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The Weekly Blague

We Talk About Everything

Dak Mills, an easygoing New Yorker, wanted to talk about all aspects of my life and career on his podcast Comfortable Being Uncomfortable. And I was completely comfortable chatting with him about the three books I've published—Nowhere Man, Beaver Street, and A Brooklyn Memoir—as well as the untitled book I'm writing about an underground student newspaper at City College in the 1970s, as the antiwar movement was giving way to the despair of punk. So Dak and I jump around from the days of free tuition and open admissions, to John Lennon's dairies, to industrialized pornography, to post-traumatic stress disorder in Flatbush in the aftermath of WWII. I even throw in some hard-earned writing advice.

 

Please do give it a listen, either on YouTube (above) or on Spotify, Apple, or iHeart.

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All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X or my eternally embryonic Instagram or my recently launched Threads.

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Her 97th Passover

 

My semi-annual journey to West Palm Beach to visit my mother, Eleanor Rosen, in her assisted-living facility coincided with Passover this year. The facility, Morse Life, observes the holiday. As we were sitting under an umbrella in the lush garden, an aide brought my mother her lunch, matzo pizzas consisting of tomato sauce and melted kosher-for-Passover mozzarella cheese on matzo. I reminded her of all the good food she used to prepare for Passover when I was living at home.

 

My mother is one of the main characters in A Brooklyn Memoir, a book she hasn't been able to read due to failing eyesight. In the book, set in the 1950s and 60s, I describe her as a magician in the kitchen who often cooked gourmet meals like crêpes suzette. When I visit, she likes me to read to her from the book. In honor of her 97th Passover, I read from her favorite chapter, 15, "The Flatbush Diet":

 

Sometimes on weekends, she'd whip up a batch of blueberry pancakes or a cheese omelet or cinnamon toast or French toast (often made with challah), occasionally with a serving of ambrosia-like bacon on the side. Though we routinely consumed other pig meats as well—notably pork chops and ham—we also observed Passover. And to make more bearable those eight days of giving up virtually every food I liked to eat, my mother made a mouthwatering matzoh brei, latkes as light as feathers, and a sponge cake that she then transformed into a strawberry shortcake so delectable it seemed to defeat the very purpose of the holiday—to remember the suffering and deprivations of the Jews who'd wandered in the desert for 40 years.

 

And the only reason I can think of that she didn't add matzo pizzas—a variation on English-muffin pizzas—to her repertoire is because kosher-for-Passover mozzarella cheese hadn't been invented yet.

_______

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X or my eternally embryonic Instagram or my recently launched Threads.

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The Gift of Books

Every gift-giving season I make available signed copies of some of my books. Here's the selection for 2023:

  • Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (updated and expanded 2022 edition), $21
  • A Brooklyn Memoir (2022), $23
  • Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (2002 edition with photos), $19
  • Bobby in Naziland (2019, earlier, slightly different edition of A Brooklyn Memoir), $23

Prices include shipping in the continental US. Please email me for information on payment via Zelle, check, or money order, or if you have any questions.

 

Wishing all of you the happiest of holidays! And to help you get into the spirit of the season, here's Mary Lyn Maiscott's Christmas classic, "Blue Lights."

 

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All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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My Father at 100

Had my father, Irwin Rosen, lived, he would have turned 100 on September 23. But he left us in 2005, a vigorous man who had to be dragged to doctors and refused to take certain tests that might have saved his life. If it's true that everybody is born with a finite amount of courage, my father spent most of his on the battlefields of World War II and had little left over to face the verdicts rendered by men of medicine. My last memory of him when he was still healthy was playing touch football on my brother's front lawn. At age 80, he could still move and fling the ball with zip. I prefer not to think of him lying in a hospital bed.

 

My relationship with my father was challenging, and it was only after he was gone that I considered writing about it and trying to make sense of it. When I was a kid, he owned a candy store on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, around the corner from where we lived. He put in 12-hour days, then came home and went to sleep. Pretty much the only time I ever saw him awake was when he was behind the counter in the store, whipping up egg creams and malteds for his customers and selling them cigarettes. I worked in the store from the time I was seven, making change for newspapers and eventually graduating to the egg-cream bar. I liked listening to my father and his cronies talk about the war, football, and the dirty books he kept on a special rack in the back of the store. But I also got an advanced education in bigotry—I was carefully taught whom to hate. It was ugly stuff, some of the things they said, and I wrote about it in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir, which ends in 1964, when I was 12, just before my father sold the store.

 

Then came my teenage years, which I've yet to write a book about. My father was a law-and-order Republican, I was a hippie, and things in the Rosen household grew so strained, we froze each other out. It was a cold war. Months went by when I didn't exchange a word with my father or my mother. The root of the trouble was the length of my hair and my refusal to cut it. I spent as much time away from my parents as possible, while still technically living in the same house. I moved out in 1975, when I was 22.

