became Job’s rebellion.  In words, Job “reversed the roles.”  God became the “defendant.”  Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”

     Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter.  Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself.  This was Wiesel’s indictment, too.  This was Pfefferkorn’s indictment, as well.  This was also Pfefferkorn’s indictment of Wiesel.

     Wiesel continued.  God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question.  If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable.  Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied.  Vindicated.  Rehabilitated.”  The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”

     For Job, such action led to restoration.  He recovered all that he had lost.  He died an old, satisfied man.  For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.”  In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.”  Wiesel wanted Job to protest further.  Wiesel then reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth.  “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You?  What right have I to speak on their behalf? …  Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them.  I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”

     That reimagined Job, that “fierce fighter” until the end, that justice seeker, that rough elbower, was Pfefferkorn.  He continued the trial until the end.

9) More Majdanek.  In the immediate aftermath of our visit to the archives of the Holocaust Museum, I drove Eli to Silver Spring and his daughter’s apartment.  Unfortunately, our timing was awful.  It was late afternoon.  I hadn’t considered Maryland traffic during my planning stage.  Further, Eli needed to stop for a sandwich before the drive.  That put us onto I-95 after five p.m.  Essentially, we pulled into a parking lot of an Interstate.  It took us almost two hours to drive the usual twenty minutes.  I was annoyed, to say the least, but the time proved invaluable, as Pfefferkorn touched on some history that would have been the focal point of my Ph.D. dissertation had I encountered Pfefferkorn back in the early 1990s, while I was a graduate student and looking into the sex-as-fantasy thesis.  He talked about a woman named Maddalena Mainz.

     In German, Maddalena means magnificent and descends from Magdalene, conjuring Mary of Magdala.  For the prisoners of Majdanek there was no escaping her magnificence, her ferocity, and her sexuality.

     Maddalena Mainz, according to Pfefferkorn, stalked the death camp.  “There was no bigger persona,” he declared.  “Himmler himself could have shown up and he would have been overshadowed.  She was a rock star.” 

     Struggling with the wrapping on his sandwich, he looked over at me.  “Who is the greatest female rock star of all time?” he asked.

     “I don’t know,” I answered.  Then I listed some names that popped into my head.  “Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Debby Harry.”  Then a name dawned on me: “Tina Turner.”

     Pfefferkorn replied, “Roll ‘em all into one and she wouldn’t come close to the seductive capability of Mad Mainz.”

     “Mad Mainz?” I interrupted.

     “That’s what we called her,” Pfefferkorn answered.  “She was a sadist.  Whips, a holster with a pistol on her hip, the most outlandish cruelty streak.  And at the same time, Josepher, she made your heart race.”

     “How is that possible?” I asked.  “I mean, she was a psychopath, right?  She was a murderer.  She stalked her prey.  They were defenseless.  How does attraction get conflated with sadism?”

     “You would understand if you saw her,” Pfefferkorn replied.  “She transcended what you call a psychopath.  She was sex walking.”

     Here’s what we know about Mainz up to this point in history: a few Majdanek survivors referenced her, in sparse detail.  Her history essentially went missing.  However, with the uncovering of new records, and with Pfefferkorn adding color, we can now track her story.  Let’s start with the big picture and work our way inside. 

     Majdanek, in a suburb of Lublin, like Dachau in a suburb of Munich, was established as a POW camp in 1941.  In March 1942, Heinrich Himmler reclassified Majdanek as a killing center.  The previous German policy of “evacuation” of the Jewish population gained a macabre word: “liquidation.”  Majdanek joined three other camps specifically built for liquidation purposes: Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.  The means of murder was gas, Zyklon B, and mass shootings by firing squad.

     How many Jews died in Majdanek?  Originally, Polish researchers working at the end of the 1940s placed the dead around 350,000.  That number fell to 235,000, as the site became a museum with a crack research arm.  Today, the death toll wades around 80,000. 

     Majdanek stopped operation in July 1944, with the Soviets nearby.  But, unlike Auschwitz, the Germans did not have time to destroy records and infrastructure.  They fled.  When the Soviets arrived, they found a well-preserved camp.  News of Majdanek filled the wires and newsreels.  For a moment, it became the epicenter of the Holocaust.

     That didn’t last long.  Six months later, the liberation of Auschwitz took place and, then, camps in Germany began to fall.  American soldiers rushed into places like Dachau and Buchenwald and, most famously, a satellite of Buchenwald called Ohrdruf, where General Eisenhower visited with cameras in tow.  Majdanek lost its place.  Further, the records disappeared.  We now know that those records traveled east.  The conquering Red Army took them back to Moscow and apparatchiks buried them in boxes and stored them in a basement.  If some of those boxes are now being opened, with more to be opened in the coming years, one box in particular came to my attention.

     This is an instance when some personal history mixes with much wider history.  On a trek to Russia in December 2016 – I went in a research capacity, as I had information that a former CIA operative with personal knowledge of the dealings behind the October Surprise of 1980 was holed up in a Siberian town, but more on that in a future book project – I stayed in Moscow for a few days.  There, I met up with my first girlfriend, who went to Russia to manage an orphanage back in the 1990s.  She stayed.  Today, she runs a non-profit that administers to orphanages all over Russia and the ex-Soviet Union.  She listened to my research on the death camps in Poland during World War II and suggested a contact.  That person worked in the Russian State Library.  That person, whose identity cannot be revealed for fear of compromising his or her safety, opened a box of documents on Majdanek.  Apparently, those records are stored somewhere in the basement complex.  The files of Maddalena Mainz, and other dossiers, were passed to me.

     Who was Maddalena Mainz?  She was born in the German town of Magdala.  Her ancestors, though, originally came from Russia, and that language served as the language of the home.  Her ability to speak Russian would become an important part of her history, a gateway so to speak.

     Her ancestors settled in the Rhineland town of Mainz, adopting the town name along the way.  The Napoleonic wars left the economy in tatters, and the family decided to make a move to more fertile farming ground.  They crossed east in 1819 to the town named after the Jesus disciple near Weimar.  If that explains her name, experiences during that crossing might help to explain why she became the Mad Mainz of Majdanek.  Her ancestors crossed from Mainz to Magdala through the kingdom of Bavaria.  They entered the town of Würzburg, where they encamped for the summer.  That summer saw the Hep Hep pogrom with Würzburg as its epicenter.  Maybe something of that pogrom entered the DNA structure of the Mainz family.  For if we spin this story one hundred and twenty-three years later, we find Maddalena Mainz entering the SS Aufseherinnen.  As part of the SS Waffen, some 3,500 women served as camp guards all over the wider Reich. 

     Mainz’s training began at the Ravensbrück camp.  There, she met the infamous doctor, Karl Gebhardt.  The key markers of his personality – the fundamental disbelief in the sanctity of human life, the racial superiority, the drive to lord over others, the sexual promiscuity – can be found in her.  Mainz must have become some kind of protégé.  She also gained a reputation there as a “sexual deviant,” so perhaps there was a sexual relationship between the two.  Certainly, Mainz had sexual relations with multitudes, as did most SS stationed in camps.  Their superiors encouraged sex as both recreation and procreation of the Nazi ideal.

     In Mainz’s case, there were multiple abortions.  She seemed to use sex as her weapon, a power grab, and her first targets were SS officers.  At Majdanek, that would continue.  She may have also taken her “sex walking” further afield.  Did she sleep with the prison population, both men and women?  The “sexual deviant” classification suggests so.

     Mainz arrived at Majdanek during its POW classification.  That made sense, given her Russian language background.  She gained enormous power during the camp’s reorganization to death camp.  She became the matriarch, and the starlet.  Pfefferkorn remembered, “I caught sight of her in my first days in the camp.”  That would have been in April 1943.  “I remember my first roll call.  Hours passed and we just stood there.  If someone stepped out of line, that was it.  You would be shot.  Then a woman in an SS uniform rode by on a bicycle.  I would later learn that this was a regular routine.  She liked to ride her bicycle during the roll calls, when everyone was watching.  She didn’t wear underwear.  She wore a skirt with a slit cut up high, into her hip.  Is there a name for something like that?”

     “I don’t know exactly,” I replied.  “A peek-a-boo?”

     Pfefferkorn nearly choked on a pepper.  He tilted his head back, clearing his throat.  “Well, you get the picture,” he said.  “You could see all the way up into her softer regions.”

     “Was that weird for a prisoner?” I asked.  “I mean, I’m sure you wanted to stay far away from her.  Yet, at the same time, from what it sounds like, she set the camp on fire.”

     “I would daydream of her,” Pfefferkorn told his story.  “I would imagine the two of us, alone, in some private corner.  I would imagine taking that slit of her skirt, the peek-a-boo, and ripping it into shreds.  I was thirteen then, bar mitzvah age.  The image got the best of me.  I felt guilty.  She was responsible for thousands of deaths and I daydreamed about her.  I wasn’t the only one.”

      Guilt.  Sex-as-fantasy produced an overwhelming sense of guilt.  This example had to do with a pinup girl, so to speak, a seductive overlord.  But let’s consider smaller fantasies, fantasies with more common women in mind.  In the concentration camp universe, where murder was all-surrounding and always closing in, wouldn’t the momentary pleasure associated with those fantasies lead to guilt?  Wouldn’t that then be shunted to a corner of the survivor’s mind and get buried under the layers of more acceptable behavior?  Was talk about sex-as-fantasy for the survivor too revealing of behavior, too self-accusatory, too searing?

     Pfefferkorn looked down at the sandwich on his lap.  I’ve never seen anyone look so lost.  That image has stayed with me since.  Here was a man with a raging libido.  Here was a man who would go to lengthy extremes for sex.  Here was a man who used a death camp as a pickup line.  And yet, the guilt of a fantasy left him emasculated.  Pfefferkorn, I realized, had a psychache.  That, too, was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome.  But maybe that look could best be described as the Mad Mainz effect.  She emasculated men in the archaic sense.  She left them castrated.  Even to fantasize about her had a sense of castration to it.

     The Mad Mainz effect, though, did not prevent the human side from showing.  Guilt or no guilt, psychache or no psychache, she left the imprint of a rich fantasy life on Pfefferkorn the prisoner.  She made him yearn, and imagine.  In that way, she humanized him.  It sounds strange.  Here was a sadist.  Here was an overlord with no sensitivity for those around her.  Yet, her presence sparked sexual fantasy, and somewhere in that mix, Pfefferkorn the prisoner could be Pfefferkorn the teenager, Pfefferkorn the lust.

10) A sad thing happened at Pfefferkorn’s memorial service.  Well, maybe not a sad thing.  Maybe something ironic.  Pfefferkorn blasted his eulogizers, while he was alive of course.  To me, and perhaps to me alone, he called those men “placebos.”  Notably, he did not know that those men would go on to be his eulogizers.

     Let me explain.  I did not attend the memorial in Toronto.  I was in Israel.  A week before Pfefferkorn’s death, we talked on the phone.  He had lost the power of his voice, I noticed.  I had to strain to hear him.  I had to press the receiver of the phone hard against my ear.  He wished me a good trip and we said goodbye.  Those words would be our last.

     From Jerusalem, I scanned the list of speakers at his memorial.  They made me guffaw.  I knew most of them, and I heard Eli’s voice in my head, telling me that the lot of them suffered from “the placebo effect.”

     What was “the placebo effect?”  Back during our first meeting in New York, Pfefferkorn told a tale.  God was building the human race.  All of humanity stood before Him, in a line.  His assistant stood in front of a cauldron, stirring the mix within.  “These were the brains,” Pfefferkorn described.  “One by one, people walked by.  The assistant poured a heaping ladle of brains into each cranium.  Quickly into the proceedings, the assistant realized that they were running out of brain matter fast.  ‘What should we do?’ he asked God.  God replied, ‘Get another cauldron.  Fill it with placebo.’  The assistant did as told.  Less than ten percent of humanity got the brains.  The rest live under the placebo effect.”

     Pfefferkorn spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies.  His memorial service would have been his last.  Certainly Pfefferkorn would have put himself near the front of the line, as God’s assistant doled out brain matter.  He would have received a heaping ladle.  His eulogizers would have received the placebo.  In Pfefferkorn’s way of seeing, his big brain would have been eulogized by those inert substances.

     Had Pfefferkorn listened to the eulogizers at his own memorial service, he would have sought justice.  Justice as remembrance.  That was Eli Pfefferkorn.  That was his Majdanek Syndrome.

Who was the real Mordechai Shushani?

Who was the real Mordechai Shushani?

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 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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part five.  In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles are all available further down this page.  In part four, I broke with the chronicler motif.  I profiled a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and, in contrast to the typical traits of a survivor, he displayed shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism.  His profile included a major reveal.  I hold Lazar’s “secret stash,” or explosive documents that reach back to the first century, and before.   An article or two in that “secret stash” unveils new information on our next character.  Let’s move away from famous chroniclers, and kind Holocaust survivors, to profile a great enigma.  His name was Mordechai Shushani and he was a mystery unlike any other.  Here are ten brushstrokes to demystify the Shushani mystique:

1) Mordechai Shushani (or Ben-Chouchan, as he was first identified in an article in Maariv back in 1952) did not offer a written account of his life.  He did not settle down at a university somewhere, with a student population who might document his teachings, his beliefs, his politics, his experiences and expectations.  Nobody who came across him in the years before World War Two or after ever noted Shushani with pad and paper.  He was not a diarist.  He was not a letter writer.  Only Elie Wiesel noted “manuscripts” written by Shushani.  But Elie Wiesel, as I’ve documented in different places, including a profile on this blog (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/), is an unreliable witness.

     Without a written record, the evaluation process becomes hazy.  The written record stands as a crucial barometer.  Without one, the life and legacy of a subject depends upon the whim of the storyteller.

     In Shushani’s case, that haziness turns into a dense fog, as the first and primary writer to document his life was Wiesel.  He did so in four chapters spanning thirty years.  But let’s be real about Wiesel.  He liked his mysteries.  In a library’s worth of volumes on and by Wiesel, he promoted a great unknown, his own enigma.  Notably, he wrote predominantly about subjects who did not write on themselves (his father, a character named Moché, the Besht).  That gave Wiesel a clear playing field to profile as he saw fit.

     In Shushani’s case, it’s also noteable: the biographer (Wiesel) of one the most enigmatic characters of the 20th century (Shushani) tried for his own enigma.  What did he create?  Let’s jump in.

     In his last chapter on Shushani, his autobiography from the 1990s, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel documented the first sighting.  The visual occurred in the summer of 1945, or weeks after Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald.  Wiesel, then a stateless teenager living in a French orphanage, traveled to Lyon.  There, amongst other activities, he attended a lecture by the philosopher André Neher.  An informal professor/pupil relationship developed.  Neher offered a unique doctrine.  His ways of interpreting circumvented conventional Jewish thinking.  “He didn’t explain through a narrow, Jewish perspective but rather a worldly scope,” Benjamin Gross, who did his doctoral work under Neher, explained.  Gross saw the effect as “revolutionary” for Wiesel.  The narrow vision of a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania began to expand, Gross proposed. (Author interview with Benjamin Gross, January 2009.)

     One evening, someone pointed out the “strange man” named Shushani.  Wiesel described, “Dressed like a vagabond, a tiny hat perched on his enormous head, he stood in a corner, lost in his thoughts.”  Meanwhile, the talk of the room centered upon the man.  Was he a genius?  A madman?  Wiesel hesitated to approach.  The combination – “I was wary of geniuses and drawn to madmen” – left him in a state of vacillation.  As Wiesel vacillated, Shushani vanished.  “Too bad,” Wiesel concluded, “but our paths would cross again.”

     If this was Wiesel’s first visual of Shushani, only Wiesel served as the source.  Benjamin Gross, while present at the Neher lecture, knew Shushani from the war years.  Both had been in Limoges.  For at least part of the war, Shushani gave lectures on the Talmud.  “Big ones that lasted a few hours,” Gross recalled.  But if he recalled the lectures, Gross couldn’t place Shushani in Lyon in the immediate aftermath of war.

