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D. Herrle Tea Interviews - Rolf Gompertz 

Welcome to the Tea Interviews.

I devised this feature to edify fellow artists and to share that edification with you readers/participants.  I've seldom met an artist, particularly a writer, who didn't tend to gab or spill opinions or offer musings on his/her own work and worldview.  Therefore I'm tapping into this common tendency.  

(Most of the questions are tailored toward the featured interviewee.)


 Tea Interview with Rolf Gompertz


"I still believe in man, I said, because Judaism requires that I do. But I must believe in God, because I cannot place my total faith in man." - Rolf Gompertz


D: Rolf, let me begin by saying that your accomplishments are quite versatile, from novels to television to teaching. At the risk of seeming trite (strange how the word "trite" has become trite), please tell how what you consider to be your keynote accomplishment.


I can best answer with one of my briefer poems, in which I use my Hebrew name on my tombstone:



     Here Lies Menachem


  He  God had the last word.



Being a writer means, and has always meant, most to me. I consider the following three books my keynote accomplishments: A JEWISH NOVEL ABOUT JESUS, ABRAHAM, THE DREAMER -- An Erotic and Sacred Love Story , and SPARKS OF SPIRIT - HOW TO FIND LOVE AND MEANING IN YOUR LIFE, 24 HOURS A DAY.




D: Your book, A Jewish Novel About Jesus, deals with the most controversial figure in human history.  You approach the subject with a notable love and a mutual respect for Judaism and Christianity.  What is your simplified regard for Jesus?


When the book first came out, I titled it "My Jewish Brother Jesus."  That capsulizes how I regard Jesus.  Jews are brothers and sisters, children of God, just as all human beings are brothers and sisters, children of God.  So, Jesus is my Jewish brother.  He was special, a God- inspired, love-inspired being.  I believe he saw himself as the Messiah.  His message was: Love.  I do not see him in Christian theological terms, but I do understand how Christians see him.  Jesus was taken out of the Jewish theological orbit and was placed in a new and different theological orbit, the Christian orbit.  Jesus became Judaism's  gift to the Gentile world.




D: Your favorite book(s) and author(s) and why.


The Bible.  I am as surprised as you probably are at this answer.  Had you asked me fifty years ago, I would have given you a totally different answer - and probably picked someone from English or American literature, from Beowulf to Wordsworth or Whitman.  That had been my college major.  I was into poets then, lots of poets, and even became one myself.


At 19, I would have said, Friederich Nietsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra.  In my early 20s, it would have been, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Pierre , or, the Ambiguities.  In my early 30s I would have picked Milton Steinberg's Basic Judaism and Joseph Klausner's Jesus of Nazareth.


I can best explain my choice of the Bible with a brief anecdote.  One of my English professors announced one day that the greatest line in the English language comes from the New Testament.  It describes the reaction of Jesus as, heading for Jerusalem , he first lays eyes on the city:  "And Jesus wept."


Well, I thought the professor was off his rocker.  I could have quoted him a half dozen much better lines from Thoreau, Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and probably even Beowulf.   I don't remember any of those lines. But I do remember: "And Jesus wept." Simple, poignant, powerful.  It said so much.


Why  the Bible?  Because it has said so much to me and continues to say so much to me.  It challenged me and continues to challenge me, as no other book has done. It keeps leading me to all the other books, both secular and spiritual.


We talk TO each other THROUGH the Bible.  The books we read seek to offer answers, directly or indirectly, to the questions raised constantly by the Bible.  Why am I here?  What's it all about?


What is my favorite book?  I know I had one once, because I wrote this sonnet about it, in my early twenties:




Row upon row, the silent volumes stand,

The songs, thoughts, dreams of wise men and of fools,

When were they read?  Touched by some human hand?

Who harkens still to their soft, calling pulse?

One such I've snatched by chance! Hark, he who wrote

Had lived once, too, had feared, had loved, had hoped,

Had found delight in each fresh vernal note,

And, just as we, had questioned as he groped.

Unknown to me! Yet known!  Quiet hours I've spent,

Charmed, fired by him!  I knew the heart that beat,

Should he now strike a chord in you, dear friend,

Shall not a threefold music blend and meet?