 

By the time my parents moved to a retirement community near West Palm Beach, in 1995, my father had mellowed, even toning down the bigotry, and I'd become more accepting of his and my mother's flaws. We were talking again, and I enjoyed visiting them and spending time in Florida. Despite their adamant opposition to my career choice—"You'll starve!"—they were thrilled when Nowhere Man became a best-seller, and they kept a file of newspaper clippings about the book, in many languages. Though the thing that finally persuaded them that I'd achieved some degree of success was when Nowhere Man was a question on their favorite show, Jeopardy. ("Rock & Roll Bookstore for $400, Alex.") 

 

Now, in my own advanced age, I find myself missing the old man and wishing he'd taken the damn medical tests so I could have had him around a few more years. And my mother, who's closing in on 97, misses him, too—despite their 56 years of bickering about everything. That's just the way it goes. The lucky ones get old and some of them do make it to 100.

 

So, on the occasion of my father's 100th birthday, I'll leave you with an excerpt of A Brooklyn Memoir. This is how Chapter 11, "Fragments of My Father," begins:

 

Yes, my father wore his hatred on his sleeve like a badge of honor—because that's what he wanted people to see. He thought it made him look like a tough son of a bitch who was not to be fucked with, and maybe it did. But it was possible for certain people—like me, my mother, and perhaps a few others—to occasionally get beyond this facade, and if you managed to do that, what you'd find lurking just beneath the surface was a seething mass of contradictions.

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Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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Sometimes the Living Know Brooklyn, Too

 

It's been a while since I've posted about A Brooklyn Memoir, my tale of growing up in Flatbush at a time when the beloved Dodgers abandoned the borough for Los Angeles, WWII was still fresh in everybody's mind, and the military veterans and Holocaust survivors who populated the neighborhood suffered from what was not yet known as PTSD. But a podcast about the book that I recorded nine months ago recently popped up. You can listen to it on the above player.

 

Yvonne Battle-Felton, the host of Bookable Space, is a writer and academic based in the UK. Her probing questions about A Brooklyn Memoir got me talking about the racism, hatred, and emotional and physical violence that I tried to forget after I left Flatbush in the mid-1970s. It wasn't until 2012 that I decided to write about those long-ago days; I then spent the next several years recalling fragment by fragment what I'd so successfully put out of my mind.

 

I also read three short excerpts from the book: the beginning of Chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews"; the beginning of Chapter 3, "Heil Irwin," which is about my father; and the section from Chapter 9, "The Great Candy-Store Tragedy," that gets into the Brooklyn Dodgers and Bobby Thomson's devastating "shot heard 'round the world."

 

Tune in and return to a New York City that's been lost to time.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon: Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Artful Propaganda of the Spanish Civil War

 

Last week, to celebrate my birthday, I wrote about the man I was named after, my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber, who, in 1938, joined the International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion, to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa. I also examined a Spanish Civil War propaganda poster from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). A selection of these artistically striking posters, designed to convince Spanish citizens of the righteousness of the Republican anti-fascist cause, will be on display through September 15 in the NYU Kimmel Windows.

 

This week I'll examine two more ALBA posters that caught my eye. The text across the bottom of the above poster translates as "The Internationals: United with the Spanish, we fight against the invader"; the text in the seal as "International volunteers of freedom." Though the posters were effective, with volunteers from all over the world joining the International Brigade, the fascist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Adolf Hitler, overwhelmed the Republican army. Franco and his repressive regime would rule Spain until his death in 1975.

 

 SCW-Screenshot-3.png

During the Spanish Civil War, Buenaventura Durruti, working with anarchist labor unions, fought on the side of the Republicans against the fascist rebels, known as Nationalists. He was killed in action, in November 1936, at the Battle of Madrid. The text translates as "Honorable anarchists are against the false freedom that cowards [meaning the Nationalist rebels] invoke to get away with what they're doing."

 

It should be noted that the battle against fascism continues today in the United States, as one of its major political parties has rejected democratic rule, derisively calls those who oppose it Antifa (anti-fascist), and strives to overcome popular will and install an authoritarian regime.

 

There is much to be learned from what happened in Spain 85 years ago.

 ________

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My Great-Uncle Robert

 

The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of World War II. From 1936 to 1939, Spain's democratically elected leftist Republican government fought fascist rebels, known as Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco (still dead) and backed by Adolf Hitler, of Nazi Germany, who saw the conflict as an opportunity to test his weapons of war. Volunteers from many countries joined the XV International Brigade to fight alongside the Republicans. British writer George Orwell was perhaps the best known volunteer, and he documented his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and one of them was my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber.

 

I knew little about my mother's uncle when I was growing up, other than that he was an "adventurer" declared missing in action in the Spanish Civil War and presumed dead and that I was named after him in the Jewish tradition of naming babies after deceased family members. Sixty-five years later, as I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about her uncle. The only thing she remembered is that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman. He'd disappeared when she was 11. I'd never even seen a picture of him; nobody in the family had one.

