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Q & A with… Joseph Kaufman

Rabbi Joseph Kaufman

Pat Kazakoff was in Israel visiting her son, Andrew, who is studying at Machon Yaakov in Har Nof, a Jerusalem yeshiva for students with little or no formal Jewish education. During Shabbat, the Kazakoffs were invited to a meal at the home of Rabbi Joseph Kaufman, a teacher at the yeshiva. In the course of conversation, Pat mentioned that she chairs the Jewish Book Festival at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford.
“Rabbi Kaufman said, ‘I wrote a book,’ and he brings it out,” Kazakoff recalls. “On the cover I notice that the book is a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Having been involved with the Jewish Book Council in the course of my work, I knew that this was a mammoth achievement.”
Kazakoff learned that Kaufman spends time each summer in his native Pittsfield, Mass., and invited him to speak at Beth Israel. The book in question is “The Legend of Cosmo & the Archangel,” Kaufman’s second novel, published by French Creek Press. He will speak at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford on Wednesday, Aug. 17. The talk will be moderated by author Josh Lambert, Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the department of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.
Inspired by the “Woodstock generation,” Kaufman explores choices, changes, and the different response each person can have to the same situations. The two protagonists, intertwined by the past, travel the globe – one in pursuit, one the pursued. Only the death of one resolves the intense relationship.
Kaufman spoke with the Ledger about his own journey from Pittsfield, Mass. to Jerusalem, from secular life to Orthodoxy.

 

Q: Your writing, travels, and self-examination are very intertwined. How are they connected?
A: In 1975, I had just finished two years at University of Vermont, where I decided that I wanted to write seriously. I had a wonderful writing teacher, David Huddle, who wrote a recommendation for me for Bennington College. I wanted to go there because Bernard Malamud was the writer-in-residence, and I submitted some stories and they let me in, but put off my admissions for a semester.
My dad said, “How would you like to go to Israel?” and bought my ticket. I took a year off and stayed on two kibbutzim, then came back to Bennington for two years and wrote for Bernard Malamud, who became my writing rebbe. I spent a lot of time with him, went to his house for dinner; we later shared a correspondence and he came to my wedding.
After graduating, I went to the Peace Corps for two-and-a-half years in Togo, West Africa, where I built four schools and a small hospital along with African masons and carpenters. While I was there, I wrote a short novel and thought it was awful and burned it.
I eventually came back to the Berkshires and worked for my dad, who started K-B Toys; I was being groomed to run the business and ended up running the company’s St. Louis region. A friend from Bennington said I should look up his sister, Elizabeth. So I did and we got married, religious, and pregnant all at the same time.
We moved to Boston for five years, where my wife went to veterinary school at Tufts and did her residency there. I was the housewife for our two boys. During those five years, I raised my kids, kept house, found a rebbe for Talmud, and wrote my first book. I’d get up at 3:45 every morning to write. It was a very rich and wonderful five years but also a very difficult time. It’s actually when I grew up, and it is always painful to grow up.
I had always wanted to go back to Israel and give it a shot because my neshama [soul] likes Israel. We moved there in 1989 and had two daughters, now 20 and 16. My sons are both married with kids. It’s a wonderful place to be religiously Jewish and to raise kids.

Q: How did you move from a secular life to a religious life?
A: The germ of my religious life was when I was in the Peace Corps. I’d always been Jewishly interested: I went to Sunday school and a Jewish youth group; read the Jewish-American literature — Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud — but the general direction was out of Yiddishkeit and mine was toward it. Nonetheless, there was a certain nexus point of interest.
In the Peace Corps, I was living with Africans and was the only white guy around and that puts you back on yourself and you wonder, Who am I really? It doesn’t matter that I’m white; it doesn’t matter that I’m American. The salient part is that I’m a Jew.
I was raised as a Reform Jew but felt alienated. I figured there might be a place for a guy like me to learn, and I wanted to go to yeshiva. After the Peace Corps, I went home to the Berkshires, and in the middle of the winter I found a guy who’d gone to Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and I went there for six months.
In Africa, I experienced that dissection of self that happens by being really in galus [Diaspora]. I found the director and the teachers Aish very compelling.
When I was in Boston, I sat with my rebbe one-one-one six days a week for five years. I walked in wearing a pair of jeans and walked out with a black suit and hat.
Once we moved to Israel, I spent most of my time learning in Israel and went through smicha [rabbinical ordination]; I did it more for my parents and wife, to add legitimacy to my religious interests. I was a Gemarah rebbe at two yeshivot, taught Talmud at Ohr Somayach, now and teach a topic class at Machon Yaakov, a “baal teshuva yeshiva” [for Jewish young men with little or no formal Jewish education]. I know where these kids are at: I was there myself, and we share a language.

