WEST BLOOMFIELD – The Jewish Community Center presented Come Out & Read, an evening of gay authors, Sunday as part of their 55th annual Jewish Book Fair.
“I love speaking at JCCs because they know how to pronounce my first novel, ‘Dancing on Tisha B’Av,'” Lev Raphael told the crowd of about 60.
A native of New York, Raphael moved to Michigan to attend graduate school at Michigan State. Today, he lives in Okemos with his partner of 22 years. Raphael’s talk was full of poignant remembrances of his painful childhood and peppered with the clever humor that obviously helped him survive it.
“One of the architects of the Democratic victory was a nice Jewish boy named Rahm Emanuel,” Raphael said. “One of the first calls he received was from his mother, who said, ‘What are you going to do next?’ It’s not easy being a Jewish child.”
Particularly not when you’re the child of Holocaust survivors, as Raphael was.
“You grow up with a sense of absence, a sense of drama, and you grow up knowing that for you the burden is very heavy,” he said. “You’re supposed to grow up making up for the losses that no one can make up for.”
But out of that vast emptiness came great art. To date, Raphael has written more than a dozen books, including the popular Nick Hoffman mystery series and his two latest works, the memoir “Writing A Jewish Life” ($15.95 from Carroll & Graf) and the collection of short stories “Secret Anniversaries Of The Heart” ($15.95 from Leapfrog Press).
“I grew up with all this absence sort of howling through my house,” said Raphael. “That’s great material for a writer, though it’s also very dangerous material.”
The gift of words, though, helped him to not only navigate through the dangerous territory but also, somewhere along the way, discover himself.
“Writing served me at every point in my career as a sort of laboratory to find out who I was,” he said.
Also speaking Sunday was T. Cooper, the author of “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” ($24.95 from Dutton). Born and raised in Los Angeles, Cooper taught English in New Orleans for a few years before relocating to New York in 1996, where she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s writing program.
In “Lipshitz Six,” her second novel, Cooper carefully weaves together fiction, family history and co-opted tidbits from world news. It all began with an old photo of her grandmother as an infant and an oft-told family tale – that her grandmother lost a sibling as her family filtered through Ellis Island after fleeing Russia.
“This story of losing a child, like a cut-off limb, stuck with me,” Cooper said.
From this bit of Leder family history, Cooper conceived the story of the Lipshitzes, whose lost child turns out to be none other than Charles Lindbergh. The book starts in 1907 and then flashes back to the pogroms of 1903. Cooper’s family settled in Texas as part of the Galveston Movement, an effort by the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau to divert Jews away from the congested communities of the Atlantic coast in the hopes of preventing a wave of anti-Semitism along the Eastern seaboard.
Of course, the Lipshitz family was a part of this movement, too. And Cooper incorporates other bits of her family history into theirs, including Uncle Sam Fenberg’s Diamond Shop in Amarillo, Texas and the time he offered a $50 diamond ring to anyone who could discover his new child’s middle name. Cooper even goes so far as to insert herself into the novel, though the T. Cooper who is the book’s narrator is actually a young man who works as an Eminem impersonator available to perform at bar mitzvahs around New York.
“By calling him that, it’s a way to create other personas,” she said.
The persona the real T. Cooper is creating for herself is that of highly noted author. This year, she managed to make the Out 100, Out Magazine’s list of the year’s most interesting, influential and newsworthy LGBT people. The New York Times Book Review called Lipshitz Six “kooky but strangely compelling” and the book was a bestseller on the Los Angeles Times list. It was also recently translated into German, and Cooper just returned from a tour of Germany.
Come Out and Read was sponsored by the Jewish Gay Network, Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center, the Triangle Foundation and Between The Lines. A third author, David Levithan, was planned to be on the panel but scheduling conflicts caused him to cancel.