 

As A Brooklyn Memoir was going to press, in 2019, I continued searching for additional information about Robert Weber and stumbled upon a page devoted to him in NYU's Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). I'd been spelling his name wrong. My mother finally told me that my grandfather had inserted an extra "b" into Weber to make it sound "less German." My grandfather and his wife and children were Webber.

 

I was 67 years old before I saw a photo of the person I was named after.

 

Uncle-Robert.png

My great-uncle Robert Weber's passport photo. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa, in Spain.

 

Robert Rubin Weber was born September 12, 1903, in Lomya, Russia, now part of Poland. He arrived in the US a month before his eighth birthday and became a naturalized citizen. His father, my great-grandfather, was Jacob Weber, who was born in Russia and died in 1935. Robert was a grocer like his older brother, my grandfather. The address listed on his passport, 442 West 23rd Street, in New York City, was most likely a rooming house at the time. He sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 12, 1938, landed in Spain on January 23, and served with the XV International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion (known as the Lincoln Brigade), rank soldado. Reported missing in action in March 1938, near Gandesa, as the International Brigade retreated from a fascist onslaught, he's now listed as killed in action.

 

I bring all this up because I was walking on LaGuardia Place a few weeks ago and was surprised to see an artistically striking selection of Spanish Civil War posters displayed in the NYU Kimmel Windows, a block south of Washington Square Park. The exhibition, which will remain on display until September 15, was co-curated by Miriam Basilio Gaztambide, an associate professor of art history and museum studies; Danielle Nista, an assistant university archivist; and several students. The posters got me thinking about my great-uncle again, and how I'd so recently come to learn anything about him, and how amazing it now seems that 85 years ago a member of my family, who'd probably never picked up a rifle, volunteered to go to war against fascism for a country that was not his own.

 

Tomorrow is my birthday, and, on this blog, I'm celebrating today and in weeks to come by remembering the man I was named after and the righteous cause he fought and died for.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

 

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What's in a Name?

 

I launched this blog February 10, 2010, with an announcement that the Italian edition of my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, was going to be published by Coniglio Editore, and that I was going to celebrate with a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. I don't remember what I called the blog back then. I changed the name every few weeks. I do know that over the past 13 years and 5 months, as I posted sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and sometimes monthly, I changed the name many more times.

 

If you logged on here four days ago, I was calling the blog "Flatbush Flashback," a reference to my most recent book, A Brooklyn Memoir. The blog served as an illustrated postscript to what I'd written about my old neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. Before that, my posts about Beaver Street were an addendum to my analysis of the political, technical, and sociological ramifications of the pornography industry. I called the blog "The Daily Beaver." Scroll down the left-hand column (on a computer) and you'll see a list of all the other topics I've written about since 2010.

 

Lately I've been writing about whatever catches my interest on any particular day. So, if you've tuned in recently, you've read about legal cannabis in New York City, a 350-year-old tree in Washington Square Park, tenement buildings (which did, coincidentally, touch on Flatbush), and a visit to Uvalde, Texas, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

 

It was time to change the name of the blog.

 

I stole "The Weekly Blague" from an Agatha Christie book I've been reading. There's a reference in Death on the Nile to a gossip column in a newspaper called the Daily Blague. The name made me laugh. I looked it up and was surprised to see that "blague" is a real word, though a bit archaic. I'm not going to tell you what it means, but I will say I'm using it ironically.

 

I don't know how long I'm going to keep that name. But for the time being, I am going to keep posting to The Weekly Blague about whatever's on my mind.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that people no longer read blogs, that they're very 2010, that readers want only microposts on social media. I don't buy it. A good blog is no different than a good newspaper. If you write about things people want to read, they'll find it. This blog has proven that many times.

 

Welcome to The Weekly Blague, however long it may last.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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We Were Talking About Air Shafts

 

We were sitting in a bar talking about air shafts. My friend Andrea was with her niece, Mia, who was visiting from Florida. Mia had wanted to go to the Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, admission $30. Andrea refused to pay $30 to look at a curated slum.

 

"Give me 30 bucks," I said to Mia. "I'll show you a shabby apartment."

 

The conversation then turned to defining what, exactly, makes a building a tenement. Andrea suggested a number of features distinctive to certain New York City apartments: rooms without windows, bathtub in kitchen, shared toilet in a water closet in the hallway, and windows looking out on an air shaft, often with garbage piled up at the bottom.

 

My wife, Mary Lyn, who's from Missouri and has never lived in a tenement, wasn't sure what an air shaft was. So Andrea and I endeavored to explain that in the early 20th century, New York City building codes demanded that apartments have at least one window, and that the solution to building cheap housing that had at least one window in every apartment was to place an air shaft—an empty verticle space—in the middle of the building. That way, interior apartments looked out on an air shaft, the other interior apartments often so close the tenants could reach out the window and shake hands with their neighbors as they inhaled the garbage fumes wafting up from below.