     Some thirty years before Wiesel wrote his autobiography, he chronicled a different first sighting of Shushani.  In a story called in “The Wandering Jew,” published in Legends of Our Time, that visual turned into an encounter.  Wiesel set the time and place as post-war Paris.  He set the tone, “Our first meeting was brief and stormy.”

     According to Wiesel, he attended a synagogue to welcome in Shabbat.  After prayers, a dialogue ensued between the “old man, repulsive in appearance” and “the foreigner,” as Wiesel described himself, “the refugee… from over there.”  A code for the concentration camp universe. 

     In their brief dialogue Wiesel rendered himself as bashful, diffident – “I bit my lips” – and Shushani as irritable, cutting, brilliant.  Shushani gave a lecture.  “He closed his eyes,” Wiesel told his tale, “and went into an explication, the brilliance and rigor of which dazzled me.  I was already his, I entrusted him with my will, my reason.  He spoke and I could only admire the extent of his knowledge, the richness of his thought.”

     Following the lecture, Wiesel attempted a compliment.  He called the lecture “beautiful.”  According to Wiesel, Shushani derided.  He described beauty as a “façade,” a “decoration,” as “nothing more than illusion[.]  Man defines himself by what disturbs him and not by what reassures him.”

     A pattern emerged.  In the educational process of Hasidism, or the milieu in which Wiesel was raised, mentorship meant everything.  Every young Hasid needed a master.  Wiesel found his.  That relationship lasted for three years, according to Wiesel.  Shushani came twice a week to Wiesel’s tiny rented room in Paris, never at the same time.  He stayed for hours, speaking on whatever subject “preoccupied him that day.  And each time,” Wiesel continued, “I felt the same sense of amazement.”

     That sense of amazement, as Wiesel expanded his first story on Shushani into a wider narrative, gave way to a figura.  Shushani became a mystery, a riddle.  Wiesel nurtured the mystery.  He built stories on top of stories, or “tales in tales.  Tales of tales of tales.  Like a concentric circle.”  If there were contradictions in the tales, so be it, for they not only served the mystery but they allowed Wiesel to control the flow of information.  Contradictions in the world of Wiesel became a form of control.  As noted earlier, Wiesel even contradicted the notion that Shushani didn’t add to the historical record.  He identified “indecipherable manuscripts” written by Shushani, “some of which are in my possession.”

     If that is accurate, there is no record.  Wiesel’s life’s work can be found at Boston University, where Wiesel taught from 1976 to 2013.  Joel Rappel, the founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive, characterized Wiesel basically as a packrat, or someone “known for meticulously saving almost every piece of paper on which he wrote.”  Still, there are no Shushani manuscripts in the holdings.  (https://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Elie-Wiesels-first-book-574677)

2) From the first line in his first chapter on Shushani, Wiesel imbued his narrative with enigma.  “No one knew his name or his age,” Wiesel wrote in 1966, “perhaps he had none.”  For the length of that first chapter Wiesel kept the identity of the man a mystery.  Wiesel solved that mystery in his second chapter.  “If I reveal his name now,” Wiesel wrote in 1970, in a story called “The Death of My Teacher” in One Generation After, “it is because he is no longer alive.”  Shushani died in 1968.

     According to Wiesel, his attempt at safeguarding Shushani’s identity in his first chapter didn’t work with those who knew him.  “Others recognized him despite my efforts to disguise the image,” Wiesel wrote in “The Death of My Teacher.”  “His disciples of one year, or one night, took pains to tell me they were not fooled.”

     Wiesel responded, “I myself thought I had exaggerated; yet I had told the truth.  Yes, he did visit faraway countries; yes, he did received unusually high fees for his lectures, fees he then gave to charity; yes, he did behave like one of the hidden Just Men who enter exile and anonymity before offering salvation to their fellow men; yes, he was greater than the legend surrounding his person.”

     Note the heavy brushstrokes: the intrepid wanderer, the generosity, the comportment.  Note the legend building.  Wiesel equated Shushani’s code of conduct to the Just Men, known in Hebrew as the Lamed Vov.  According to Talmudic tradition, thirty-six Lamed Vovnik walk the earth at any one time.  As righteous individuals, they carry the weight of mankind.  But they are not saints or holy men.  They are too humble to even believe in their function.

     Wiesel furthered the humility aspect in another source.  “In the Hasidic tradition,” he related, “before the Just Man could be revealed he had to become a Navenadnik, wandering about and hiding his own identity so as to attract and help others anonymously.” (See Lily Edelman, “A Conversation with Elie Wiesel,” in Robert Franciosi, ed., Elie Wiesel: Conversations.)

     If Wiesel hinted at Shushani as a Navenadnik in his second chapter, he used the term outright in his autobiography from the 1990s.  The brushstroke then attributed high moral standards to Shushani: modesty, humility, nobility. 

3) Let’s interrupt these brushstrokes to ask a question.  In his biography of Shushani, did Wiesel subtly present a grandiose image of self?  Consider the tone presented in his Shushani legend and promoted in his own narrative: humility.  In that tone, Wiesel removed himself from the forces of ambition.  He shaped his own character upon the solitude of work, to study and to write.  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.  The world fame and import fell to him.  He played no role in his accomplishments.  Rather, he expressed wonder at his success.

     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 first memoir, the iconic 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, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…” (Author correspondence with Georges Borchardt, May 1, 2009.)

     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 Borchardt missed the wider story.  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 does she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never does Wiesel acknowledge that role.

     Wiesel’s incredulity then expressed a kind of purity.  The advance of Wiesel’s brand, however, developed through a more active, assertive role.  To hire an agency did not remove Wiesel from self-promotion.  Rather, it added a layer.  A similar dynamic played out in Wiesel’s campaign to win the Novel Prize.

     Notably, the lack of self-promotion as a defining characteristic paralleled the New Testament.  “He stayed outside in remote places,” the Gospel of Mark detailed Jesus’ movement.  “Yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.” (Mark 1:45.  Oxford Study Bible.)  Was the framing coincidental?  A lack of self-promotion, an overwhelming tone of humility, promoted Wiesel as modest, somber, interior.  The Gospels of Jesus imbue the figure with similar characteristics.

4) Let’s circle back to Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as a Lamed Vov.  If Wiesel subtly presented a grandiose image of self as a disciple, did he go further?  In his wider narrative of Shushani, did Wiesel mold a Wiesel-like character?  Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel?

     To find answers, let’s expand the probe.  In addition to Wiesel’s epic narrative, a smattering of investigations and eyewitness accounts accumulated over the years.  How did those sources describe Shushani in relation to the legend perpetuated by Wiesel? 

     As Wiesel began his narrative with name and age, that seems like an appropriate jumping off spot.  In his final chapter on Shushani, Wiesel gave the man’s birth name as Mordechai Rosenbaum.  According to Wiesel, he based his conclusion on information sent to him by other eyewitnesses.

     An Israeli journalist, Yair Sheleg, weighed in with different theories in his own investigation.  Sheleg speculated that Wiesel saw one of Shushani’s passports, bearing the name Mordechai ben Shushan.  Shushan in Hebrew means lily or a lily-like flower.  Sheleg, wrongfully, named rosenbaum as the German word for lily.  (see Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)

     In contrast, a journalist named Salomon Malka interviewed a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew.  Malka was then writing his book, Monsieur Chouchani.  In that book, Malka interviewed Wiesel extensively.  In fact, the Wiesel interview comprised the first part of the book.  I am calling that interview Wiesel’s third chapter on Shushani.

     According to Malka, Shushani’s nephew passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman.  That name found corroboration from another source.  Shalom Rosenberg, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University who studied with Shushani late in Shushani’s life, told a story.  He credited Shushani as the source.  In the 1920s Shushani traveled to America.  He carried with him letters of introduction.  The letters, written by Rabbi Abraham Kook, named “Perlmann” as a “brilliant, highly knowledgeable rabbi, who has a wide breadth of learning and profound wisdom.”

     In Shushani then, identity confusion formed.  Mystery stoked the confusion.  The uncertainty added to the legend.  Did Wiesel, in helping to build the identity confusion, do something similar with his own?

     His birth name, according to a copy of his birth certificate, was Lazar Vizel.  His Hebrew name was Eliezer.  In the 1950s he changed the spelling of his family name.  The copyright to his Yiddish manuscript of Night reads: Eliezer Wiesel.  Two years later, he adopted another name.  With the publication of La Nuit, the world was introduced to Elie Wiesel.

     If the alteration westernized and de-Judaized his name, Wiesel added layers.  In his autobiography from the 1990s, Wiesel claimed that he wrote under pen names, Elisha Carmeli and Ben Shlomo.  In those layers Wiesel created his own identity confusion.  Mystery and uncertainty built from the confusion.  A legend emerged.

     Wiesel did something similar with Shushani’s birthplace  He  named a series of possible birthplaces, from Marrakech to Vilna to Kishinev to Safed to Calcutta to Florence to Shushan in modern-day Iran, a city mentioned in both the Book of Esther and the Book of Daniel.  That place-name, of course, possibly explained the origin of Shushani’s name.

     In his two later chapters, Wiesel reduced the possibilities down to one: Lithuania.  According to the tale he told to Salomon Malka, Wiesel met with a rabbi who claimed to be Shushani’s nephew.  Wiesel even noted that the nephew resembled his once master in appearance.  The nephew offered a portrait of Shushani as a child, including Lithuania as his birthplace.

     Wiesel then picked up the thread of Shushani’s childhood.  He offered a profile in his autobiography.  As a child, Shushani “dazzled relatives and teachers with his prodigious memory.  He retained everything he read.  Even before his bar mitzvah he could recite the entire Talmud by heart.  People came great distances to listen to him, and his father took him even further afield, exhibiting him, for a fee, in various communities.  That was how he got rich, and how he traveled the world.  Everywhere he went he stunned and enchanted his audience, becoming a formidable acrobat of knowledge.”

     Note the effect.  What Wiesel began in his first chapter with the “brief and stormy” meeting in a Parisian synagogue reverberated.  Shushani as an ilui, or prodigy.  Shushani as a maggid, or an itinerant orator, sparkled.  Lost in the sparkle was Wiesel’s profile of himself and the similarities between the two.  Wiesel did not portray himself as a child maggid, but he did become a maggid as a young adult.  First, he turned to journalism.  Thanks to that profession he “explored the world and went to North Africa, Africa, South America, India and elsewhere.” (Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.)  Later, his emissary career took him to such places as Moscow, Kiev, Thailand and Ethiopia.

     Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as an ilui found a variant of himself in his narrative.  Wiesel told a story in his autobiography.  The date was sometime in the early 1960s.  According to Wiesel, he received an urgent phone call from a cousin.  Gravely ill, the cousin needed an operation.  Before going under the knife, however, he wanted Wiesel’s blessing.  Wiesel rushed to the hospital.

     Days after the surgery, Wiesel went to visit the cousin.  Wiesel had an ulterior motive for the visit.  Why did the cousin want Wiesel’s blessing?  In answering the question the cousin related a prophecy.  The prophecy took place when Wiesel was 8 years old.  The year, ostensibly, was 1936.  Wiesel went with his mother to see the Rebbe of Vishnitz.  This was a regular routine.  The Wiesels belonged to Vishnitzer Hasidim.  The Rebbe received both mother and son.  After a time, he asked the mother to leave the room.  He then tested the child on his knowledge.  Afterward, he asked to see Wiesel’s mother alone.

     Wiesel waited in an antechamber.  When his mother emerged from the private audience, she was a “changed woman,” according to Wiesel.  “Violent sobs shook her body.  People stared at her in commiseration.  The Rabbi must have said terrible things to her, terrifying, painful things – about me.”

     Flash forward to the 1960s and the cousin in his pre-operative state.  Why did he crave Wiesel’s blessing?  The cousin, it turns out, was in the antechamber that day back in 1936.  When he saw Wiesel’s mother emerge in tears, he rushed to comfort her.  He walked with her awhile.  She confided in him.  The cousin then relayed the Rebbe’s words to Wiesel in the hospital room.  “Know that your son will become a gadol b’Israel, a great man in Israel, but neither you nor I will live to see the day,” the Rebbe told Wiesel’s mother.

     Unlike Wiesel’s profile of Shushani’s childhood, Wiesel downplayed the prophecy story.  By adding layers – a cousin relating a tale that occurred thirty years earlier – he removed himself and subtly reduced the effect.  In essence the effect framed the gadol b’Israel as a man of humility.  What got lost?  Wiesel created a legend that fit both his ambition and his aesthetic.

5) How did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life?  In his autobiography, Wiesel chronicled the encounter on a train from Paris to Taverny.  According to Wiesel, his head was in the Book of Job, as he had to prepare for an upcoming presentation.  In Wiesel’s description, he felt confident that he knew the subject.  The scene was then set up for disturbance, degradation and restoration.

     Wiesel’s first chapter on Shushani some thirty years earlier moved along similar lines.  In both versions of the story, Wiesel unexpectedly heard a voice on the train.  When he looked up, he saw Shushani as “slovenly, and his ridiculous tiny hat and dusty glasses made him more than a little conspicuous.”

     Shushani immediately embarked on a “veritable examination” of Wiesel’s knowledge of Job, “strewn with traps and trick questions.”  Wiesel failed miserably.  Shushani then excoriated Wiesel for having the “chutzpah to give a speech on Job in public.”

     In his autobiography Wiesel described his reaction.  “I was eager for this ordeal to end” but the “train moved with agonizing lethargy.”  The “ordeal” did not end at the Taverny depot.  According to Wiesel, Shushani followed him to the orphanage where he lived.  Shushani spent the weekend.  Wiesel described that Shabbat as “a punishment.”  Shushani allowed Wiesel to give his presentation.  “He didn’t speak during the discussion either,” Wiesel detailed, “but an ironic smile fluttered on his lips.”

     That ironic smile turned into a “real” lecture on Job to “rehabilitate” him.  Wiesel called that lecture “a dazzling, stimulating, provocative, enriching exposition the likes of which I had never heard.”

     If his first chapter on Shushani moved along somewhat different lines – Shushani had no patience for Wiesel’s presentation, he interrupted and took the class on an “unforgettable experience” – the framing stoked the legend building.  Note the figure of Job.  As rendered by Wiesel, the power relationship between Shushani and Wiesel paralleled the power relationship between God and Job.  Was Wiesel actually studying Job on that train ride or did he use the character as a literary device?  Further, by the time Wiesel offered his first chapter on Shushani, he had come to be recognized as a Job-like figure.  Alfred Kazin, writing a review of Night in 1960, found Wiesel’s “embittered interrogation of Providence” analogous to “the ever-human Job.”  The framing lit a fire.  In 1966 Maurice Freedman, the biographer of Martin Buber, labeled Wiesel as a “modern Job.”  Nearly three decades later, Freedman altered the label to the “Job of Auschwitz.” (See Alfred Kazin, “The Least of These,” The Reporter, November 1960.  See Maurice Friedman, “Elie Wiesel – The Modern Job,” The Commonweal, vol. 85, October 14, 1966.)

     In between these pronouncements Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends.  He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job.  As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war.  Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed.  “Wounded, robbed, mutilated.  Certainly not happy.  Nor resigned.”

     The description seemed to ask something of Wiesel.  Did he have himself in mind?  In his wider portraiture of Job, did he mold a Wiesel-like character?  Did he highlight those characteristics of the Jobian legend to fit with his own biography?  By telling his tale, did he subtly parallel and promote himself as a Jobian figure?

     Let’s take a brief detour from Shushani to consider certain brushstrokes in Wiesel’s portrait of Job.  Wiesel labeled the character as “our contemporary.”  He asserted, “Whenever we attempt to tell our own story, we transmit his.”  If immediately Wiesel created a link between himself and a Biblical counterpart, he solidified the connection.  The character belonged to the “most vulnerable part of our past.”  Job was “a mirror a thousand times shattered reflecting the image of a solitude bursting with madness.”