Kaufman's book

Q: What motivated you to write “Cosmo?”
A: I’m very smitten by writing; it’s a type of meditation, an engagement with the world that makes everything much richer. There are two germs to the story behind “Cosmo.” I always wanted to write about the Woodstock Generation. I was born in 1955, just on the outer edge of the Baby Boom. In 1969, I was 13 and I was a junior counselor at Camp Sumner in the Berkshires. The head counselor was sitting in his jalopy and told me, “I’m going to Woodstock; wanna come?” I said, “What’s Woodstock?” He said, “It’s a music festival” and named all the performers. I said, “I’d love to go. When are you going?” and he said, “Right now.” I said, “I have to ask my mom,” and he left. I always use that story as a humorous example of the difference between a goyishe kid and a Jewish kid: the goyishe kid just goes; the Jewish kid has to ask his mom. So that’s how I didn’t go to Woodstock.
There’s a mystique about the real Baby Boomers – they experienced Woodstock, the Viet Nam war, the draft, a lot of great social upheavals. There was a certain maturity they have that I don’t share. The book is about a group of friends who are those people and who did go to Woodstock and it looks at what happened to them afterwards. That was a motivator for me.
The second inspiration was a story in the Talmud about a man married to a woman with one hand, and he never even knew she only had one hand – that’s how modest they were with each other. I thought, How would it be to be married to a woman with one hand? I was trying to produce an artistic vision.

Q: How did you get “Cosmo” published?
A: I met an agent, Leona P. Schecter of Washington, D.C., through my mother-in-law. She’d read my first book, “A Good Protected Life,” and was able to sell it to Walker Company, a division of Knopf; they published it in 1992. It got okay reviews.
I started writing “Cosmo” in 1993 and it took five years to write. I gave it to Leona and she couldn’t sell it and I felt it was a better book than my last. I rewrote it, sent it out, and received many rejections. I was emotionally tired and put the book in a drawer, where it sat for 10 years.
A chapter was published in an anthology. Shoshana Kleiman, who owns and runs French Creek Press in Jerusalem, is an acquaintance of my wife and asked for the rest of the book. My wife told her that I’d given up on it but Shoshana was insistent and my wife said, “Give it to her already.”So I did, and Shoshana came back and said, “It’s wonderful but you have to make some edits.” I said, “I don’t have the emotional strength anymore; you do it,” so she edited the book for me. I read her edits and said, “I can do better than this.” I spent two years rewriting it and gave it to her and she said, “You didn’t quite give it your all” and I spent another six months going through it and decided that I wanted to write a book that could win a prize. I took it apart it and dissected each character and really looked at their motivations. I was vulnerable and faced the big questions you have to ask yourself as a writer.
French Creek Press published the book and it was nice to be published by someone who really believed in the book. That was moving for me. Shoshana submitted the book to the National Jewish Book Awards and it was a finalist.

Q: How do your Orthodox and artistic lives coexist?
A: I live in a very ultra-Orthodox world: I wear black and white; I have a beard and a kippah. I live in a fundamentalist world, where art is not very respected. It might be good for me artistically, but it’s also isolated artistically. On the one hand, it’s good because I write about what I think about, not fads or fashions or what might work according to another’s opinion, so there’s an integrity. But there’s also a fertility I’m lacking, because there’s no cross-pollination with other writers and artists. The last great writer I knew was Mr. Malamud, who died in 1985. So I’m very iconoclastic. I need a good reader when I’m ready to be read, and my mother-in-law is my best reader.
The difficult part is that you get no haskama [endorsement] for what you’re doing. A really serious artist doesn’t particularly care about what others think and I haven’t been as mature as I could have been in terms of the approval thing. After all, you’re human and you need input. I have fans but no one who’s really a knowledgeable writer. Allen Hoffman, who just retired as head of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, called me and wanted to talk to me about my book and about what I’m writing now.
At the core of my story is a real existential conflict within me about the validity and uses of fiction writing and I haven’t worked that out yet.

Joseph Kaufman will present “The Legend of Cosmo & the Archangel” on Wednesday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel, 701 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. RSVP to pat@kazakoff.com or (860) 232-2319. For information call (860) 233-8215

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