 

I pointed out that sometime in the 1950s, a builder came up with the insidious idea that kitchens and bathrooms don't need windows; vents would suffice. The idea caught on, and if you've spent any time in New York City, you've probably noticed how common this is, even in modern luxury buildings.

 

All this talk got me thinking about the apartment I lived in when I was a kid—the one I describe in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir. That building wasn't a tenement, but it was pretty rundown, though it did have a window in every room, including the kitchen and bathroom. What I didn't describe in the book was the way the kitchen and bathroom windows looked out on a space in the middle of the building that was too small to be called a courtyard but was bigger than an air shaft and served the same purpose. Every so often, a man with an accordian wandered into this space to sing Italian songs. People threw money at him, an occasional dollar bill floating down. From our third-floor kitchen window, I'd try to hit him in the head with pennies until my mother walked into the room and screamed, "Stop throwing money out the window!"

 

Should there be a future edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include this scene.

________

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A Journey Through My Consciousness

Nowhere Man, Beaver Street, and A Brooklyn Memoir, three books about seemingly unrelated topics, are connected by my voice—they all have the same sound. It's almost as if they're a trilogy or a journey through my consciousness. The interviews I've done over the years usually focus on only one topic: John Lennon, pornography, or Flatbush. But occasionally somebody wants to explore the complete Rosen oeuvre, and that was the case with the podcast Conversations With Rich Bennett. Rich wanted to hear it all, and he allowed me to ramble on for more than hour, taking a deep dive into each of my books.

 

I hope you'll give our conversation a listen.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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When Crosby, Stills & Nash Came to Flatbush

Marquee of the Kings Theatre, May 2015. Photo © Mary Lyn Maiscott.

 

Though I tend not to wax nostalgic over dead musicians, even those whose music contributed to the soundtrack of my formative years, I was surprised at the surge of emotion I felt upon hearing about the death of David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).

 

Yes, Déjà Vu was an album I played to death in the early 1970s, and Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" was a personal anthem back when I was living with my parents and they were incessantly telling me, "Cut your hair! You look like a damn freak!" I very much liked his lyric about the paranoia he felt when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw a police car. Because those were the days when my freaky hairdo was a magnet for police attention, and I couldn't so much as drive around the block without getting pulled over for a "routine" license and registration check.

 

I should also mention a fond memory of smoking hash in my bedroom with a couple of friends and hearing for the first time CSNY's take on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" come over the radio, with Crosby providing those ethereal harmonies and rhythm guitar, and thinking that a song never sounded so good.

 

But whatever emotions I've been feeling about Crosby probably have more to do with the last time I saw Crosby, Stills & Nash, in May 2015, when I'd gone back to Brooklyn to meet some old high school classmates for dinner. They all had tickets to see CSN at the Kings Theatre (formerly the Loew's Kings), which was down the street from our high school, Erasmus. I didn't even know they were playing there that night.

 

In A Brooklyn Memoir, I describe the Kings as "one of the rococo, multi-tiered Flatbush Avenue movie palaces," where for 50 cents I'd often satisfy my taste for Godzilla, vampires, and James Bond, and once saw the Three Stooges make a live appearance. (Moe was an Erasmus dropout.)

 

Since I fled Brooklyn in 1975, the Kings, after falling into disrepair, had been restored to a sumptuous entertainment venue equal to its original 1929 magnificence. And it was surreal to walk down Flatbush Avenue and see "Crosby Stills & Nash" on a marquee where I was more accustomed to seeing such offerings as The Three Stooges in Orbit.

 

In any case, I bought tickets to see CSN that night, sat in the balcony with my wife, and listened to one of my all-time favorite bands, still in fine voice considering what they (especially Crosby) had been through, open with "Carry On," and play, among other classics, "Long Time Gone," "Déjà Vu," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and, yes, "Almost Cut My Hair" (which it's no longer necessary to tell me to do).

 

And that's why surprisingly poignant emotions have been welling up over a musician I never met, but who touched my life, and in the final phase of his own life came to my old neighborhood to sing his songs.

________

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Eleanor Rosen Is Alive and Living in West Palm

 

I describe my mother, Eleanor Rosen, one of the main characters in A Brooklyn Memoir, as an obsessively clean housekeeper, an excellent cook, a lover of art and literature, a hater of Nazis, and a status-conscious woman who was dissatisfied with her lower-middle-class life in a shabby apartment on East 17th Street in 1950s and 60s Flatbush.