     The image in the mirror circled back to the end of the Night story, when Wiesel looked at himself after a year in the concentration camp universe.  The shattering conjured a different ending.  At the end of Wiesel’s Yiddish version of Night, he shattered the mirror.  The madness spoke to the overall effect of the concentration camp universe.  It also linked to Wiesel’s chronicle of Shushani, as madness played a vital component.  Madness wasn’t the only connection to Shushani.  Wiesel rendered Job as a Just Man, stateless, a wanderer through provinces and centuries.

     In Wiesel’s overlap of stories, in his “concentric circle,” Job, Shushani and Wiesel all orbited and intersected.  But unlike Wiesel’s biography of Shushani, his portrait of Job focused on that “vulnerable” past.  Wiesel rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.”  He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall.  “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.”  He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”

     How did Job react to these circumstances?  He asked “no questions, not even of himself.”  He “believed.”  He “accepted.”  “He did not, he could not, understand what was happening to and around him.  He was being pulled and pushed in all directions and he did not know that it was all part of a plan.”

     If his description essentially followed the story as told in the Book of Job, note the connections to another story.  Substitute the 1940s for the ancient period.  Substitute Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet for the land of Uz.  Substitute Wiesel for Job.  Wiesel’s description paralleled his prelude to his arrival in the concentration camp universe.  Job’s belief and acceptance sounded like Sighet’s in the days when deportations trains meant “work.”  The staggering speed sounded like Sighet’s sea change, as the town moved from thriving shtetl to ghetto to Auschwitz in rapid succession.  If Job did not understand the master plan, if Job did not revolt, neither did Sighet.  But Job, like Wiesel, was pushed to the brink.  When he finally spoke, according to Wiesel, Job asked the “eternal question” of the persecuted: “Why?  Why me?  Why now? … What is God doing, and where is His justice?”

     Those questions echoed the torment found in the most pivotal scene in the Night story, as three prisoners were hung in front of the entire prison population of Monowitz.  Behind him, Wiesel heard another prisoner utter, “‘Where is God?  Where is He?  Where can He be now?’”

     The echoes reverberated further.  Wiesel imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence.  Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty.  His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”

     Did the description suggest something of Wiesel?  Did he find his own innocence as a survivor troubling?  Did he form his guilt to find some meaning?  Forming guilt was hardly a reach.  For Wiesel, self-recrimination pervaded, in the way Wiesel could not aid his dying father, in the very act of survival while the surrounding pastoral was littered with bodies.  A question then forms.  In Wiesel’s telling of the Job story, where did Job end and Wiesel begin?

     In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero.  “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.”  He made his words “quiver.”  He made his words “scream.”  Words became Job’s rebellion.  In words, Job “reversed the roles.”  God became the “defendant.”  Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”

     Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter.  Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself.  This was Wiesel’s indictment, too.

     At this point in the legend, according to Wiesel, God “chose to make Himself heard.”  God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question.  If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable.  Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied.  Vindicated.  Rehabilitated.”  The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”

     For Job, such action led to restoration.  He recovered all that he had lost.  He died an old, satisfied man.  For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.”  In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.”  Wiesel wanted Job to protest further.  Wiesel reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth.  “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You?  What right have I to speak on their behalf? …  Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them.  I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”

     Wiesel’s trial continued.  Unlike Job, restoration was not an option.  Those murdered during the Judeocide were not coming back.  The town of his childhood was gone.  The boy he was, and the man he would have become under a different history, left a lasting, staggering impression.  The words Wiesel put in Job’s mouth speak to Wiesel’s adult life.  As a messenger to mankind, he built his tug with God into a less celestial, more earthly, protest.  He became a voice of conscience.

     Where did Job end and Wiesel begin?  Here, with Job’s renunciation and Wiesel’s repudiation.  But Wiesel’s break with Job did not discount or nullify the overall resonance of the tale.  A Job-like figure emerged.  For followers of Wiesel, the connections were unmistakable.  A Biblical, or prophetic, counterpart became incorporated in what would be known as the “Elie Wiesel Phenomenon.”

6) The figure of Job then, in Wiesel’s chronicle of Mordechai Shushani, appeared multifaceted.  But from Shushani’s enigmatic appearance in Wiesel’s life, a choice presented itself.  Two directions beckoned.  One direction led toward piety, rooted in tradition.  The other direction led toward the cult of iconoclasm.  If we know the direction Wiesel chose, some evidence suggests that a close friend and adviser attempted to lead Wiesel away from Shushani.  Menashe Klein, like Wiesel, grew up in the Orthodox environment of Northern Transylvania.  Klein came from Ungvar.  As the son of the Ungvar rabbi, he followed a most prestigious line.  His future, like Wiesel’s, appeared set.

     That future came crashing down in the spring of 1944.  Like Wiesel, Klein’s Holocaust journey passed from Auschwitz to Buchenwald to orphanages in France to America.  Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor at those orphanages, remembered Klein as “special.”  Aside from his cantorial voice, he looked “after the religious life” of the boys.  “He was like a rabbi then.”

     Wiesel agreed.  He called Klein, “Our guide, our spokesman” in the orphanages.  “When there were matters to discuss with the management, he did it.”  Wiesel credited Klein with constructing a real Shabbat, “so that the service would be dignified and the study room similar to those we had known in our childhood.”

     Klein immigrated to America in 1947.  He settled originally in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and went on to found a yeshiva in Borough Park.  He became the spiritual leader of the Ungvar community and, according to Wiesel, “one of the great Halachic arbiters of his generation.”  When he died in 2011, he had thousands of disciples.  In many ways he fulfilled the demands of his prestigious lines of heritage, with the flatlands of central Brooklyn substituted for the mountainous region of Northern Transylvania.

     Before emigrating, Klein met with Shushani.  According to Wiesel in his autobiography, Klein felt “threatened in his presence.”  He didn’t have specific reasons for the threat, just “instinct.”  He counseled Wiesel to “leave him as soon as possible.”  He pleaded, “Do not see him again.  The welfare of your soul is at stake.” (Author interview with Hemmendinger, December 2008.  For Wiesel’s description of Klein in France, see Elie Wiesel, “Friendship,” in Irving Abrahamson, ed., Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, vol. II.  For Wiesel’s description of Klein in America, see Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.)

     Klein chose the piety path.  Wiesel, who had followed the piety path up to this point in time, submitted to Shushani.  If piety represented old patterns, a world of fathers, Shushani shook his “inner peace.”  He “overturned certainties.”  Wiesel declared, “I needed to be forced to start all over.”

     In Shushani, Wiesel seemed to abandon the governing forces of his upbringing.  He seemed to abandon friends.  He became a very lonely person, according to eyewitness reflection.  He seemed to abandon God, according to more eyewitness reflection.  He denied God’s very existence.  He became a renegade.  His interrogation of God, found on the pages of Night, can be charted to the period spent with Shushani.

     Shushani seemed to come at Wiesel as a deconstructionist.  He abolished established doctrine.  He made Wiesel think, not only theologically and textually but creatively.  He made Wiesel imagine.  Wiesel in his psychological state welcomed that kind of instruction.  Shushani became his rebellion.

     But recognize how Wiesel rebelled: through a master, or through an old model.  Wiesel saw Shushani as a maggid.  There was a comfort to this mooring.  “I used to go to the synagogue every Sabbath and listen to the maggidim,” Wiesel recalled.  “They were wandering storytellers who used to go from one village to another.  They were the link between villages, the witnesses from one culture to another.” (Edward B. Fiske, “Elie Wiesel: Archivist with a Mission,” The New York Times, January 31, 1973.)

     In Shushani the maggid, Wiesel seemed to find a piece of his childhood, a flicker.  Shushani then wasn’t strictly a deconstructionist.  A wider evaluation identifies Shushani as both an iconoclast and a link back to Wiesel’s childhood.  For Wiesel, Shushani was an extraordinary find.

7) For Shushani, Wiesel was just as extraordinary.  Whoever Shushani was, and the historical record struggles to define him, recognize what he became in Wiesel the biographer.  Wiesel established himself as the bearer of Shushani’s tikkun, or restoration.  In such a role the bearer carried enormous weight.  Wiesel determined the outline and color of the past.

     Wiesel’s tikkun, however, wasn’t the only reflection of Shushani from the era of liberation in France.  Other boys and their counselors from the French orphanages retained some vivid memories.  Perhaps the most vivid belonged to Judith Hemmendinger, for her father studied the Talmud with Shushani in the pre-war years.  Those studies began in Strasbourg in 1936.  According to Hemmendinger, Shushani “came every night for dinner at our place and my father was crazy about him.”  Hemmendinger’s mother felt differently.  She “didn’t like him so much because he was a schnorer and he stank,” Hemmendinger revealed.

     These recollections spoke to a polarizing enigma.  Hemmendinger’s mother saw a beggar.  Her father saw a genius.  Both views held sway.

     Hemmendinger also placed Shushani in Paris right before the war, where her father continued his studies.  “The apartments in Paris were not heated,” Hemmendinger recalled, so Shushani and her father studied the Talmud in the metro, “because it was warm there.”

     When war broke out, Hemmendinger’s father was put in a vulnerable position.  Philippe Feist was an engineer from Berlin.  He’d never gained French citizenship.  As a German national living in Paris, and therefore a citizen of an enemy combatant, he was arrested by the French.  When the Nazis conquered France, Feist became a prisoner of the Third Reich.  As a Jew, he was deported to Auschwitz in September 1943.  He did not survive.

     The memory of Philippe Feist, though, worked in Shushani’s favor.  Judith Hemmendinger recalled, “I was in Taverny [an orphanage] and he [Shushani] came and said he wanted a place to stay in the home.  I told him I couldn’t.  He said: ‘You can’t tell me that after I was so close to your father.’  So I capitulated.”

     Hemmendinger’s reflection contained a strain of Shushani’s manipulative tendencies.  She also contradicted Wiesel’s encounter story.  Did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life on a train to Taverny as he studied Job, or as a guest invited (by coercion) by Hemmendinger?

     Hemmendinger continued with her reflections.  “Because he smelled so bad he got a room on his own.  A very small room.  He never ate with us – only on Friday night because he was never hungry.  He was studying all day.  A few boys were meshuggah with him like my father was….”

     Hemmendinger went on to describe the boys’ enchantment.  On Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples, Shushani “spoke from morning to night.  The boys would sit there listening to him!”  The exclamation and surprise that boys could sit for so long, and so engrossed, were hers.

     Other sources confirmed Shushani’s eating patterns.  A lack of hunger, though, was not the driving force.  Moshe Schweber, who originally met Shushani in Strasbourg in the 1930s, offered housing to Shushani years later in Jerusalem.  He recalled, Shushani “would never let people pass their hands near his food, because he was afraid of contamination.”  Zwi Bachrach, later a Jewish history professor at Bar-Ilan University, met Shushani on a kibbutz.  He recalled, “He would never sit with us in the dining hall.  We had to leave a tray with his food outside the door of his room and he would eat by himself.  The first time I offered him a cup of coffee, he threw it out the window.” (Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)

     If paranoia was the driving force for his abstinence, Hemmendinger reflected further on Shushani’s eating pattern.  He typically ate “in the middle of the night” when “he’d get hungry for bread and sardines.”  To accommodate, Hemmendinger gave the storage key to one of the boys.  “You have the key only for Mr. Shushani,” she told the boy.

     To a paranoid, manipulative behavior pattern, Hemmendinger also described a hoarder.  “He never threw anything away.”  His stash of papers and books reached “so high the cleaning woman couldn’t get into his room!”  Hemmendinger ordered the cleaning woman to throw away Shushani’s materials.  To his credit, he “never complained.”

     Shushani remained at the orphanage at Taverny for two to three years, according to Hemmendinger.  Ostensibly then he lived at Taverny for the life of the home, arriving sometime after October 1945 and departing before September 1947.  Did Hemmendinger’s detail contradict Wiesel’s?  Did Shushani’s tutoring of the young Wiesel take place at an orphanage in Taverny, not in a tiny rented room in central Paris?

     Regardless, both Hemmendinger and her colleague, Gaby Cohen, wanted Shushani to leave Taverny.  But Hemmendinger felt trapped.  Out of loyalty to her father, she allowed Shushani to stay.  “What can you do?” Hemmendinger asked rhetorically.

     To Hemmendinger’s detail, Gaby Cohen added broad strokes.  “The man who did not sleep and did not eat…  How to describe him?  Mysterious, strange, special.  Present in our world?  Just that kind of never seen before.”

     A great phrase: “Just that kind of never seen before.”  Another boy from that time offered a similar description.  Jacques Ribons did not study with Shushani.  To Ribons, Shushani was inaccessible.  “You couldn’t talk to him,” Ribons described in his patent phraseology. (Author interview with Jacques Ribon, January 2010.)

     Ribons then segued to a story.  One day he was traveling to Paris.  Shushani occupied the same car.  According to Ribons, Shushani always carried a suitcase.  At the train station in Paris Shushani’s suitcase fell open.  It was full of money.  Dollars, British pounds, French Francs.  “Where did you get the money?” Ribons asked.  Shushani replied that he went on tours of the United States.

     Ribons’ story found corroboration from Wiesel.  He, too, witnessed the suitcase filled with money.  He also told Salomon Malka that Shushani earned his keep by giving lessons.  How did Wiesel pay for his?  According to Wiesel, he didn’t.  Living far below the poverty line at that time, Wiesel couldn’t offer remuneration.  Counselor Mireille Warshawski contradicted Wiesel.  The agency that governed the orphanages, known as the OSE, paid Shushani.

     According to Wiesel, Shushani also made money in another fashion.  During the 1920s, he made a mint in the stock market.  He lost that money in the crash.  According to Wiesel, Shushani then swore to never “again set foot on American soil…”

     The parallel to Wiesel is striking.  He lost a fortune in the Bernard Madoff scandal, with estimated losses reaching as high as 37 million dollars.  As Wiesel offered the detail of Shushani and the stock market crash years before the Madoff scandal, real life seemed to reflect storytelling.  If Shushani lost a fortune, Wiesel served as the only source.  But in the telling of that tale, Shushani became a prefiguration for Wiesel.

     Consider another prefiguration.  In 1950, according to Salomon Malka, Shushani was in a car accident while living in Israel.  The details of that accident remain sketchy.  Where did the accident occur?  Was Shushani hurt?  What were his injuries?  Malka couldn’t answer, nor did he know the source of the information.  In an author interview Malka added a postscript, “I hadn’t thought of it before, but Wiesel had a similar accident in New York in the 1950s, if I’m not mistaken.”

     Malka was not mistaken.  According to Wiesel’s narrative, a taxi driver hit him as he crossed a Times Square intersection in July 1956.  Here again, the Shushani accident seemed to prefigure the Wiesel accident.  A question lingers.  Was Wiesel the source behind the Shushani car accident?  If Wiesel didn’t spread the story in his biography, did he offer the information in a more covert way?  Was the car accident a prefiguration or a story spread subtly by Wiesel to parallel his own epic narrative?

8) In his autobiography, Wiesel charted the last decades of Shushani’s life.  Shushani abruptly left France for Israel.  He lived on a kibbutz.  He returned to Paris.  He then settled in Montevideo.  The framing left the imprint of the Just Man wandering in exile, returning to the image Wiesel created in his second chapter on Shushani, from 1970.  “I knew of no country he hadn’t visited,” Wiesel described.  “He had been seen in Algiers, heard in Casablanca, spotted in Nepal.”

     Notably, on those same pages, Wiesel spun a similar timeline of travel for himself.  He moved to Israel, but he didn’t find what he was seeking.  He returned to Paris.  Meanwhile, he trekked to North Africa and Morocco.  He traveled to India.  He even stopped at the port of Montevideo, allegedly.  Though, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, that last trip was a part of Wiesel’s apocrypha.