Thus may men's hearts join ever - yours, others, mine -

Defiant of, transcending space and time!


(From "A Celebration of Life," © 1983 by Rolf Gompertz)


What was the name of that book?  I can't remember.  It was a favorite book! All right, so, what other favorite books do I have?  It's  always the one I'm presently reading,  that speaks to my heart, mind and soul,  that provides me with insight and inspiration, that provides joy and meaning.




D: Martin Bormann, one of Hitler's closest goons, contended: "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable."  This was due, to a large degree, to Christianity's link to Judaism.  But it also involved the secularism championed by the most ruthless regimes of the last century.


I've long insisted that Nazism was fundamentally and effectively an anti-Jewish and anti-Christian force. Genuine God-centeredness suffered under Hitler, because such authority over the State was incompatible with National Socialist hegemony.  Thus, so-called "Positive Christianity" was fostered, focusing on racial purity and the material goals of the Reich. What are your thoughts on this?


You are absolutely right.  An excellent, capsulized explanation may be found on the Internet, titled, "Martin Niemoeller: The Resistance (1892-1984)" (based on William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 234-239) and Christian History, Dietrich Bonhoeffer issue 32 (Vol. X, No. 4), p. 20.


The critical paragraph states:  "Not many Germans lost much sleep over the arrests of a few thousand pastors and priests or over the quarreling of Protestant sects. And even fewer paused to reflect that under the leadership of Rosenberg, Bormann and Himmler, who were backed by Hitler, the Nazi regime intended to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi  extremists.  As Bormann, one of the men closest to Hitler, said in 1941, 'National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.'"


"Pastors," the website points out, "who resisted the neo-Pagan religion of the Nazis were jailed.  Many were eventually led to the gas ovens of the concentration camps."


The classic example of all this is contained in the life of Pastor Martin Niemoeller.  He supported Hitler, prior to his taking power.  But Niemoeller broke very early with the Nazis, opposing them publicly from 1933-1937.  He rejected the Nazi distortion of "Positive Christianity." He was arrested for treason and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, narrowly escaping execution.


After the war, he issued his famous warning:  "When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned.  And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned.  And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned.  Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church -- and there was nobody left to be concerned."


This is why I wrote A Jewish Novel About Jesus.  It is my answer to Hitler.  It affirms the Judaism of Jesus.  Hitler wanted to destroy Judaism, and, by extension, Christianity. My other book, Abraham, the Dreamer, is a further answer to Hitler.  It deals with Abraham, the first Jew.  The books represent my affirmation of Judaism and of my faith.





D: You were a child survivor of the infamous Kristallnacht, which you describe as "the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust".  In 1988 you returned to your hometown, Krefeld , Germany, and delivered an inspirational speech at a 50-year commemoration of Kristallnacht. Please share some of the speech's elements and messages.


I began: "My German name is Rolf Gompertz, son of Oscar and Selma Gompertz. My Hebrew name is Menachem -- Menachem ben Shimshon v'Sarah."   I recreated in words what we experienced in this unholy night, November 9, 1938, when half-a dozen Nazis, with rifles, invaded our home at around 2 in the morning.   I spoke of my personal difficulties about returning to Germany and how I reached the decision to do so, the year before (1987), and the extraordinary events that brought me back and that I experienced .   I spoke of how I found my answer in Ezekiel ( 18:20 -31) -- that we must not hold the new generation responsible for what the older generation did.  Ezekiel speaks against collective guilt.


I recounted the anxieties I had about facing each other again.  I spoke about what a soul-changing experience it was for me.   I recalled the members of my family who were murdered, and those who survived.   I acknowledged the presence, still, of anti-Semitic acts in Germany , but I also acknowledged how the good has succeeded and triumphed again in Germany .


I acknowledged a terrifying question that came to me as I came to grips with my return to Germany :  How would I have acted, if I had not been born a Jew? I came to a terrifying, humbling conclusion:  I didn't know how I would have behaved!  I only hoped I would have shown character and strength, and remained human.   "That," I said, "is why we cannot forget Kristallnacht or the Holocaust.  The threat is always there.  Decency is not guaranteed.  Goodness is not guaranteed.  Our prejudices, our darker thoughts and feelings can always be aroused again against somebody. Yesterday it was the Jews. Who is it today?  Who will it be tomorrow?"