 

Today she resides in an assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, and last week my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, my cousin Mark Coplon, and I visited her. Such visits are emotionally difficult, mostly because my mother is unhappy being "in an institution," as she puts it, and would like to live with my brother, Jerry, or me, which would be impossible. She's having memory issues and problems walking; she'd require a full-time aide. Even putting aside the cost of such an endeavor, neither Jerry nor I have enough space.

 

A conversation with my mother goes something like this:

 

"How old am I?"

 

"You're 96, Mom."

 

"That's old. Do you think I'll make it to a hundred?"

 

"Could happen."

 

"Would you ever move to Florida? I'd feel so much better knowing you were near me."

 

"Our lives are in New York, Mom, but we'll visit you as much as we can. And so will Jerry and Cindy."

 

To distract my mother from her obsessions, we went outside to the patio, where I showed her the copy of A Brooklyn Memoir that I'd brought with me. Despite her failing eyesight, she recognized my father and me on the cover, and that the photo was taken, probably by her, on Church Avenue and East 17th, down the block from my father's candy store. Then I read her favorite passage, which begins, "Say what you will about my mother. She knew how to cook, and must be given full credit for her near-supernatural ability to transform the most ordinary cut of meat or low-budget piece of fish into something delicious."

 

Mark-Coplon.jpg My cousin Mark Coplon, a drummer in The Nickel Bag back in the day.

 

Later, Mary Lyn took out her guitar and sang for my mother, as Mark, who back in the day was a drummer in a suburban garage band called The Nickel Bag, drummed on the tabletop. My mother then looked up into the cloudless Florida sky and saw two hawks circling above us. It reminded her of a lyric from Oklahoma, which she and my father saw on Broadway before I was born. She asked Mary Lyn if she could play the title song from the show. So that's what Mary Lyn played. My mother remembered the words, and we all sang together:

 

Oklahoma, every night my honey lamb and I

Sit alone and talk
And watch a hawk

Making lazy circles in the sky.

 

And for a moment my mother was happy.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Rosen Oeuvre

 

Talking with Emerson Souza, host of the Hear Some Evil podcast, is kind of like hanging out at a bar and getting into a stimulating conversation with the knowledgeable stranger sitting on the barstool next to you. Souza originally told me that he was interested in discussing Beaver Street, my book about the history of pornography. But we ended up talking for two hours about my other books, too: an updated edition of my classic John Lennon bio Nowhere Man, which was just re-released, and A Brooklyn Memoir, a darkly comic tale about growing up in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, surrounded by Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who fought the Nazis. In short, Souza and I covered the entire Rosen oeuvre, and you can listen to our conversation if you click on "Play," above.

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My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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Another Fragment of My Father: II

 

This is the kind of document I wish I had when I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir. It's my father's pay record from 1944 and 1945, the final years of World War II, when the 94th Infantry Division had arrived in Nazi Germany as the Third Reich was making its last desperate stand against the advancing and soon to be victorious Allied armies.

 

The pay record contains many details that I was unfamilar with and that would have clarified the chronology of my father's war years, which he only discussed with me in the vaguest terms. I can see, for example, that when he was promoted from private first class (PFC) to corporal (CPL), on September 29, 1945, his salary skyrocketed from $15 per month to $40 per month; that a $6.50 life insurance premium was deducted every month; and that his life was valued at $10,000.

 

Had I known any of this, I'm sure I'd have included it in the book, as it adds another dimension to what my father was going through. Should there be a second edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include it.

 

In the meantime, I offer his pay record as a souvenir of a time when Nazis were America's mortal enemy rather than domestic terrorists who declare themselves patriots and defenders of freedom.

________

A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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Another Fragment of My Father

 

World War II and its effect on my father, Irwin Rosen, is one of the main themes of A Brooklyn Memoir. He was an infantyman in General Patton's 94th Division. He marched through France, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and took part in the liberation of a Nazi slave-labor camp. Despite my persistent questions, he never talked about what he experienced in any detail. Everything I learned about what happened to him in the war I learned from somebody else, usually my mother.

 

As a child, I loved looking at my father's war souvenirs, which I describe in the book. Recently, I came across a war souvenir I'd never seen before: his "Special Orders for German-American Relations" (first page depicted above), signed by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, in 1945.

 

His orders were exactly as follows:

 

1. To remember always that Germany, though conquered, is still a dangerous enemy nation.

2. Never to trust Germans, collectively or individually.

3. To defeat German efforts to poison my thoughts or influence my attitude.

4. To avoid acts of violence, except when required by military necessity.

5. To conduct myself at all times so as to command the respect of the German people for myself, for the United States, and for the Allied Cause.

6. Never to associate with Germans.

7. To be fair but firm with Germans.

 

This happened a long time ago. My father would have been 99 September 24. This is another fragment of his life.

________

A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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Don't Pass Me By Podcast

Don't Pass Me By Podcast

The title may be a Beatles reference, but this edition of the Don't Pass Me By podcast, with host Bob Wilson, is all about A Brooklyn Memoir. Bob and I began talking about my old grade school, PS 249, and the third-grade class photo that I ran in the previous blog post, "It's Not Even Past." I told Bob that seven people in that photo, including me, are "characters" in the book.