     What then did Wiesel’s narrative of Shushani suggest?  Was he blurring the lines?  Was he overlapping the epics?  Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel?  Where did Shushani end and Wiesel begin?

9) Shushani, indeed, settled in Montevideo.  He died in 1968.  Wiesel’s second chapter on Shushani told the story of his master’s death.  He related an eyewitness’s account, “Sitting on a lawn, surrounded by students, he was teaching them Talmud when suddenly he paused in mid-sentence; a moment later he had stopped breathing.  In Jewish tradition, such death is called mitat neshika: the angel comes and embraces the chosen one like a friend and takes him along without inflicting pain.”

     Mitat neshika, or death by a kiss, derived from an old rabbinic legend.  At age 120, Moses did not want to die.  Told by God that the time had come, Moses fought the decree relentlessly.  He enlisted all forces available to him, the earth, the sun and stars, to intercede on his behalf.  But God proved adamant and Moses had to accept his fate.  And so God came down to take the soul of Moses to the heavens.  Aided by attending angels, God had Moses close his eyes, cross his arms over his chest and put his legs together.  To herald death, God kissed Moses.  With that kiss God took Moses’s soul.

     The kiss connoted a mystical death, pure and soothing, peaceful to Moses’ initial struggle.  Wiesel’s conjuring of a mitat neshika in Shushani’s death edged Shushani up to saintliness.  Notably, according to Wiesel, a series of his masters died in the same pure manner.  If his masters died in purity, did that suggest something of the pupil?

     In his autobiography, written over twenty years after the second chapter, Wiesel told the same story of Shushani’s death.  However, in the later source, Wiesel established the time of death: “one Friday afternoon in 1965.”  In both renderings, Wiesel’s attention then went to himself.  Apparently, Shushani carried Wiesel’s first chapter, “The Wandering Jew,” in his pocket.  As it was found on Shushani at the time of death, Wiesel was asked to compose the Hebrew inscription for the tombstone.  According to Wiesel, the tombstone reads, “The rabbi and sage Mordechai Shushani, blessed be his memory.  His birth and his life are bound and sealed in enigma.  Died the sixth day of the week, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, 26 Tevet 5726.”

     That date converts to January 18, 1966 in the Gregorian calendar.  To these contradictory details, Salomon Malka offered a completely different history.  Only Wiesel’s day of death found corroboration: a Friday.  According to Malka’s investigation, Shushani attended a conference for South American teachers in Durasnes, a village in the middle of Uruguay.  The participants finished dinner.  Shushani had eaten alone in his room.  A participant at the conference passed by Shushani’s room and heard him cry out for a doctor in Hebrew, “Roffe! Roffe!”

     According to another participant at the conference, Shalom Rosenberg, Shushani felt like he couldn’t breathe.  He refused at first to see a doctor.  But he relented.  He was taken to the village hospital.  The doctor there diagnosed a heart attack.

     If Shushani died of a heart attack, Malka found contradictory information.  The body was brought to a rabbi in Montevideo, who washed Shushani before the burial.  According to that rabbi, Shushani died of a brain hemorrhage.

     In either case, Shushani might have died a gentle death, as per Wiesel’s story.  But the eyewitness reportage suggested otherwise.  The reportage suggested a patient in distress, either calling urgently for a doctor or, at the very least, suffering enough to consult one.

     According to the death registry, verified by Salomon Malka, Shushani died on January 26, 1968.  The registry offered the Hebrew date: 25 Tevet 5728.  Malka visited the grave.  While confirming the epitaph as written by Wiesel, Malka wondered why Wiesel did not mention the misdating in their interview.

     The misdating remains a part of the enigma of Shushani, as chronicled by Wiesel.  Another inaccuracy disappeared.  “He was buried in Jerusalem,” Wiesel wrote in his second chapter.  That canard vanished in his later autobiography.

     In an author interview, Salomon Malka related the “great disappointment” of his book.  He anticipated translations into English and Hebrew, the two most prominent languages of Jews in the modern era.  Through a wider readership Malka hoped to gain additional information.  But the book remained in its original French, with translations in Greek and Spanish.  No further discovery came across Malka’s desk.

     Malka connected his disappointment to Wiesel.  “My feeling is that Wiesel knows more than he is telling,” Malka confessed.  “Or that he likes keeping up the legend that surrounds this figure.” 

     By holding on to information, spinning legend, or adding disinformation (the deathdate as example) or contradictions, consider the pivotal role played by Wiesel.  He distinguished himself as the bearer of the Shushani legend.  Malka, for instance, sought out Wiesel as the key source.  Subtract Wiesel as a source and Malka’s book loses half of its pages.  Subtract Wiesel as a source and the stories of Shushani exist predominantly in oral form.  What happens when the generation who knew Shushani passes into history?  The future of Shushani belongs to Wiesel.

10) Or does it?  Early in my research on Wiesel, I met a legendary scholar.  His name was Moshe Lazar and he had spent his life’s work preserving the Sephardic heritage.  He had learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain, back in the 1950s.  He’d then begun to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library.  During his scholarly pursuits, he’d discovered and amassed a treasure troves of documents.  Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period.  But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period.  I hold some of those documents.  I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar.  Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away.  He gave me cherished documents, or what he proudly called his “secret stash.”

     Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody.  He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did.  Excommunication bothered him.  Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion.  He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him.  But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory.  Judaism gave him hope.  He could not leave hope behind.

     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?

     That is a large question.  One that I began to unravel in Satan’s Synagogue.  One that I will continue to unravel in future book projects.  But something in Moshe’s “secret stash” caught my eye upon first sight.  It was a siddur, or a Jewish prayer book.  Aside from being old and stained, it seemed quite ordinary.  The kind of book a davener might find in any place of worship.  What was the siddur doing in Moshe’s collection?

     I asked the man.  Moshe was a small man, as most Holocaust survivors were.  He’d entered the concentration camp universe at the age of fifteen.  Like nearly all Jewish prisoners, he’d been starved by his captors.  Without proper nutrients, his adolescent body didn’t develop.  But when I asked about the prayer book, Moshe seemed to grow in stature.  He seemed to fill the room.  We sat in his office at the University of Southern California and Moshe took on the height and girth of a member of a USC basketball team.  This from a man who stood about five foot six and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds.

     The siddur was a keepsake.   In his mind, Moshe was transported back to 1943, to a prison camp in France named Rivesaltes.  That camp, in historical terms, was a waystation.  Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs.  From there, all railway lines led to Auschwitz.

     Moshe did not go to Auschwitz.  He was rescued by the French Underground.  He was placed in a Catholic school, as per French Underground protocol.  He survived the rest of the war with his head in the New Testament, not the siddur.

     Moshe remembered the “strange” man he met at Rivesaltes.  “Shushani” the man called himself.  “Only Shushani,” Moshe continued, “as if he didn’t have a forename. 

     The one name didn’t define the man as “strange” in Moshe’s recollection.  Nor did his appearance or smell or vagabond ways.  Instead, the word spoke to the man’s “daily life.”  He “recited” the “siddur shalem,” or the complete siddur.  Every morning he “read” the siddur “aloud,” beginning with the “Shema Ysrael and the Priestly Blessing and moving through the other sixteen blessings.”  This, Moshe marvelled, in a place where scripture and religious life “had been banned.”  And, being caught with a prayer book or “reading” from it aloud would “end in a transport train to the East.” 

     “East,” of course, meant Auschwitz, where all life ended and though Moshe put the word “reading” in quotations, he didn’t really meant it.  The “strange” man knew the siddur by heart.  Moshe continued, “I began to read with Shushani.  I would sit with my eyes on the pages of the book and he would correct my pronunciations.  I never once saw him consult the book for content.  He had pitch perfect memory.”

     A great phrase: “pitch perfect memory.”  The phrase reminded me of Gaby Cohen’s description of Shushani: “Just that kind of never seen before.”

     The scene as described by Moshe left an indelible image.  While everyone around them foraged for food, Shushani and Moshe recited prayers to each other.  Moshe went on in life to think little of food, and other daily cares.  The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on the conditioning he’d learned at Rivesaltes.  Food, weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head.  Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.

     As noted, Moshe did not go to Auschwitz.  He was rescued by the French Underground.  “Did Shushani go to Auschwitz?” I asked Moshe.

     He didn’t answer directly.  Instead, he remember the post-war years in Paris.  Moshe lived there until 1948, when he went to Israel to fight in the War of Independence.  He saw Shushani again, or a “reflection” of Shushani.  “The man had changed,” Moshe remembered.  His words tailed off.  He couldn’t put his fingers on the change. 

     Moshe did not study with Shushani in Paris.  He no longer wanted to recite the daily prayers, or comb through the Torah and Talmud.  He had changed, too.  But, he did show Shushani a keepsake.  Back at Rivesaltes, when the Underground rescued as many children as possible, Moshe parted with Shushani.  As a gift, Shushani gave Moshe the siddur.  “Shushani didn’t need it anyway,” Moshe reasoned.  “You’ve never seen anyone with such a memory.”

     In post-war Paris, Shushani didn’t “acknowledge” the prayer bookin any way.  Moshe showed him the copy.  Shushani didn’t “remember the siddur, or me.”  Moshe called it “strange,” and perhaps part of Shushani’s particular “psyche.”

     Our conversation on Shushani ended there.  After Moshe’s death, I discovered the truth.  Moshe, it turns out, had looked into Shushani’s life.  He’d discovered a history never before uncovered.  It is a startling story never before told.  But, let me save that for another project.  I will, however, leave a hint. 

     As noted earlier in these pages, there was a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew.  That man passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman.  Shushani’s real name, if accurate, isn’t the hint.  The New Jersey man claimed to be Shushani’s nephew.  That meant that Shushani had at least one sibling.

Who was the real Moshe Lazar?

Who was the real Moshe Lazar?

(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 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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part four.  In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles are all available further down this page.  Here, I am breaking with the chronicler motif.  I am profiling a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism.  Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  Let’s jump into that question, and much more.  What follows is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) First, some biography.  Nicolas de la Garde was born in Satu Mare, Romania in 1928.  His father, Hermann, moved the family to Belgium the year after his birth.  Nicolas grew up speaking Yiddish in the home, and Flemish on the street.  The move to Belgium would have devastating consequences for the family some twelve years later.  The German blitzkrieg drove the family further west.  They didn’t wait until the Germans, along with their Belgian collaborators, ramped up the systematic persecution against all Jews in 1942.  Nicolas’s father piled his family into their Chevy truck and drove into France immediately after the Germans paraded past the Royal Palace in Brussels.  The family barely escaped the German army, but more on that in a moment.

     Freedom in France was, of course, short-lived.  Nicolas and his family were arrested near Toulouse.  They were transported to the prison camp of Rivesaltes.  Beginning sometime in 1942, the French developed a road to Auschwitz.  Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs.  From there, all railways led to Auschwitz.

     Something unexpected occurred.  The French Underground helped the family escape.  Nicolas and his siblings were placed in Catholic schools, as per French Underground protocol.  So many Jewish boys survived the war in France in Catholic schools.  Some of them, like the historian Saul Friedländer, nearly became priests.

     Those are the nuts and bolts of Nicolas’s war years.  His intimate stories of survival are lost.  Why the Underground rescued the family, for instance, is unknown.  Nicolas was not the Elie Wiesel of survivors.  He did not document his past, and billboard it for the world to read.  He was a quiet survivor, introspective, private.  As an adult, Nicolas had a daughter.  Even she doesn’t know his full history in France.

     After the war, the family reunited.  Amazingly, the entire family survived.  How did both parents, and their four children, endure four years in the prison of German-occupied France?  Again, the history has been lost.

     Here’s where Nicolas began to tell his story.  He entered the Sorbonne in 1946, working initially toward his bachelor’s.  He spent the next decade pursuing those things he couldn’t during the war years.  He studied.  He traveled the world.  He learned languages.  In 1948, he joined the Palmach to fight in the Israeli War of Independence.  He, in fact, would serve in some capacity in all of Israeli’s early wars.  In 1977, he took a teaching position at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  So his war history ended before the Lebanon War.  That’s an important detail in studying Nicolas’s life.  He didn’t have to answer questions of Israeli’s justified wars.  Would he have defended Israeli’s occupation of Southern Lebanon had he served there?  Or, would that service have cut at his optimism?

     But let’s not jump too far ahead in our story.  After fighting in Israel in 1948, he entered Hebrew University.  He gained his Masters in 1951.  Something of great consequence occurred during his studies in Jerusalem.  His mentor, the scholar of romance philology, Hiram Peri, urged Nicolas to devote his life to preserving the Sephardic heritage.  Nicolas listened.  He returned to the Sorbonne.  In 1957, Nicolas gained his doctorate, writing his dissertation on the literature of courtly love.  That detail right there should set off the bells of surprise.  Nicolas was probably the only survivor in the war’s entire history to write on courtly love.  He was a romantic.

     He landed a teaching position immediately.  That position took him back to Jerusalem and Hebrew University.  I hold an interesting document.  It’s something Nicolas gave me late in his life.  The document is a contact signed by Nicolas, as he began his teaching career.  He didn’t sign his name, though, as Nicolas de la Garde.  He took on a Hebrew name: Moshe Lazar.

     Lazar became a legendary scholar.  In Israel, he developed the department of romance languages at Hebrew University.  He moved on to Tel Aviv University, where he founded the school of visual and performing art.  Along the way, he taught at the University of Salamanca.  Two major events occurred there.  He began the quest that Hiram Peri had charged him with.  He learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain.  He then began to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library.  Secondly, he discovered treasure troves of documents.  Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period.  But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period.  I hold some of those documents.  I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar.  Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away.  He gave me documents.

     In 1977, Lazar moved to the University of Southern California, where he taught until his retirement in 2011.  Students at USC described Lazar as a “rock star” professor and a “one-man humanities department.”  Lazar spoke thirteen languages.  (See Jordan Hurder, The Windbag Litwag, http://chancepress.wordpress.com category/marc-chagall/.  See also Allison Engel, “Bibliophile Lazar Plans Special Tome,” USC News, May 2, 2007. http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/stories/13801.html.)

     Late in life, his language turned erratic.  During the first decade of the 21st century, Lazar began to suffer from Alzheimer’s.  It’s a horrible irony.  Alzheimer’s took away his speech.  Lazar died in December 2012.  The world lost an icon.

2) How did I meet Moshe?  In 2006, I began a biography project on Elie Wiesel.  I wrote to Wiesel, hoping to gain his participation on my project.  “This is a book proposal,” I presented.  “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.  And for that, I need your assistance.  I would like access to you, to interview you, to walk a little with you.”

     An “intimate portrayal”: what did I mean?  Words came to mind: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical yet objective, sympathetic, balanced.  That last word reverberated in my head: a balanced biography. 

     Wiesel responded with a question.  He pointed out the many books on his life and work.  Did the world need another?  His question was pertinent.  Visit a library.  There are enough books on Wiesel to fill many shelves.  There are theological studies.  There is much hagiography.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  A literary scholar, Irving Abrahamson, compiled the complete, uncollected and unpublished works of Wiesel, in three volumes.  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 served as the central source.  His story, as he laid it out, dominated.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, is nonexistent.

     There’s another fascinating dynamic.  To trace the evolution of Wiesel’s career is to identify a smattering of Jews and Christian theologians who became Wiesel’s early disciples.  Academics followed, literary critics, students.  His disciples began to extol him, to write about him.  A canon was born.  As the years went by, an autocatalytic phenomenon occurred, or an increasing on itself.  The canon exploded.  With rare exception, there were no contributing authors to the canon outside of Wiesel’s inner circle.