I referred to our common Bible, which teaches us: "You shall not oppress a stranger...You shall love him as yourself."  (Leviticus 1933-34).   "Something went wrong in the human soul," I said, trying to explain what had happened.  "Love, compassion, justice, sensitivity -- these were shut off.  People lost their humanity. After that, anything was possible."


I still believe in man, I said, because Judaism requires that I do. But I must believe in God, because I cannot place my total faith in man.


Can we meet again?  How can we go on from here? I asked. We meet again through the Bible, our common ground, I said,  where we are told in both the "Old" Testament (the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament: "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." And:  "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  We are all children of God, and we are here to love and serve God through the love and service of our fellow human beings.


I concluded, "We, Jews and Germans, are now bound together by Kristallnacht and the Holocaust for all eternity. But our story must not end there. We regard the past. We cannot forgive, we must not forget, but we can transform. We can, we should, we must transform the past, for the sake of life.  That is our triumph.  And if there is a central truth to be snatched from the flames of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, it is this:  That we must always remember our common humanity.  In case of conflict, in case we are forced to choose between ideology and our common

humanity, we must choose humanity.


Can we build bridges again? Yes, we should, we must.  Because, after all is said and done, there is only one answer left: Love and Reconciliation.  Shalom."





D:  C.S. Lewis wrote: "...if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagine, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners."


This reminds me about a similar notion suggested by a line from your Kristallnacht speech (mentioned earlier): "One of the reasons I personally believe in God is because I cannot place my total faith in man."



 I learned years ago that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.  Still, one of the experiential proofs I have, at least for myself, is on the basis of need.  I need God, because no human being -  even the most loving and well-intentioned -- can fulfill ALL my needs, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I need love, understanding, compassion, justice, mercy, and encouragement, all the time. 


Human beings are limited, by time and space, in what we can do for each other.  Even the best of relationships end in death.  Human beings can also be terribly cruel and brutal, as individuals and as groups.   Where can I turn, then, under all circumstances, including the worst, for comfort and reassurance, for strength and love?  Where can I turn, in extremity, without despairing, even as I despair temporarily?  Only God.


We are told that we have been created in the image of God, that we are all - each one of us - children of God.  We are here to love and serve God, through the love and service of our fellow human beings.  Every human being can do this.  Every act, and every attitude, can then be offered as a love and service to God and to our fellow human beings.  What greater meaning can our lives have than that? 


Human beings can -- and do -- let us down.  God won't. Our primary connection is to God. This gives us worth and dignity, at all times, under all circumstances, as nothing else can. 




D: Please tell us about the music you appreciate.


I only speak one artistic language:  words.  I love other creative arts, but I don't speak their language.  I love music.  I am in awe of music and composers, as I am in awe of paintings and painters.  I haven't got a clue about structure and composition, these other arts.  Still, music moves me, touches me, inspires me.  All kinds of music -- from popular to classical.  I have CDs in my car; I listen to the radio.  I switch back and forth, between popular and classical, depending on my mood. 


I attend concerts from time to time.  Sometimes they put me in a creative trance, and something comes through. I like romantic songs. I'm especially conscious of good lyrics and imagery.


I like some music because of some special association I connect with it.  Take Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."  I first heard it when I was 19 years old and in the U.S. Army.  A brilliant buddy of mine and I listened to it at his mother's house.  He was also the one who challenged everything I believed in, knocked out all the props from under me, and made me start rebuilding my belief-system on a more thoughtful, systematic basis. I'm still an "unfinished symphony."  I think we all are.  It's a good metaphor.






D: In the forward of your novel, Abraham, The Dreamer, you note: "Sex is a powerful, basic force in human life.  It is the creative force in the universe.  It is life."


You wrote this as a justification for the explicit sexual scenes in the book.  I applaud such honesty.  I tend to write sensually, respectful to the beauty (as well as the more base) aspects of human sexuality.  This is a fundamental element of art, of course.