 

I then talked about how I'd been out of contact with my classmates for more than a half century, and how, a year ago, I received an e-mail inviting me to a mid-pandemic sixth-grade class reunion via Zoom, with many of the same people in my third-grade class. After 50 years, there were my characters, live and on a computer screen.

 

And somehow over the course of the podcast, I babbled on about everything from playing tackle football without equipment in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds to Middle East politics (no, I don't have a solution).

 

This is the first podcast exclusively devoted to A Brooklyn Memoir. I hope you enjoy.

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A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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It's Not Even Past

 

You can just make out the date, 4/25/61, on the rectangular black-and-white identification board in the back of the room, on the right. Most of these people were together from first through sixth grades, and this particular classroom is the setting of a key scene in A Brooklyn Memoir. A chapter titled "The Third Grade: 1960" begins like this:

 

"Does anybody know someone who was in a concentration camp?" our teacher, Mrs. Feinstein, asks the class during a social studies lesson.

 

Daniel Silver is the only one who raises his hand.

 

"Who do you know, Daniel?"

 

"My mother," he says. "She was in Dachau."

 

"Do you know how she survived?"

 

"She could split logs into three even pieces with an axe."

 

"Your mother has a good eye. She's very lucky the Nazis found that useful."

 

This photo demonstrates the inherent truth of William Faulkner's best known line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

 

I'd been out of contact with my classmates for a half century as I wrote A Brooklyn Memoir. I had no idea what had become of them. I didn't know if they were alive. A Google search revealed nothing.

 

About a year ago, I received an e-mail. My former classmates were organizing a mid-pandemic Zoom reunion. Would I like to reunite?

 

Sometimes the past is best left in the past. This time I welcomed it back.

________

A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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How I Found My Voice

How I Found My Voice

 

Shepherd, a new Website that helps people discover their next great read, asked me to put together a list of books that were important to me, and explain why. This was a way to make readers aware of my latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, which I describe as "darkly comic" and "an unsentimental journey through mid-century Flatbush, where Auschwitz survivors and WWII vets lived side by side and the war lingered like a mass hallucination."

 

I called the list "The best memoirs, essays, and fiction that inspired me to write." It's also a list of books that helped me find my own voice. The most difficult part of putting the list together was limiting it to five books. Those five classics, which you can see above, were written by giants of American literature: Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Joseph Heller, who was one of my creative writing instructors at City College.

 

If I could have added a sixth book, it would have been Miller's Black Spring, because A Brooklyn Memoir is, in part, an homage to Miller's journey out of the "damp grime of his Brooklyn youth."

 

Been there.

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A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Why I Wrote the Book

 

An expanded version of this post appeared on the Oil on Water Press site. The paragraph below is drawn from the afterword of A Brooklyn Memoir.

 

A Brooklyn Memoir is an attempt to make sense of a confusing past that for most of my life I pretended didn't exist. The seeds of A Brooklyn Memoir can be found in the opening pages of my previous book, Beaver Street—a description of the scene in my father's candy store in 1961. As I wrote those pages, I knew that I was only scratching the surface, and that whatever was happening in Flatbush in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, from the final days of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the arrival of the Beatles, was rich material that demanded further exploration. So I wrote down everything I could remember about that time and place, and when I looked back at the 400 single-spaced pages of notes, fragments, anecdotes, and ideas that had accumulated, what jumped out at me were Nazis—they were everywhere, like in the souvenirs my father brought home from the war and in the numbers on the arms of my neighbors. In one way or another, it was Nazis and the Holocaust that provided much of the inspiration I needed to write this book.

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A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

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Caught in the Spotlight

Caught in the Authors Guild Spotlight

The following interview was posted on the Authors Guild Website.

 

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it's an important medium for the world?

I became a writer because I wanted to satisfy a primal need to communicate. That's why it's important to me. It's important to the world because the written word is often the best way to tell stories that need to be told.

 

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer's block?

I don't believe in writer's block. If you're blocked, just start writing anything. Describe the wall in front of your desk. It doesn't matter if it's gibberish. Eventually the right words will come.

 

What is your favorite time to write?

If I have a deadline, first thing in the morning. If I don't have a deadline, I generally hit the computer by noon.

 

Keep a notebook and write in it every day. Make writing seem as natural as breathing.

 

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received and would like to impart to other writers?

Keep a notebook and write in it every day. Make writing seem as natural as breathing. That's what my writing professor at City College, Francine du Plessix Gray, told me. And she was right.

 

What excites you most about being a writer in today's age?

Getting published, seeing my book on a bestseller list, and getting paid.