     What did that mold?  Wiesel, despite a library’s worth of volumes, remains a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endure.  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 Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

     For me, a smaller question lingered.  How did my proposal, back in 2006, strike Wiesel?  Had others in my position, outside his circle, submitted similar proposals over the years?  Had he reacted to those proposals as he did to mine?  The record remains hazy.  While Wiesel responded to my proposal with kind words of rejection, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he attempted to shut down my research.  Repeatedly, he put up roadblocks.  But since Wiesel did not participate, and since he closed off those in his inner circles from participation, I had to find another way in.  I turned to another form: a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Ironically, this form proved invaluable.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  (For the full story, please see Satan’s Synagogue.)

3) Flash forward three years.  I found Moshe Lazar in 2009.  He was the one source on Wiesel I knew I had to find.  In those three years of research, or from 2006 to 2009, I studied Wiesel’s life.  I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald.  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 during the building of the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  I interviewed Wiesel’s first cousin, whose Holocaust journey paralleled Wiesel’s.

     To everyone I came across from Wiesel’s period in France, 1945 to 1956, I asked a question.  Do you know the whereabouts of Nicolas?  At that point in time, I didn’t know his family name.  I didn’t know his history.  I didn’t know his Hebrew name.  All I knew was that Wiesel had written about him in one of his autobiographies.  I also knew that I didn’t trust Wiesel’s telling of that story.  Nicolas, as a witness, could corroborate or contradict.

     Everyone had Nicolas in a different place.  One source said he had died.  Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor in the orphanages in France after the war, had Nicolas in Tel Aviv, at one of the universities.  Benjamin Gross, a philosopher and scholar, had Nicolas in South America.  Someone else, I forget now who, had Nicolas in Paris, back at the Sorbonne.  There was a dead end at every turn.  Then, I asked Katy Hazan, the historian of the orphanages in France and the parent organization that governed them, known as the OSE.  She had Nicolas in California.

     I scoured the websites of all the major universities in California.  I checked the departments of history, languages, performing arts.  This took weeks.  I didn’t find a Nicolas who matched the biographical details of Nicolas de la Garde.  But then, on the USC website, I found a professor with a description that matched my Nicolas.  I first wrote to Moshe Lazar, “I believe you are that Nicolas.  It’s ironic to me because in searching the world for you I’ve found you at the very university where I began my college studies.  I attended USC back in 1990.  I dropped out because USC wasn’t for me.”  I continued, “I am hoping to have a conversation with you, to get inside certain truths of Elie Wiesel that you alone, I believe, know.”

     I was right.  Moshe Lazar knew Elie Wiesel like no other.  His first email in return suggested his cheerfulness.  “Brian,” he wrote, “I have written a long page and had it ready to email it to you, but a devil blew it out!!!”  The three exclamation points were his. 

     He suggested that I call his office.  I did.  That autumn I spent three months with Moshe.  The Alzheimer’s that took his life had begun to really take hold.  As a counter to possible misremembering, Lazar’s wife sat in on the interviews.  Sonia Lazar had heard the stories for years.  She could corroborate or contradict.  But I also found a lucid Moshe.  We developed an immediate friendship.  Our time was short.  Moshe’s mind was going, and he knew it.  He needed to pass on some of his towering knowledge.  I became a repository of sorts.

4) What did Moshe think of Elie Wiesel?  He held a good deal of animosity.  He held a good deal of frustration.  For an optimist, for a positive, cheerful thinker, the effect was jarring.  Moshe felt betrayed.  Why?  As Sonia Lazar explained, “In the last years, as things piled up, Moshe began to examine the earlier years and the unkind tricks played on him” by Wiesel.

     Moshe and Sonia Lazar went into the history of unkind tricks.  The first stemmed from the translation job of Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night.  Wiesel wrote the manuscript in Yiddish.  Although perfectly fluent in French at that time, Wiesel didn’t feel comfortable doing the actual translation.  He asked Moshe Lazar.  I won’t go into too much detail here as I documented that history in detail in both Satan’s Synagogue and a profile written on this blog called “Who was the real Elie Wiesel?”  (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/)  But, according to Lazar, he didn’t receive a word of credit publically, or even a token of remuneration.  At the time both Wiesel and Lazar were dirt poor.  But later, when Wiesel became a millionaire due to Night’s commercial success, Lazar felt cheated.

     He did receive a signed copy of Wiesel’s La Nuit in June 1958.  Wiesel inscribed the book in Hebrew.  Wiesel framed Lazar’s friendship as a blessing and, in his inscription, he asked what he would have done without that friendship.  To Lazar, the meaning was clear.  Without him, who would have translated the Yiddish into the French?

     Moshe and Sonia Lazar jumped to the last unkind trick, occurring sometime in late 2005 or early 2006.  Wiesel wrote a letter to Lazar.  In a “sentimental” way, according to the Lazars, Wiesel wrote about “getting older.”  He identified Lazar as his “oldest friend.”  He wanted to spend more time with Lazar.  In fact, the two men hadn’t had contact in years.

     Lazar’s initial reaction was to reply in kind, with a sentimental response.  He delayed.  Some weeks later the news broke.  Oprah Winfrey had selected Night for her bookclub.  The question immediately struck Lazar: Did sentimentality drive Wiesel to write the letter, or something else?  Did Wiesel write his letter of friendship to protect the secret history of Night’s coming of age?

     Only Moshe Lazar knew that secret history.  Only Moshe Lazar knew that the story Wiesel told in his memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was bunk.  Or, “strange, contradictory tales,” as Moshe called them.

     In Satan’s Synagogue, I set the record straight.  Wiesel was a storyteller.  He was not rooted to fact.  He set forth a false personal history.  But he did more.  Wiesel and Moshe Lazar sailed to Brazil together back in the mid-1950s.  Moshe Lazar did much of the translation work on Night during that sailing.  According to Lazar, the two young men traveled in style, in first class accommodation.  As neither Wiesel nor Lazar had any money, how did they wrangle the tickets?  Lazar reported, Wiesel “had been paid to take two luxurious Cadillacs to Brazil.”  The Cadillacs were contraband.  Lazar found out about the cars upon disembarkation.  One Cadillac had been registered in Wiesel’s name, the other in Lazar’s name.  If accurate, Wiesel then made Lazar a trafficker.  What would have happened had the authorities in Brazil learned of the smuggling operation?

     Lazar was ripe for such schemes.  His wife described him as “naïve” and “optimistic.”  She told a story to demonstrate.  In the 1970s Wiesel interviewed Lazar for a film.  Wiesel couldn’t believe the “great optimism” flowing from Lazar, “despite his experiences in the camps!”

     Sonia Lazar described her husband as an “optimistic Holocaust survivor,” or a rare breed.  “Contrast that to Elie Wiesel,” Sonia Lazar concluded.

5) To further highlight the contrast, the Lazars detailed another incident in the history of unkind tricks.  In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, a Rothschild came to Israel to view the war zone.  Israeli authorities named Lazar as translator, due to his eloquent French.  In the course of their time together Rothschild became interested in Lazar.  A friendship developed.  Rothschild even referenced Lazar in a newspaper article appearing back in France.

     Soon thereafter a woman called the Lazar household.  She knew Lazar from their time together at the orphanages in Versailles following the war and she couldn’t believe that Lazar was alive.  She had heard that he’d died in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.

     How did she come to that misinformation?  According to Lazar, Wiesel told her the false death story.  Both Wiesel and Lazar had crushes on this woman.  She, in turn, had a crush on Lazar.  After the War of Independence, Lazar theorized, Wiesel fabricated the death of his best friend to improve his chances with her.

     If the fabrication led to a romance between this woman and Wiesel, no record exists.  Over forty-five years since the phone call, the story has gone cold.  Lazar could not identify the woman.  His anger over the incident, however, did not wane despite the time passed.  He felt wronged.  He felt double-crossed.  He felt a similar breach over the Cadillacs.

     If accurate, what did Lazar’s recollections reveal about Wiesel?  In his narrative, Wiesel created an image.  He formed brotherhoods, or durable, loyal friendships.  In All Rivers Run to the Sea, he wrote of friendship as a “necessity, an obsession.  Later I would come to love Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who posited friendship as an ethic.”

     Were his words hollow?  Lazar’s history of unkind tricks turned the ethic on its head.  To believe Lazar is to accuse Wiesel of a wider sanctimony.  While his narrative promoted a gospel of brotherhood, Wiesel used his friendship with Lazar for personal advancement.  Ambition, not camaraderie, served as the driving force.

6) Ambition segues to another character trait.  In All Rivers Run to the Sea and other sources, Wiesel developed another image.  This one spoke to his behavior in the death camps.  “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” he reported.  “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.”

     Wiesel fashioned a coward survivor.  From there, he built a persona.  Naomi Seidman, a theologian who did insightful research into Wiesel, described that persona as: “spiritualized, passive, victimized, silent, sad, still somehow dead.” (E.J. Kessler, “The Rage That Elie Wiesel Edited Out of ‘Night’,” The Jewish Daily Forward, October 4, 1996.)

     Note the characteristics not found in the persona: vengeful, angry, hostile, cunning, manipulative.  How would a persona based on those characteristics have played to a wider audience?  Wiesel seemed to have struggled with the question in the 1950s and 1960s, as he wrote his first few books and grappled with his own role in the world.  At some point he found an answer.  He took a word with French origins: rapprochement.  Wiesel didn’t choose an adversarial relationship with the world.  He chose reconciliation.  When he won the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee issued a press release, calling him “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”  Egil Aarvick, chairman of the Nobel committee, took the words in the press release further, labeling Wiesel a “messenger to mankind – not with a message of hate and revenge but with one of brotherhood and atonement.” (Press Release for the Nobel Peace Prize for 1986, October 14, 1986. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ peace/laureates/1986/press.html.)

     That persona, molded decades before the Nobel, gained Wiesel a toehold in the American imagination.  The toehold of authenticity.  The toehold of legitimacy.  The toehold of consequence.  The face of the Holocaust then formed upon a physiognomy of reconciliation, not a physiognomy of anger.

     Contrast Wiesel’s coward survivor to the “law of self-preservation” as described by another Auschwitz survivor, Gisella Perl.  According to Perl, prisoners “who in their former lives were decent self-respecting human beings now stole, lied, spied, beat the others and – if necessary – killed them, in order to save their miserable lives.”

     Another camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn, offered a related description.  “Securing a spot in a desirable labor, for instance, involved shoving to the head of the line, seen as a risk worth taking.  Upon encountering opposition, however, one had to know when to retreat into the chameleon-pajama-like background of the concentration camp.  This was also true about lining up for soup.  Finding the right spot in the line could mean a thicker bowl of soup – which may add a week’s longevity, but this entailed rough elbowing, as well as timing.” (See Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz.  New York: International Universities Press, 1948.  For Eli Pfefferkorn, see Alexander Cockburn, “Did Oprah Pick Another Fibber?” Counterpunch, March 31-April 2, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/01/truth-and-fiction-in-elie-wiesel-s-night -is-frey-or-wiesel-the-bigger-moral-poseur/.)

     Gisella Perl’s law of self-preservation and Eli Pfefferkorn’s rough elbowing fit within a wider concentration camp tenet.  “Eat your own bread,” the tenet stated, “and if you can, that of your neighbor.”

     Wiesel’s coward survivor ran counter.  Did running cars to Brazil alter the image?  Did it suggest a different camp history, with instances as a rough elbower?  Did it suggest a different post-war history?  The young man who moved contraband, and who placed his friend in an illegal position, suggested scheming, cunning, risk, ambition, self-absorption.  The young man who moved contraband suggested a psyche of manipulation.  Notably, the persona of Wiesel shunned the brushstrokes of a rough elbower, both during the war and in the many decades that followed.  Doesn’t the Cadillac detail call for a reevaluation?

7) Moshe Lazar was very much the coward survivor.  Still, that doesn’t explain his post-war persona.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  I took this question directly to Moshe Lazar.  He answered with one word: fate.  He then told a supportive story.  His father was a truck driver in Belgium.  He drove a Chevy.  Lazar emphasized the make of the truck to be clear that his father would not have driven a Ford truck, as Ford was a virulent anti-Semite.  As the Germans stormed through Belgium in the early part of the war, his father packed up the truck.  Seeking safety, he drove his family, and some other friends, to France.  Their path was just ahead of the blitzkrieg.  At the River Oise, marking the border, they crossed a bridge into temporary safety.  Some moments later, a series of bombs went off, destroying the bridge.

     The Germans blew up the bridge, Lazar emphasized.  Had their timing been different, the Chevy might have been on the bridge.  Or, they might have arrived at the river after the destruction of the bridge, with no way to cross and with imprisonment or death staring them in the face.  As happened, they made their way to Toulouse.  While they would become prisoners of the Germans, and spend time in French concentration camps, the episode left a defining mark on Lazar.  Fate became his guide.

     But fate as explanation, I think, missed some fundamental facts.  Moshe Lazar did not lose any members of his immediate family to the Holocaust.  Four children and both parents survived.  Nor were the Lazars sent east, to the death camps of Poland.  That’s not to say that life in the camps of France was easy.  Lazar described the starvation in the camps, and his reaction to it.  He learned not to eat.  He learned not to drink.  Food was the currency.  If a prisoner could go without, Lazar reasoned, he didn’t have to deal in the economy.  Lazar starved.  He tunneled inside in his conditioning.  The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on some of that conditioning.  Food meant nothing to him.  Daily cares such as weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head.  Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.

8) Back in 2009, when I visited with the Lazars in their apartment in Culver City, Sonia pulled me into the kitchen.  “I need to talk to you,” she said, with her urgency engaged.  I quickly realized something about Sonia Lazar that I would later put my thumb on.  She exhibited the traits of the concentration camp survivor: wound incredibly tight, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  While she was born in New York, and spent the early years of her life far away from German-controlled Europe, she took on the persona of the rough elbower.  Moshe Lazar, who married a bit later in life, around the age of forty, found a rough elbower.  The Lazars were a study in psychological role reversal.  What did that suggest about whom Moshe could be comfortable with?

     In the kitchen, Sonia quickly and quietly spoke about Moshe’s “lifelong” ambition.  He had a book project in mind, or an “opus” in Sonia’s words.  He had been collecting materials for decades.  He’d produced an extensive outline.  Still, the book could not get off the ground, and Moshe, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, needed help in the writing process.  Would I be interested in teaming up with him to write the book, Sonia asked.

     Hours after that initial conversation, Sonia sent me an email with more information.  She explained the idea behind the project.  Taking directly from Moshe’s outline, she wrote about a “synthetic analysis of the origins and development of anti-Semitic typologies through art, theater, and literature.  These are reflections of man’s unconscious and with propaganda imagery, we are dealing with one of the most powerful delivery systems available to men and governments.”

     I liked the phrase “delivery systems.”  The rest felt to me like language meant for a philosophy department.  I interpreted those words into a series of questions: How did anti-Semitism begin?  How did it develop?  How was it shaped into an anti-Jewish persecution language?  How was that language turned into a canned image of Jews and Judaism?  How did that canned image, producing a grotesque and dehumanized Jew, become a powerful propaganda?  How is that propaganda alive today, over many millennia since its initial building block?

     I immediately became interested in the work.  But then Sonia hit me with more information: the project already had a historian attached to it.  A woman named Stephanie had been working with Moshe in an effort to build the materials into that extensive outline.  Sonia and Moshe adored Stephanie, I soon realized.  I did not. 

     Well, that’s not quite correct.  I didn’t have a personal reaction when meeting.  But professionally, Stephanie immediately struck me as one of those scholars who collects materials but has no ability to conceive of story.  That’s not a cut on Stephanie.  The vast majority of scholars are collectors of materials.  They are not writers.  They might become authors.  But there is an ocean between collectors of materials and storytellers.  Stephanie lived on the collector side of the ocean.