When do you think written or photographed or painted sexuality becomes "pornographic" and obscene?


That's so difficult to answer, but I shall try. Adults should not be treated as children, and children should not be treated as adults.  The Bible, for instance, is a very violent and a very sexy book, in many ways and in many places.  It starts with Adam and Eve, who are totally naked.  By the way, did they have a bellybutton?


The cosmos is an expression of God's love, physically and spiritually.  The Bible deals with our relationship to each other and to God, within that cosmos, and beyond.   We are constantly exploring what that means, through our many and varied disciplines. We use microscopes  and telescopes to look deep inside and far out into the physical universe.  We use our minds, hearts and souls to look deeply into our inner, spiritual worlds.


We are physical and spiritual beings.  We perceive things through our bodies and our souls.  The Bible stories deal with complex human relations involving timeless and universal issues, with which we can identify and from which we can learn.


So, what about human sexuality in the creative arts?   Doctors and therapists deal with the body/soul connection, intimately, in medical ways. Creative artists deal with the body/soul connection, intimately, in artistic ways. 


Creative artists should be allowed to explore what life is all about, including human sexuality, in words, music, image, and movement, for our pleasure, instruction, and inspiration.


Yesterday's pornography is today's classic. For instance, the beautiful "Song of Songs" almost was excluded from the Hebrew Bible, by the rabbis who fixed the biblical canon.   "The Song of Songs" was considered too "erotic," until one of the rabbis convinced the others that, while "The Song of Songs" describes human lovers, it really speaks of the love between God and the Jewish  people.  That made the sexy "Song of Songs" kosher.


As for human sexuality and the creative arts, there is always the possibility of excess, bad taste, and clumsy execution, but the consequences of artistic control are more dangerous than the consequences of artistic freedom. Creative artists and audiences should be able to find each other. Consumer guidance is fine. But young adults, and up, should have the freedom of choice.  


In writing Abraham, the Dreamer I want to pay tribute to human love.  I want to show the difference between fulfilling and unfulfilling love, and how the erotic and sacred are connected.  This book is my "Song of Songs," in novel form.


(For further, provocative points about Abraham, click here.)



D: Buzz words have become a language disease that tends to stab genuine debate and opinion.  One of the unfortunate terms to suffer is "anti-Semitism".  I find using such a term to be quite important, delicate, and serious - not be tossed about lightly or without full consideration.


But I also perceive a growing, worldwide anti-Semitic trend, partly fostered by outcry for a so-called "Palestinian" state, etc.   Do you agree that anti-Semitism is indeed proliferating?  Your thoughts on this issue?



Yes, I agree with you on this completely. It terrifies me and saddens me deeply.  I thought that after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism would never been acceptable or politically correct again.  But it is once more, and it frightens me.


We saw in Nazi Germany what happens when you demonize human beings and rob them of their humanity.  We see this kind of propaganda machinery at work again in the world, spreading its poison.  Totalitarian governments want power and control.  They only pretend interest in the welfare of their people.  Their people are brainwashed and  offered Jews (or others) as scapegoats to blame and hate, for everything that's wrong in their lives and their societies. 


I feel sorriest for the children, who are taught to hate.  One day they will be in for a rude and painful awakening, as were the German children and young people, when they learned the truth about their elders, with the defeat of Hitler.


For an excellent, detailed discussion of this, I would refer you to a four-part, in-depth article, titled, "The Return of Anti-Semitism," by Craig Horowitz ( December 15, 2003 ) at New York




D: Rolf, I respect your astute work, your attention to love, and your experience.  I wish you many blessings on your path.  Any closing words for readers/fans?


Yes, thank you, for your thoughtful, appreciative, and understanding questions.  I am impressed with your skills as an interviewer, your perceptions as a reviewer, and your talents as a writer in your own right.


As for readers, and, hopefully, fans, thank you for giving my books, and me, your kind and thoughtful consideration.


Finally, let's remember that while there is much that's wrong with the world, there's also goodness in it, and many good, decent human beings.  So, as we say in my tradition, "Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another." Love, blessings, and shalom. And... keep the faith!



Read David Herrle's review of A Jewish Novel About Jesus.






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