________

A Brooklyn Memoir is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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The Road to Naziland

In 2016, at the age of 63, Jerry Stahl, a writer best known for his addiction memoir Permanent Midnight and his work on TV sitcoms like Alf, was contemplating suicide. His marriage and career had fallen apart; he'd been diagnosed with hepatitis C; doctors had found a suspicious mass on one of his kidneys; and a botched surgery had left him "wearing a bag" for what he thought would be the rest of his life. But instead of jumping off a bridge, as he was planning to do, he chose to find a reason to continue living. Stahl decided to go to "Naziland" to take a guided tour of concentration camps in Germany and Poland. He wanted to come "face to face with the Giant Maw of Hell" and experience up close "the darkest stain on humanity." This, he thought, would allow him to put his own problems in perspective.

 

He then wrote a book about it.

 

In 1956, at the age of four, I became aware I was living in a place where people who'd survived the concentration camps of Germany and Poland were everywhere—in the stores, in the streets, on the subway. Some of my neighbors were mutilated, and so many others, more than I could count, had those blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. Between the concentration camp survivors and the army veterans like my father, who'd fought the Nazis, not a day passed when I didn't hear somebody talking about Hitler and Germany. It was as if World War II hung like a mass hallucination over Flatbush and other large swaths of Brooklyn. William Styron, who spent a few months in Flatbush in 1949, noticed it too and set his autobiographical Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice, in a rooming house where he and the title character both lived, across the street from my grade school.

 

In an effort to make sense of what I'd experienced as a child but had blotted from my memory for most of my life, at the age of 63 I began writing a book about Flatbush, a neighborhood I'd come to think of as "Naziland."

 

A Brooklyn Memoir is a journey back to a metaphorical Naziland.

 

That Stahl's Nein, Nein, Nein! (Akashic Books, Brooklyn) and my book, A Brooklyn Memoir (Oil on Water Press, London), are being published two days apart, on July 5 and 7, by different publishers in different countries, is hardly a coincidence. With the youngest surviving World War II veterans in their 90s, and the youngest surviving concentration camp inmates in their 80s (two people born in Auschwitz are known to be alive), these two books, mirror images of each other, are part of a sudden outpouring of literature, film, and journalism about the Holocaust and the war while they remain in living memory.

 

The most recent example, the HBO movie The Survivor, directed by Barry Levinson, is based on the true story of Harry Haft, played by Ben Foster, an Auschwitz inmate who survives by performing in to-the-death boxing matches with other prisoners for the amusement of his Nazi captors. After the war, Haft resettles in Brooklyn, among a multitude of fellow survivors, and becomes a professional boxer with a bad case of PTSD.

 

Films such as Dara of Jasenovac, from Serbia, about the Jasenovac concentration camp; The Auschwitz Report, from Slovakia, about an escape from Auschwitz; and L'equilibrista con la stella (The tightrope walker with the star), from Italy, about a circus performer who hides a Jewish girl from the Nazis, were released in 2021.

 

A casual perusal of any news site confirms that this global outpouring is a trend that's gathering momentum. The periodicals of April (coincidentally the month of Hitler's birth) and early May (coincidentally the month of Germany's surrender) contained the following headlines:

 

"Harald Jähner: The German author on struggling to forgive his parents' generation" —The Guardian, April 9

 

"They Are the Heirs of Nazi Fortunes, and They Aren't Apologizing"The New York Times, April 19

 

"Adolf Hitler 'had Jewish origins', claims Russian minister Sergei Lavrov in rant" —Sky News, May 1

 

"My Great-Uncle, The Holocaust's First Jewish Victim" —The Atlantic, May 5

 

The war in Ukraine and a rising tide of neo-Nazism, Trumpism, and Holocaust denial seems to have inspired a need to produce accounts of 80-year-old atrocities while eyewitnesses still walk the earth. In Nein, Nein, Nein! and A Brooklyn Memoir, Stahl and I—Jewish writers born one year apart—have immersed ourselves in the details of those atrocities.

 

One of the eeriest resemblances between the books involves our descriptions of the freezing/thawing "medical" experiments the Nazis were so fond of conducting.

 

One of the eeriest resemblances between the books involves our descriptions of the freezing/thawing "medical" experiments the Nazis were so fond of conducting. The ostensible purpose of "The Treatment of Shock From Prolonged Exposure to Cold, Especially in Water," as the experiments were bureaucratically known, was to determine how long it took a man to die in freezing water. The answer according to Dr. Sigmund Rascher, who was in charge of the experiments and guarded his turf jealously: 80 minutes to 6 hours if the subject was naked; 6 to 7 hours if he was clothed.

 

From Nein, Nein, Nein!, when Stahl is touring Dachau:

Another of Rascher's ideas was to enlist the aid of prostitutes, often Romani ladies plucked from the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The doctor's idea was to press the poor, unconscious individual's body between the females for a slow "body massage." This last, for reasons we can probably surmise, was so appealing to Rascher, he brought in Himmler to observe the proceedings.