     So did Moshe.  The reason Moshe hadn’t written the book project had everything to do with his kind of scholarship.  He was a collector.  Sonia would argue otherwise.  She would point to his many books.  But in those books Moshe served as editor and/or translator, never as primary writer.  Moshe, and Stephanie, needed a primary writer.

     I joined the fray some months later.  Against my better judgment, I agreed to a triangulation.  Stephanie would do the research for the chapters.  I would take her research and form a narrative.  Moshe and Sonia would then edit the work. 

     I immediately felt handcuffed by the agreement.  I was not delving deeply into the source materials.  Those materials were presented to me and as Sonia wanted the project done quickly – in Moshe’s lifetime, she hoped – I didn’t have time to do independent research.  I produced the first chapter in a month.  We’d all agreed that the first chapter would serve as a litmus case.  If everyone liked it, we’d move forward.  If not, then I would be canned.

     I got canned.  I’d conceived of the project as a literary investigation, in the Solzhenitsyn tradition.  Stephanie, and probably Sonia, couldn’t get her head around the investigatory part.  Stephanie wanted history narrated in her scholarly way.  She didn’t want the investigatory, almost whodunit style, that I wanted.  I lost the argument.  In my parting email to Sonia, I argued that she’d made the wrong choice.  To go with Stephanie was the death knell of the project.  It would linger for some time but ultimately remain in outline form, as Stephanie would continue to collect materials without forming a storyteller’s narrative.  The book would never come into the world.

     While the project ended for me, an extraordinary file came into my possession during my time spent with Moshe Lazar.  I spent hours and hours with Moshe, both at his home and at the University of Southern California.  In the privacy of his university office, Moshe handed me what he called his “secret stash.”

     Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody, including his wife.  He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did.  Excommunication bothered him.  Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion.  He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him.  But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory.  Judaism gave him hope.  He could not leave hope behind.

     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?

9) Let me jump to a second question.  How did Moshe originally come to possess it?  This history dates back to 1952.  After finishing his master’s degree at Hebrew University, Lazar gained his first teaching appointment at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain, not far from the Portuguese border.  At that time, Lazar spoke Spanish and due to influences in that part of Spain, he would learn Portuguese.  During this time, he would also learn Ladino.  He would become the world’s foremost expert in that language.  Ladino led him on a scholarly journey, as he began to find and translate original manuscripts.  His first find was a Jewish prayer book for women, dating to the 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.  My next book will continue that trend.

10) I should say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Moshe Lazar.  When he died, I lost a friend.  And the world lost a righteous man.  Moshe was not the kind of righteous man who needed to promote his righteousness.  There was no billboarding, no publicity campaign, no hunt for a Nobel Prize.  Moshe was a kind of quiet righteousness.  In a loud world, his voice whispered true decency and wisdom.  The loss of that voice bellows like thunder.

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

(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 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: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part three of five.  In parts one and two, I offered critical evaluations of two famous chroniclers: Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles follow this critical evaluation of Mark on these pages.  Part four will examine a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, optimism.  Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  Look for “Who was the real Moshe Lazar?” coming later in July.)

Nearly two thousand years since the Book of Mark went out into the world and scholars remain thoroughly confused.  Who was this Mark?  Why did he put forth his Gospel?  When did this Gospel find its first printing?  Was it the first in line, an original so to speak, predating Matt and Luke and John?  Or, did it fall sometime after Matt, as order in the New Testament suggests?  To add to these questions, scholars believe that one significant book went missing.  Known as the Q or Quelle, German for source, it was a book of sayings and deeds.  When the book was written remains a mystery.  Assuming the book was written during the time of the Synoptics, the scholars’ question became: Did the Quelle help to explain the contradictions found in the Synoptics, and the sea change between the Synoptics and the Book of Revelation?  And speaking of Revelation, why did the Jesus movement of that time need an expansion on their story, an outsized, furiously dramatic, heart-pounding, drums booming, lightning strike of a story that transformed the Synoptic narrative from man into God to God into man?  Maybe John, the supposed writer of the work and apostle allegedly imprisoned on an island, was fighting off sea creatures left and right as he wrote?

     Unfortunately, I have no records to share on Revelation.  The historical record remains thoroughly perplexed.  But something of remarkable consequence got uncovered during my travels and travails.  For the full story, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me say here: a truer perception of Mark the Evangelist can now be pieced together.  What follows is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with some literary history.  As I uncovered in a crypt in Nazareth, there was a book written during the time of the Synoptics.  This book was not a Gospel.  It was not written in the traditions of hagiography and foreshadowing and allegory.  It did not use biblical figures, like Isaiah, as a latent prefiguration for the Passion story.  Rather, this book was a history, in the Greco-Roman tradition, introducing factual and credible information on its subject.  This book, in the Jewish tradition, was a responsum.  What was it responding to?

     The title gave it away, Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  This responsum then firmly established the Book of Mark as the first Gospel.  Against Mark struck out against 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.

     Two questions quickly emerge.  What specifically was in the book and who was its author?  Let’s leave the first part of that question for the moment and attempt to answer the second part.  Modern day readers of the Jesus Century will know the name Flavius Josephus (for my portraiture on the man, see https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.)  There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Roman lava flow, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian, a favorite of Emperors, a citizen of Rome.  The latter was unheard of in those days.  Jews did not become Roman citizens.  Josephus apparently gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus.  According to Josephus, he switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.

     This profile of a man has come down to us because of Josephus.  He is the only source we have.  He is not a reliable source (again, see my profile, or my book).  For Christians, though, throughout the centuries, Josephus was a very important author.  In fact, there was a time when his name held quasi-scriptural authority.  In around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed the large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.  But a reference in Antiquities made the book particularly relevant to Christians.  For Josephus, apparently, profiled Jesus.  That profile came as a two-part sketch.  The most explosive sketch work came in the first entry, or in volume 18.  Aside from calling Jesus a “wise man” and “a teacher” who “performed surprising deeds,” aside from telling a part of the Passion story (condemned to the cross, appearing to his followers on the third day), Josephus called Jesus the “Messiah.”

     Later scholars pounced on the term, suggesting that a Jew of his time would not have used the reference.  Such a term, for a Jew, would have been blasphemy.  The term then suggested that a Christian came along and interpolated the profile onto Josephus’s pages.  Thus, the Testimonium Flavianum, as scholars called Josephus’s profile of Jesus, seemed flawed.

     The scholars were wrong.  Josephus did, in fact, use the term.  There was no interpolation.  He had two reasons for his word choice.  The first revolved around identification.  Let’s step away from the emotion of the rhetoric.  What seems clear is that Josephus had many men named Jesus in his sightline.  That is to say, Jesus was a very popular name in the Roman Empire period and Josephus needed some way to differentiate between this Jesus and that Jesus.  Rather than identifying Jesus with his birthplace, as the Gospel writers did, Josephus chose what turned out to be inflammatory words.  Josephus did not choose Jesus’s birthplace as identification because Josephus knew the Nazarene characterization to be inaccurate, but that’s a story for another time.  His word choice was not inflammatory to himself, which brings us to the second reason for Josephus’s use of the term.

     Josephus lived a complicated life.  He was a Jew and enforced that identity until the day he died.  But, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, there was pressure exerted on him to become a “Jew for Jesus,” a common term then apparently, an abomination now.  He therefore used the term “Messiah” to quell the pressure.  He had little choice.  He had to satisfy a secret patron in Rome.  Either call Jesus the Messiah or face condemnation on the cross.  Either promote the narrative or find yourself asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.

     It turns out that Josephus’s patron secretly followed the early Church movement.  Who was Josephus’s patron?  His name was Gaev and he was a Roman senator who considered the apostle Paul “a teacher.”  He quietly promoted Paul as the mouthpiece of the burgeoning Christian movement.  This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement, as is evidenced by Paul’s letters.  This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to the Jesus movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist.  So, this senator’s promotion of Paul took on the quietest form possible.  His approach was the antithesis to that in the Book of Revelation.

     This history, as surprising as it may seem, seems conclusive.  It is a secret history never before told.  For more on Gaev, please do see my portraiture on Josephus on this blog, or my book Satan’s Synagogue.  My next book, it should be noted, will form around Gaev’s incredible life story.

2) But there’s more to this particular story.  Apparently unknown to Gaev, Josephus published a history.  He did so without attaching his name to it, but Josephus was the author behind Against Mark.

     The title, it should be noted, fell in line with Josephus’s polemical career.  His final book was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on important figures like Homer.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish, and in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews, rendering Moses as a leper.  Calling Moses a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, Apion’s manuscript 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.  Notably, content in Against Apion appeared, in fragmented form, in Against Mark.  Josephus was playing with some ideas.

     But let’s get back to our story.  Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world as the year 70 began.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in Galilee, according to his narrative.  He soon became a favorite of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.

     But the book did not die.  We now turn our attention to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  As the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire began in the year 66, and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle removed books from the Temple library.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  Josephus, who was on scene as translator, perhaps donated the edition himself.

     The beadle, as he did with other books in the library, squired them away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, as burial within Jerusalem would have been a heresy in Jewish traditions.  The Jewish cemetery edged up to the City of David, or the first incarnation of the city we call Jerusalem.  The Jewish cemetery, then and now, existed on the Mount of Olives.  To Romans, who most certainly knew of the beadle’s movements, it looked like the deceased wanted to be buried with their favorite books.  In actuality, it was a brilliant scheme devised by the beadle to maintain the lifeblood of a people.  But the beadle took his scheme further.  In the case of Against Mark, he let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say, notably among the JDDs, one famous and important figure stands out.  He was the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-18th century all the way into the years of the First World War.  His name was Franz Joseph and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1869.  Unknown to the historical record, Joseph attempted to find Josephus’s book.  He failed, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  This is a rather incredible discovery, for many reasons.  But one reason shines like the halo later painters gave Jesus.  Franz Joseph, the great Catholic, descended directly from Josephus, who descended from Jewish high priests.  The Jewish royalty in Franz Joseph’s bloodlines dated back many millennia.

     This JDD history got passed to me.  I received a particular piece of mail from a relative.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done, with the exception of Franz Joseph.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  This one was Christian.  Meaning: this burial ground would be in the bottom layers of a church.  I found the book.

3) With the authorship of Against Mark firmly established, let’s now turn to our second question.  What specifically was in the book?  And even more importantly, what can be learned about Mark in Against Mark?

     Actually, let’s take one more detour.  To get at those questions, let’s first try to understand Against Mark’s target, the Book of Mark.  Let’s go back to some deeply steeped Jewish traditions.  Let’s identify a force known as a dybbuk.  The concept of evil spirits dates back to antiquity.  Dybbuk MiRuah Ra means a cleaving of the evil spirit.  Dybbukim were disembodied souls who couldn’t find a resting place after death.  They attached to the bodies of living persons.  A possessed person then had souls at war with one another.

     As dybbukim gained a foothold in Jewish tradition, a counterforce arose.  In Jesus’s time, they would have been known as maggidim, or itinerant orators.  They traveled the countryside, preaching and performing exorcisms among their activities.  In Jesus’s time, maggidim were so plentiful, they might have formed a profession all to themselves.  To doubt them and their “babble,” as the Romans referred to the maggidim in Latin, was normal operating procedure.  In the early 17th century, bastardized Latin, in the forms of Italian and French, rendered a new term for the maggidim: charlatanry.

     At about that time, the maggidim morphed into the baalei shem, or masters of the name.  These charismatic preachers traveled the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, and sometimes far wider.

     At the end of the 17th century a remarkable baal shem was born, though his powers were hidden for decades.  His name was Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht.  The Gospel of the Besht recorded multiple exorcisms, including the expulsion of a dybbuk from a madwoman.  The Gospel of the Besht has tentacles reaching directly back to the Gospels of the New Testament.  But that’s a story for another time.

     To understand the Book of Mark is to focus in on dybbukim, maggidim, and in particular one baal shem.  His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.  In Mark’s worldview, the lands known as the Galilee, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis housed the sick and the decrepit.  Jesus as baal shem then went about exorcising possessed persons everywhere.  But the dybbukim and their possession of individuals were only the starting point for what truly ailed the nation.  As Mark rendered, all rulers, from local landowners to regional Pharisees to Temple Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the vassal king for the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas, to the Romans themselves, suffered from serious affliction.  Power warped their minds.  They acted with deleterious effect.  In Mark’s rendering then, Jesus then moved from Jesus as baal shem to Jesus as seditionist.  His actions forced the hand of the ruling parties.  The seditionist had to die.

     This synopsis brings us to the “Place of a Skull,” known as Golgotha.  In Mark’s rendering, all of Jesus’s suffering on the crucifix formed in the Aramaic words, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Or, as Mark immediately translated, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

     From there, death came for Jesus, with witnesses to document the drama.  The witnesses were women.  Mark will use this device at the tail end of his narrative, as the women visit Jesus’s entombment and note, with amazement and fear, the empty crypt.

     This is the narrative in condensed form.  It went out into the world in the late 60s of the Jesus Century.  It caught the attention of our man, Josephus.  At that time, he was a prisoner of Rome, held by Vespasian’s forces in the Galilee.  As the historical record shows, he immediately embarked upon a criticism.  Did he feel personally bruised by Mark’s narrative?  I believe so.  Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took the work as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Against Mark is a correction.

     Who read Against Mark and how was it received?  There are no records to answer those questions.  If Against Mark established Josephus as a historian of note, there would have been some tremendous irony.  The readership for The Book of Mark would have grown.  Maybe The Book of Mark, and the subsequent Gospels, became famous because of Against Mark as correction.

     Some two thousand years later, Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or Judaism in the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

4) Let’s now turn to our questions: What specifically was in Josephus’s book?  And, more importantly for this study, what by extension can be learned about Mark?  Let’s be blunt: Josephus rendered a very different Jesus to Mark’s version.  To read Josephus’s full text, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me here give a few noteworthy details.

     Mark opened his narrative with the prophet Isaiah as a herald, with John the Baptist and his illuminating words, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark’s very next words then introduced Jesus the Nazarene.  The introduction bothered Josephus.  He criticized in his book, “We learn nothing else of Jesus’s early history in Mark.  We learn nothing of his genealogy, nothing of his origins, nothing of his birth.  We learn very little of his family.  It is a rather curious omission, considering what Jesus will become.”

     Notably, something similar might be said of Mark.  What really do we know of the man?  According to Church traditions, he was born in Cyrene, an important town within the Egyptian Pentapolis in modern day Libya.  The Pentapolis was really a Decapolis, but that’s a story for another day.  Further, according to Church traditions, Mark became a traveling companion of Peter somewhere around Antioch, during Peter’s missionary run to Rome.  Peter died in Rome on the orders of Nero.  He was crucified, traditions purport, as the Great Fire consumed Rome.

     If so, the year would have been 64.  By then, Mark would have turned to the Church movement, fled from Rome, and returned to Egypt, putting down stakes in Alexandria.  There, he founded a church.  According to Church traditions, he then began the writing of his Gospel, using his notes taken during his journey with Peter.  It seems that Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in those churches from Antioch and up into Galatia and Bithynia and over to Corinth and onto Rome.  The Gospel of Mark went out into the world sometime during the years 66-70.

     Let me just say outright.  That entire narrative is wrong.  Except for the birthplace and the publishing of the Gospel.  As I noted in Satan’s Synagogue, there was an epilogue to Against Mark.  A series of letters between Peter and Mark offered essential detail.  Those letters, with Peter in Jerusalem and Mark in Alexandria, established Peter as an authoritative witness and, as Peter granted full access to Mark, established Mark as expert.  Those letters also noted the deteriorating health of Mark and Peter’s hope that Mark would join the one they call the Christ in heaven.  The last letter permitted rare access into Mark.  He called his finished work his “last will and testament” and expressed his final wishes: to die a quiet death and for his testimonium to gain notoriety.  Those wishes have been fulfilled.  Mark died in his bed, not, as Church traditions purport, with a rope around his neck and dragged through the streets.  That’s just plain legend building, martyrdom silliness.

