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
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
had the last word.
a writer means, and has always meant, most to me. I consider the following three
books my keynote accomplishments:
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?
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
Your favorite book(s) and author(s) and why.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
is my favorite book? I know I had
one once, because I wrote this sonnet about it, in my early twenties:
SENDING A BOOK TO MY LOVE
upon row, the silent volumes stand,
songs, thoughts, dreams of wise men and of fools,
were they read? Touched by some
harkens still to their soft, calling pulse?
such I've snatched by chance! Hark, he who wrote
lived once, too, had feared, had loved, had hoped,
found delight in each fresh vernal note,
just as we, had questioned as he groped.
to me! Yet known! Quiet hours I've
fired by him! I knew the heart that
he now strike a chord in you, dear friend,
not a threefold music blend and meet?
may men's hearts join ever - yours, others, mine -
of, transcending space and time!
"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.
Martin Bormann, one of Hitler's closest goons, contended: "National
Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable."
This was due, to a large degree, to
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
are absolutely right. An excellent,
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.'"
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."
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
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
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.
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,
recounted the anxieties I had about facing each other again.
I spoke about what a soul-changing experience it was for me.
acknowledged a terrifying question that came to me as I came to grips with my
referred to our common Bible, which teaches us: "You shall not oppress a
stranger...You shall love him as yourself." (Leviticus
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.
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
concluded, "We, Jews and Germans, are now bound together by Kristallnacht and
the Holocaust for all eternity. But our story must not end there.
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."
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.
Please tell us about the music you appreciate.
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.
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.
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
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.
do you think written or photographed or painted sexuality becomes
"pornographic" and obscene?
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?
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.
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.
what about human sexuality in the creative arts?
artists should be allowed to explore what life is all about, including human
sexuality, in words, music, image, and movement, for our pleasure, instruction,
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.
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.)
(For further, provocative points about Abraham, click here.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 (
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?
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.
for readers, and, hopefully, fans, thank you for giving my books, and me, your
kind and thoughtful consideration.
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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