 

From A Brooklyn Memoir, when I'm describing the Eros/Thanatos thrill of reading, at age eight, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

Naked men were put outside in sub-zero temperatures and doused with cold water every hour until they stopped screaming. Then, on the verge of death, they were brought inside so Nazi doctors could conduct "warming experiments"—from which they concluded that the best way to thaw out a frozen man was to put him in bed with one or more naked women, and let the women's body heat warm him as they had "intercourse." The doctors also determined through repeated testing that one naked woman unthawed a man faster than two, because, they deduced, a "chilled man" and one woman were both less inhibited and clung more closely to each other during the sexual act.

 

Similar descriptions, often laced with dark humor, occur throughout both books and demonstrate one effect the Holocaust had on an overlooked segment of the post–World War II generation. While literature about the trauma of children born to Holocaust survivors, like Art Spielgelman's Maus, proliferates, Nein, Nein, Nein! and A Brooklyn Memoir (originally titled Bobby in Naziland) are the only books I'm aware of about those of us born in the late 1940s and early 1950s who had no family connection to Holocaust survivors yet were unable to escape the trauma. Because if you grew up Jewish in a Jewish neighborhood in those early postwar years, the Holocaust was an unavoidable reality that you were veritably marinated in—I've known what Auschwitz meant for almost as long as I've understood language.

 

Stahl and I both became obsessed with the mechanics of the Final Solution—the trains, the gas chambers, the crematoria.

 

He grew up in Pittsburgh and writes about how his father, who died by suicide when Stahl was a teenager, had escaped from Lithuania at age 10, after his own father was killed in a pogrom, but never spoke of his "missing years"—which led to Stahl's feeling a "nameless guilt" because he had it so easy while his father had it so hard.

 

My father, an infantry veteran who'd participated in the liberation of a slave labor camp, never spoke to me in detail about what he'd experienced, despite my persistent questions. But beyond my proximity to a bitter man haunted by what he'd witnessed were the stories my mother told me. Obsessed with the need for Adolf Eichmann, organizer of the Final Solution, to pay the ultimate price for his crimes against humanity, she was more than willing to discuss the things my father refused to talk about—like the slave labor camp he liberated and how the gas chambers worked.

 

Because so many Flatbushians were either war veterans or Holocaust survivors, a significant portion of the population—as Levinson shows in The Survivor—were suffering from some form of PTSD (as it was not yet called). And that trauma inevitably filtered down to those of us who'd not experienced the traumatizing events firsthand. The PTSD showed itself in the rabid hatred and bigotry of both adults and children towards anybody outside their tribe. And it showed itself in the perpetual violence among the kids, who routinely beat the shit out of each other for no discernible reason.

 

The two books often alight upon the same Holocaust-adjacent cultural touchstones—the Three Stooges, for example.

 

The two books often alight upon the same Holocaust-adjacent cultural touchstones—the Three Stooges, for example.

 

In A Brooklyn Memoir, I cite the Stooges' Jewishness, mention that Moe Howard went to my high school, Erasmus (he dropped out), and describe the live appearance the threesome made at a local movie theatre packed with Stooge-crazy kids to promote their 1962 film The Three Stooges in Orbit.

 

In Nein, Nein, Nein!, Stahl cites a 1940 Stooges short, You Nazty Spy. Moe plays Hitler, Larry plays propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and Curly plays Gestapo head Hermann Goring (Field Marshall Gallstone in the movie). The Stooges considered it one of their finest films—certainly superior to The Three Stooges in Orbit—and it was the first film to satirize Hitler, released nine months before Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

 

Then there's Donald Trump—because these days you can hardly write a book about Nazis without referencing him. In his cameo appearance in A Brooklyn Memoir, I say that the twice-impeached president grew up in Queens, where he was exposed to an even more virulent strain of bigotry than I was exposed to in Flatbush. Trump's feral genius is his Hitler-like ability to transform that hatred into political power.

 

Stahl describes Trump as "an anti-Semitic sleazeball" and blames him for "fucking up" his book. When he began writing Nein, Nein, Nein!, in 2016, Trump was not yet president. By the time Stahl had finished writing it, in 2021, he says, his Trump vs. Hitler comparisons felt dated and played out. He also notes that the Trump-loving Proud Boys and other neo-Nazis and white supremacists are but pale imitations of the real thing—though he sees no difference between the forced hysterectomies ICE, under Trump, performed on migrant women and the Nazis' forced hysterectomies performed in concentration camps.

 

Stahl and I took different roads for different reasons to arrive at the same destination: Naziland. His visit to the real thing left him feeling only "an overwhelming emptiness." When I returned to my own metaphorical Naziland, I felt sadness, but it was tinged with nostalgia for the streets of my youth.

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A Brooklyn Memoir is available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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