     The last letter between Peter and Mark dated to the year 68.  The year, of course, sets off alarm bells.  If accurate, Peter did not die in Rome during the Great Fire of 64.  He returned to Jerusalem.  He outlived his friend and protégé Mark.

     If all of this is considered some serious heresy to Church traditions, let’s add some more.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I claimed that those letters had gone missing.  They hadn’t.  When I found Josephus’s lost manuscript, I found the full manuscript, epilogue included.  Truth is, I kept the letters for myself.  I plan to use those letters to build the true personages of both Mark and Peter in my next book.  Then, and only then, I will restore the letters to their rightful place as the epilogue to Against Mark.  Selfish, you might say of my plan.  I agree.  Welcome to the world of scholarship.

     Mark and Peter, it should be noted, did not meet in Antioch or any other town in Anatolia.  Their intersection is clear, at least according to their letters.  They met in Jerusalem, in the year 50, during, arguably, the most important conference in the entire history of Christianity.  In a quiet room at a local inn not far from the Temple, Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just welcomed Paul and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, both of whom had just returned from their missionary romp around the Mediterranean.  Mark attended on the invitation of his “cousin” Barnabas.  Cousin here is used in the Latino definition, centuries before that definition came to identify anyone in the neighborhood.  Apparently Egypt and Cyprus, Barnabas’s birthplace, were neighbors.  Mark was a scribe, and a scribe was needed to document the conference.  A bond was formed between Peter and Mark and when the Church elders decided to send Peter out on his missionary tour, Mark went along as scribe.

     With their origin now firmly established, let’s get back to our story.  As Mark introduced Jesus as a Nazarene in his Gospel, Josephus set the record straight.  He wrote, “In my days as Governor General of the Galilee, I 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.  As I understood that talk, he was born in a place called Beth Lehem Zebulun.  To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the polis in Judea, on the road to Jerusalem, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes.  This Beth Lehem could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth.  It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other.  But as Beth Lehem Zebulun was a place of obscurity, Mark gave Jesus the distinction of a Nazareth birth.  Nazareth, at that time, was the sister city of the famed Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it.  Nazareth had status.”

     Clearly, those reading The Book of Mark across the Empire would have heard of Nazareth.  They would not have heard of Beth Lehem Zebulun.  This accounts for the change in birthplace, according to Josephus.  But what’s also interesting in Josephus’s rendering was the talk of Jesus.  Forty years later, he remained on the Galileans’ mind.  He therefore left some legacy.  Josephus continued, “I now turn to Jesus as he traveled the Galilee whole and beyond, into the Decapolis, over to Tyre and Sidon, and up to Jerusalem, laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word.  Along the way, masses formed around his personage and a new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.”

     The Galilean section of the work centered around the town of Capernaum.  It centered around Jesus-as-balm, Jesus-as-curative.  It centered around the cleansing of unclean characters.  It centered around a doctrine of silence.  According to Josephus, Mark established a “story-telling device” from the very first unclean character.  The demons knew the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus rebuked the demon, “‘Be silent, and come out of him.’”  The demon obeyed.  As Josephus wrote, “Mark recycled this device again and again.” 

     To the brushstrokes established so far – Jesus-as-curative, Jesus as private of his true identity – Josephus infused more color.  He transitioned to Jesus as lawgiver.  In The Book of Mark, we find Jesus at table, 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.  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 and questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition.  The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death.  They began to conspire with Herod’s court.

     Josephus rendered the story along the line of a “Moses motif.  Mark made Jesus into a lawgiver.  He positioned Jesus as rebel and iconoclast.  Jesus’s actions provoked the powers that be.  These are the foundational traits of Moses in the Exodus.”

5) A question struck Josephus.  The reference to Herod “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, Herod.  Josephus wondered why Herod didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission, or as he wrote, “When Jesus struck the chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?”

     As Josephus let the question linger, let’s push on.  According to Josephus, Mark took a “detour” with his narrative.  He focused on Jesus’s family, both the blood relatives and the external characters known as his disciples.  In this “detour,” as Mark rendered the narrative, Jesus made official the appointments of his disciples.  The appointments included Judas Iscariot, “who betrayed him.”  While we learn biographical details of other disciples along the way – James and John were fishermen, so were Simon and his brother Andrew, Levi collected custom duties – Judas carried the mark of the betrayer from first mention.  According to Josephus, “This set the stage for the climactic scene.  It is a loose literary technique, but Mark, at this point in narration, had other biographies in mind.”

     He moved from the disciples as a family of sorts to the reaction of Jesus’s actual family.  As Mark told us, they tried to “restrain” him, as general reaction to Jesus claimed that he had “gone out of his mind.”  According to Josephus, “Familial restraint came across as a saving technique, as if the family attempted to save Jesus from himself.  Such a rendering spoke of a false prophet.  Perhaps owing to the restraint, Jesus rejected his mother and brothers when they asked to see him.” 

     But there’s more to this brushstroke.  As Josephus noted, Jesus-as-rebel posed a serious threat to his family.  Rome and the tetrarch would have eradicated the family after eradicating the rebel.  Mark framed the family as outside the ministry.  He took the framing further with Jesus’s rejection of his own family.  According to Josephus, “Mark’s passage then served as a protective layer for the family against Roman rule.  Mark, writing nearly two score after these events, suggested that Jesus’s family continued on with their lives after these events occurred.”  That may have been the case.  The historical record goes silent on Jesus’s family and what happened following these events.  With one exception.  “That exception formed around James, also known as the Just,” Josephus wrote.  “He was stoned to death in and around the year 62.  The High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus, used the lack of imperial oversight to convene his Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin found James guilty of breaking the laws of Moses.  James offended even the most fair-minded observers.  In Jerusalem, we knew him for his eccentric behavior.  He was mad and considered ‘out of his mind.’  As per Sanhedrin doctrine, he was stoned to death.  Jerusalem did not object.”

     To this rendering of James the Just, let’s be clear.  There has been much scholarship on the question of whether this James was the biological brother of Jesus.  The New Testament seems rather clear.  He was.  Later Church fathers, however, needed to foster the perpetual virginity of Mary and so Jesus’s siblings had to be removed a step or two from his biological line.  They became half-siblings, or cousins.  In Mark’s rendition of events, there wasn’t a question.  Mark did not recognize a human father of Jesus.  Joseph never entered the picture.  Matthew and Luke recognized the hole in the story and introduced Joseph as the husband of Mary.  Much confusion then reigned when considering Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Josephus expressed no confusion, however, in his portrayal of James the Just.  The Jewish world knew him as the biological brother.  They considered him mad.  Later Church fathers would spin this James as beloved by his followers.  Both could be true, of course.  As for the history, Josephus’s writing formed the only known reaction to James’s death.  And, Josephus only recorded the reaction of the Jewish population.  In Antiquities, Josephus returned to the subject.  His colorization of James went out into the world.  It would be interesting to note the other side.  How did early Christians react to his death?  Was he viewed as a madman or a martyr?  Did the martyr framing come later, as builders of the faith needed to further perpetuate Christian martyrdom?

6) Let me now skip over some sections of Mark, and Josephus’s reaction.  To be clear, there is great redundancy in Mark.  The whole “Parable” and “Miracles” section should be cut.  Josephus recognized this.  He wrote to his readership, “I won’t bore you with a recount.”

     Mark then changed the setting to the Decapolis.  He introduced a man named Legion.  He gave Legion distinct characteristics: wild, incredibly strong, uncontrollable.  Even chains, Mark wrote, were useless on him.  When Legion saw Jesus, he rushed to him for help.  Jesus demanded that the unclean spirit come out of the man.  Jesus then spoke to the spirit, who implored Jesus not to send him and the many other unclean spirits out of the district.  Taking a look around, the spirit suggested that Jesus send the spirits into the pigs feeding nearby.  Jesus did as asked.  The herd of pigs then rushed into the lake, where they drowned.  Quickly the news spread and the townsfolk came out to see the scene.  There sat the man, now in health, with Jesus.  The townsfolk reacted in fear and begged Jesus to leave.  The man reacted by asking to go with Jesus.  Jesus opposed the man’s request.  Instead, he gave the man instructions: “‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’”  The man then spread the news throughout the Decapolis.  Mark shifted to reaction, as the residents were “amazed” by the man’s story.  While Mark turned to the next story in his catalog, Josephus examined.  He found it noteworthy that the unclean spirit was given a Roman name.  “Nowhere else in Mark’s account do we come across a spirit with a Roman reference,” he wrote.  Mark gave the spirit incredible strength, suggesting the power of Rome.  Mark then moved to Jesus-as-curative.  “The purification suggested the warrior Messiah ridding the Jewish body of the Roman parasite,” Josephus interpreted.  “Mark had the entire spirit population die in the bodies of pigs.  The pig is a stupid animal.  In Mark’s story, they rushed to their death.  The story then read as an anti-Rome allegory.  Jesus cured the Roman of his Jewish hatred.  He then banished that hatred to the population of pigs.  He then drove that population to their death.  Such is our nation’s reaction to the yoke of Roman rule.  This passage reflects supremely on our current climate, as well as the situation nearly two score ago.”

     This last line is extremely important in evaluating Josephus’s criticism.  Both Josephus and Mark wrote their works in the age of rebellion.  These were incredibly bloody times.  When the Romans conquered the Galilee and Judea, they eradicated towns.  They butchered all citizens.  They left the most important on crucifixes.  They burned everything to the ground.  This is the imagery that Josephus, and Mark, had in mind.  Who then was The Book of Mark written for?  Was the narrative used to show that, indeed, the overthrow of Rome was soon to commence, led by the miraculous General-Governor-Lord known as Jesus Christ?  Was it, in a way, a patriotic call to arms? 

     Maybe Josephus interpreted it as such.  Maybe that’s why his criticism comes off as deeply personal.  He didn’t believe in Jesus as savior.  He didn’t rush into the open arms of Jesus’s new beginnings.  He witnessed the brutality of the Roman landscape.  He could never escape that landscape.

7) Mark next turned to the troubles of a synagogue president named Jairus.  He approached Jesus with desperate news of his daughter’s terminal illness.  He begged Jesus to save her life.  Jesus consented and the two began the walk to Jairus’s house.  Along the way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years approached.  She touched Jesus’s cloak and was cured.  Jesus felt the “power had gone forth from him” and turned to confront the transgressor.  In the crush of humanity, however, he couldn’t identify the person.  The woman, in fear, came forward.  Yet, Jesus did not reprimand her.  Rather, he rewarded her, claiming that her faith had healed her.  At that time, a messenger arrived from Jairus’s house with the news that the daughter had died.  Jesus responded directly to Jairus, “‘Do not fear, only believe.’”

     That line struck Josephus.  He wrote, “From Torah to Tanakh and the Haftorah, there are references ad nauseam to the words, ‘Be not afraid.’  Beginning in Genesis and flowing through Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, appearing in Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, moving to Job and Jeremiah and Daniel and, importantly for this work, Isaiah, ‘Be not afraid’ forms the most common phrase in the large and wide literature.  By speaking them here, Jesus established himself as the representative of the ancients.”

     The party pressed on to Jairus’s house.  There, Jesus claimed that the girl was only asleep.  Those present laughed at Jesus’s words.  With only the girl’s parents present, as well as a few of the disciples, Jesus told the girl to rise.  Mark left those words in Aramaic while the rest of the text is in Greek.  Mark immediately included a translation of the Aramaic.  The girl rose.  Mark emphasized her age of twelve years.  That number conjoined with earlier references (the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, the twelve disciples) to symbolize God’s power and authority.  While those present reacted with amazement, Mark told us, Jesus demanded secrecy.  And so the same themes continued: Jesus-as-curative, a pervasive sense of amazement from those present, Jesus calling for secrecy.  Further, Mark gave Jesus the power of life and death.  Jesus could now raise the dead.  If anyone questioned such a rising, Mark added witnesses.  All of this struck Josephus as “a literary tool.”  Mark needed others present to corroborate the details of the story.  Otherwise, the story “came across as more of an entertainment than a truth,” Josephus commented.

     This last line, in my opinion, comes across as a tell to Josephus’s own writing career.  In the events he alone portrayed at Masada, and in his testimony of his battle against the Romans at Jotapata, Josephus added witnesses.  They survived these events and went on to tell the stories.  If Josephus didn’t add witness account to his tales, would his narratives appear as “more of an entertainment than a truth”?

8) To read Josephus’s full portrayal of the events at Masada, or Jotapata, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue.  Or, for an abbreviated version, see my profile on Josephus on these pages, https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.  But, let’s take a jump in story.  According to Josephus, Mark did “something curious with his story.  He took a break.”  He had Jesus command his disciples to go out into the Galilee and to continue their curative work.  He then used that “dispersion” to return to an earlier story.  What began on the first page of Mark’s narrative ended here, with the death of John the Baptist.  Mark told his tale by noting Herod’s reaction to Jesus.  As whispers of Jesus’s power reached Herod, Herod focused on a past beheading.  While others in Herod’s court gave Jesus a prophetic profile, Herod announced, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” 

     Josephus saw that announcement as “curious.  In turning to the story of John’s beheading, Mark missed what might have been the true story of this character named Jesus.  In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough.  Herod’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 John, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading.  Mark took his story in a different direction.  That story comes across as an entertainment.”

     As Mark wrote, Herod took the wife of his brother.  Her name was Herodias.  John the Baptist took umbrage with this union, as Herod’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Herod.  This turned Herodias against John.  She held “a grudge” against John, “and wanted to kill him.”  She could not.  Herod “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.”  Herod therefore “protected” John. 

     An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose.  During the festival of Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch.  In a mood of elation, Herod 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, according to Mark, caused great distress for Herod.  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 ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.

     Josephus hated all of it.  He wrote, “As I am determined to respect the truth of history, permit me to point out the neglect in Mark’s story.  Mark missed the reaction of Herod’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.  Herod did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her.  First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis.  Phasaelis caught wind of Herod’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 Herod over boundary issues set the stage for war.  Aretas routed Herod’s forces.  During the siege, Herod had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed.  Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population.  John died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war.  To contest Aretas, Herod had no choice but to call for help from Rome.  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 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 in that eponymous place and Caligula recalled the mission.  By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan.  Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story.  His neglect is glaring.  To call such a story an entertainment is a miscalculation on my part.  With such a story, he enters the underworld, a place of darkness and deception, a place built by artifice, a place that can best be described as Satan’s Synagogue.”

     Wow.  That was my reaction when I first read this passage in Against Mark.  This is, simply, some watershed text.  Let’s start with the last words.  I believe this is the first reference to Satan’s Synagogue.  I believe the author of Revelation took from Against Mark.  Notably, the author inverted Josephus’s phrase, going with the Synagogue of Satan.  Or, at least those are the words that have come down to us in Gospel translations.  Perhaps the original echoed Josephus. 

     To that notable, add another.  What is this reference to Emperor Tiberius dying “in that eponymous place”?  According to the historical record, Tiberius died in the great Roman port of Misenum in the province of Naples.  What did Josephus know that the world did not?

     To that notable, add another.  Earlier I wrote of Josephus’s “bruised” feelings.  I noted that Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took The Book of Mark as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Here, Josephus seemed to get his feelings hurt.  He then lashed out.  Perhaps Josephus’s attack had to do with John the Baptist.  He was Josephus’s hero, it seems, and Josephus could not stand by as a falsification went out into the world.  Notably, Josephus lost the war of words.  His criticism disappeared from view while the Gospels became the book on which much of western civilization is based.

9) To all of this notable, let’s add another.  Jesus died at the prison of Machaerus, beheaded under the orders of Herod.  Josephus came back to that incredible detail.  According to The Book of Mark, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples.  The question on the table concerned identity: who did the people think Jesus was.  He heard various responses: John the Baptist, Elijah or other unnamed prophets.  He asked the disciples for their thoughts.  Mark put important words in Peter’s mouth.  “‘You are the Messiah,’” Peter declared.

     According to Josephus, this declaration acted as “a narrative shift.  In a literary foreshadowing, Jesus replied that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected by the ruling hierarchy, must be put to death, and he would then rise three days hence.  With these words, the inexorable march to these events began.  That the climax comes in Jerusalem was necessary, for Jesus had to confront the ruling hierarchy in the Temple.  That Jesus’s words transcended the earthly authority of Rome was necessary too, for this Messiah story moved far beyond the prophetic stories of our ancient past.  Was Jesus the Messiah?  Mark, who took great pains to build a middle passage story for the Messiah in the Galilee section of his work, now moved the narrative to the only place a Messiah could truly be identified.  But, my experience in the Galilee, and most notably during the battle at Jotapata, where all was lost, contradicts Mark’s narrative.  The teaching of Jesus was a story that people still talked about.  But his rebellion was put down.  He died at Machaerus.”

     Let me point out the obvious.  Because people talked about Jesus and his death some thirty-five years later, and because Josephus heard the scuttlebutt, doesn’t mean the history actually played out that way.  Stories tend to get corrupted.  Eyewitness testimony tends to embellish, or omit.  Josephus, though, certainly believed that Jesus died at Machaerus.

10) Did Peter and Mark address such a death in their letters?  They did not.  Did they quietly accept Jesus’s death at Machaerus while loudly, in the form of the Gospel, proclaim the Passion story?  There are no conclusive answers.  But without going into too much detail, as I want to go into depth in my next book, let me say this about the letters: there is an undertone.  There is a sense of building.  The story needed some construction.  Peter and Mark became the chief architects.  They recognized their roles, or as Mark wrote to Peter, “The voice of the Gospel is mine, but you are the sound engineer.”

     As sound engineer, Peter made himself important.  The Romans, in their writing of history, elevated the eyewitness.  They developed a term: thereness.  A history gained greater credibility with eyewitness thereness.  Peter relished his thereness and Mark went along for the ride.  The problem is, there wasn’t a check on Peter’s testimony.  Mark was not a scholar in modern day terms.  He did not seek corroborating sources.  He gave his mentor a gift: free reign.  Peter then grabbed a spotlight and became a kind of co-star.  The thrice denial section of the Gospel speaks to this dynamic.  It feels contrived.  If Mark questioned Peter on his role during the trial of Jesus, there is no evidence in the letters.  What does that say of Mark?

     Here’s what we know.   Mark dictated the Gospel to an unnamed scribe.  Mark was moving ever closer to death and he didn’t have the vigor to actually do the writing.  He spoke the story.  A scribe transferred the narrative to parchment.

     Mark was irritable.  Part of his irritability stemmed from ill health.  Part of his irritability stemmed from life experience.  Part of his irritability stemmed from his general makeup.  Mark was an irascible sort of fellow.

     In his letters to Peter, he complained about most everything: the oppressive heat of Alexandria, the lack of Sea breezes, both the tardiness and the earliness of his scribe, the cost.  The scribe did not come cheap and Mark had no money.  Being a major player in the Church did not lead to a life of luxury.  My, how things have changed.

     Mark might have been senile at this point on his life.  In Against Mark, Josephus railed against Mark’s basic misunderstanding of Galilean geography.  For instance, Mark placed Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee.  According to Josephus, Bethsaida resided north of the Galilee, in Gaulanitis.  Bethsaida was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Ram.  Philip the Tetrarch built up a neighboring town to Bethsaida and named it in honor of both Rome and himself, Caesaria Philippi.  Both towns play a role in the first part of Mark’s Gospel.

     Why did Mark move Bethsaida into the Galilee?  Perhaps senility played a role.  Perhaps he had another agenda.   The other disciples all came from the same place, the Galilee, with the exception of Judas.  But then the narrative of Judas is an exception, so that makes narrative sense.  Perhaps Mark simply wanted the origins of the disciples to line up.

     Mark considered himself a “Jew for Jesus.”  He proclaimed it over and over again in his letters.  The term then suggested an evolving sect of Judaism, outside and at odds with the dominant cultures governing the religion.  In Mark’s day, the Christian schism with Judaism had not occurred.  There were no Christians then.  There was, though, a thorough dislike and distrust for the dominant Jewish cultures.  As a Jew for Jesus, Mark railed against the power structure.  This was a part of his irritability.  The authorities in Jerusalem and their tentacles in the Galilee were a bane in Mark’s worldview.  It’s no coincidence then that, in the Gospels, Jesus questions and embarrasses the power structure relentlessly.

     Did Mark develop an inner hatred for the Jewish nation?  Consider his description of Jerusalem in the Gospel.  Decay, corruption, tradition gone asunder: these were the primary markers of Mark’s Jerusalem.  His setting struck a tone of usury, and all debts must be repaid.  The letters between Mark and Peter speak to this characterization.  Both men want Jerusalem “torn down.”  The term didn’t suggest the razing of the city, as the Romans did.  And the city left in rubble for sixty years, as happened between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.  The term suggested “a new beginning… a shining light.”  To Mark and Peter that light hadn’t existed “since the Hashmona’im.”

     It’s a curious reference to the Hasmonean dynasty.  Begun by Judas Maccabeus and furthered by his brother, Simon the Wise, the dynasty threw off the rule of the Seleucid Empire and formed an independent state.  Perhaps that history accounts for Mark’s and Peter’s evaluation of the Hasmonean years.  But, the Hasmoneans were Hellenized and that must have disturbed the Jews for Jesus movement.  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 of the soil,” to quote Peter in a letter.  To them, Jesus was the way of “reduction, and restoration.”

     The Hasmoneans were not.  In addition, their independent state survived about fifty years.  The Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for 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 Gospels.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

    But if Peter’s and Mark’s reference to the Hasmoneans comes across as a bit convoluted, their inner hatred for the Jewish nation seems apparent.  To Mark’s description of Jerusalem in his Gospel, let’s consider a second example.  Pilate, as representative of Rome, displayed nothing but forbearance for Jesus.  According to Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish realm pushed Pilate toward capitol punishment.  Mark seemed rather clear in his conviction.  The Jews killed Jesus.  Mark then employed a literary technique.  He had Pilate whip Jesus.  That whipping set up the suffering that would follow.  But the true enemy, as Mark spun his story, formed around the ruling Jewish culture.

     Mark, nor Peter, lived to see the death of that Jewish culture.  But it did die.  The Second Temple period, which began with exiled Jews returning from Babylon, ended essentially with the Bar Kokhba revolt.  A new exile would come into existence, with the Romans booting all Jews out of Judea.

     Bar Kokhba, it should be noted, was ruthless to the Jews for Jesus movement, as those followers refused to fight against the Romans.  Here was the break in history.  The followers of the early Church movement choose to sit out a war against Rome.  They could not support the dominant Jewish culture.  Bar Kokhba punished them for their conviction.  Meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Hadrian, opened the door of leniency.  And the new movement, known as Christianity, walked right through.  But that’s a story for another day.

     Mark wanted a final letter, to be sent to Peter after his death.  His scribe complied.  According to that death scene, Mark uttered the words Jesus once had at Golgotha, while suffering on the crucifix.  “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Mark uttered them in Aramaic.  His scribe did not translate the words into Hebrew, as Mark did in his Gospel.  His scribe left the words in their original language.

     It would be fascinating to know Peter’s reaction to these words.  Mark’s deathbed cry basically ends their correspondence.  I can interpret… but let me save that for a later book project.

From the Founder of the Faux

Let me say a word or two about this new literary form, the faux history.  Here’s the evolution.  I fell enthralled with the study of history in college.  What enthralled me?  It really wasn’t the story.  In those days, I paid particular attention to British imperialism, and Jewish history, and American migration.  Nor was it the personality of the instructor, and I sat in classrooms led by remarkable minds.  It was the journey to find some truth.  That was the foundation. 

     To build on that foundation, I felt challenged by the historical method.  There was both science and humanities involved.  There was hard data collection and circumstantial evidence and interpretation.  I studied the form.  I rooted through source material.  A question perplexed me.  How were histories written?

     I remember a particular historian called me out.  I had just written a thesis on Jewish Germany, comparing East German Jews to West German Jews since the Holocaust.  This event occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The narrative then described a lost people, hidden under the weight of death camps.  I found the narrative false.  I found vibrant, learned communities, living in the now.  I called for a new history.  The historian made a suggestion.  “Why don’t you write the history you call for?” he said.

     I have never forgotten his words.  They might be the most influential words ever spoken to me.  I still think of those words during my writing process.  I took his words to graduate school.  I had an idea I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to study the fantasy life of prisoners.  Specifically, I wanted to focus on the death camps in Poland during World War II.  I wanted to understand where the prisoners went in their heads when they fantasized.  The narrative holds that they fantasized about food.  They were starving, and food became the total preoccupation.

     I believed then, and I’m sure of it now, that much got shunted in that narrative.  I think the prisoners, and I’m talking specifically about Jewish prisoners, created a vivid fantasy life.  What might they fantasize about?  Revenge comes to mind.  Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush.  But revenge is only the half of it.  I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex.  I think sex became a preoccupation.

     I couldn’t write this thesis.  It wasn’t possible from an institutional perspective.  The study of the Holocaust, in the 1990s, couldn’t branch out in size and scope and imagination.  A conservative nature kept the study small, with tentacles going nowhere.  To talk about sex-as-fantasy would have been a kind of heresy.  The thinking then: How dare we bother survivors with those types of questions.  How dare we intrude upon their inner space.

     Now, such a study might be possible from an institutional perspective, but the demographics no longer line up.  In the 1990s, there were tens of thousands of camp survivors around as potential source material.  They were in their 70s.  Now, they’re in their 90s.  There aren’t tens of thousands remaining.

     I floundered around the history halls of a prestigious graduate program for a time.  But, in truth, something happened to me there.  History became boring.  History became ego.  The scholars in the program were far different than the scholars of college.  Writing history, and publishing it, turned them into megalomaniacs.  It pained me.  To the question “How were histories written?” I asked a second question.  What did the search for truth have to do with power?

     I dropped out of graduate school.  I needed to move away from the ego of scholarship.  I began to write fiction.  I wanted to turn my thesis idea into a novel.  It went nowhere.  Why?  The story idea might have been fine but the execution was terrible.  I couldn’t write.  I didn’t understand anything about the art form, the flow of story, the usage of words.  I simply got in the way of the story all the time.  Maybe I still do.  I don’t know.

     In my early 30s, I wrote a book called What the Psychic Saw.  That wasn’t the original title.  I wrote the story under a provisional title, The Century of Electricity.  Using the 20th century as setting and character, I followed the evolution of electricity.  What began at an event at the world’s fair on the morning of September 6, 1901 snaked through the killing center of Auschwitz and over to the Manhattan project at Alamogordo.  A significant gerrymandering took place with the Alger Hiss case and that turned the century toward the cold war, and class warfare, and race-related eruptions occurring in places like Watts and South Central, Los Angeles.  The century’s evolution of electricity ended on September 11, 2001 in New York City with the bombing of the World Trade Center.

     The publishing house changed the name of the work.  I don’t know why I went along with the name change.  The publisher was, essentially, self-publishing.  I guess I didn’t see it for what it was.  I fell in line with the name change because I had my sights on the bigger picture.  What the Psychic Saw was my first foray into historical fiction.  But, really, it set the stage of what was to come, the faux history. 

     I wasn’t entirely happy with the form in Psychic.  I still had that perplexing question in mind.  How were histories written?  Writing historical fiction didn’t satisfy that journey to find some truth.  I wanted to maintain the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  I wanted source material, and documented reportage, and eyewitness testimony, and footnotes.  I wanted story to follow from a foundation of fact.

     I began the faux history form in a work entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise.  The story began in Tehran 1979.  When a group of Iranian college students stormed the American embassy and took hostages, it set the stage for world politics of the most damaging kind.  The question became: Did the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter?

     There were works that looked into this history.  But to study those works revealed a sad truth: there was so much misinformation and disinformation regarding the October Surprise, as it’s known, that the facts of the case didn’t form a coherent, researchable story.

     For historians rooted to the historical method, this conclusion closes the door on the case.  Without facts, what is history?  I proceeded anyway, though I veered into a different lane.  This is where the faux history gathers speed.  Imagination kicks in.  Fabrication accelerates.  Invention replaces reality.  But unlike earlier forms of historical fabrication – historical fiction or alternative history – the faux history maintains the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  The faux historian fleshes out the players involved, fleshes out the records, fleshes out the truths.  The faux historian presents primary source material, cites experts, annotates, builds conclusions based on facts.  Like a genuine history, the flow of facts dictates the story line.

     Facts, of course, can be easily manipulated.  In French, faux means false.  When are the facts false?  When do facts fictionalize?  These questions lie at the heart of the faux history.

     My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, takes on all of this evolution.  Let’s go back over thirty years to my thesis on Jewish Germany since the Holocaust.  Let’s go back to the historian calling me out with those words, “Why don’t you write the history you call for?”  Let’s go back, too, to my presumed doctoral dissertation on the fantasy life of camp prisoners.  With these foundational moorings echoing in my head, I decided to write a history.  I just did it in a different form.  I wrote a critical biography on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I challenged his narrative, much as I wanted to challenge the narrative of food as the total form of fantasy.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  I found an excessively ambitious man with a strong narcissism streak.  I found a man moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  I found a man who promoted a wide sanctimony.  I found a man who could not relinquish control.

     The drive to control wasn’t unusual in camp survivors.  They had all control ripped away during their imprisonment.  But in Wiesel’s case, control issues flooded his psyche.  There were control issues in his transmitting of the Holocaust.  There were control issues in how he framed the survivors.  There were control issues in his writing career, and his advocacy work.  There were control issues in Wiesel the museum builder, and Wiesel the world politics player. 

     My biography on Wiesel did not get published.  One major publisher seemed close to taking it on, but turned away.  The editor told me it would be “fraught for a publisher.”  What he meant specifically, I cannot say.  But as Wiesel had positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors, as he had positioned himself as the face of the Holocaust and a far wider Man of Conscience, and as those titles still held sway, maybe taking on my project would have been too damaging for the publisher’s reputation.

     Left with a large and unpublished manuscript, I decided to build Wiesel’s story into a wider fiction.  I turned to the form I had begun with the October Surprise: the faux history.  I imagined the publication of that biography.  I imagined the results.  I imagined the “fraught” that would have come my way.  Death threats.  The story then spins in an unexpected direction.  The author goes into hiding.  He chooses to hide in plain sight.  He travels to Jerusalem.  There, he discovers a lost manuscript.  That manuscript, originally published in the immediate aftermath of the Book of Mark, would have significant consequences on the writings of the Gospels.  It would call into question the motivations of the evangelist named Mark.  It would expose the legend behind Jesus Christ.  But that manuscript would also shine a light on its own author.  Who really was Josephus and how did he stoke his own legend at the expense of the man?

     Satan’s Synagogue then unearths large histories, and smaller ones, too.  Its aim – to find some truth in the incredible complexity that is history – follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust, from Mark to Jesus to Josephus, from Josephus to Emperor Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, the author chronicles a bicycle ride made through the Galilee and Old Phoenicia, known as “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant.”

     But the story doesn’t end there.  Documents found during the research for Satan’s Synagogue reveal new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China.  My next faux history will unveil a previously unreported route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.”  That book project will also trace a bicycle ride, made from Xi’an (an ancient capital in China) to Istanbul, and a second Tour de Josephus, this one focusing on Rome, and more criticism on Wiesel, and more interpretation of Josephus, and more on the backstory behind the writings of the Gospels.  But there’s even more.  A former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the “notch,” presented mind-blowing evidence to me regarding the October Surprise history.  That documentation will be included, too.  If you think Satan’s Synagogue covered a tremendous amount of ground, wait until you read the sequel.