Julie Zuckerman is the author of The Book of Jeremiah, released in 2019. Her short stories and non-fiction work have also appeared in several publications. Q: Can you sum up The Book of Jeremiah in 20 words or less? Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the book explores the pivotal experiences in the life of […]
An Interview with Julie Gray
Julie Gray has written for several publications, including The Huffington Post, Moment Magazine, and The Times of Israel. Her most recent book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is currently available on Amazon.
Q: Can you sum up The True Adventures of Gidon Lev in 20 words or less?
After liberation from a Nazi concentration camp, Gidon lived a life of adventure, from Prague to New York to Israel.
Oh that’s so formal sounding!
I met an elderly Holocaust survivor. He changed my life.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Gidon is the first Holocaust survivor I had ever met. He was so charming and full of life and energy, and he really wanted to tell his story. I am a writer and an editor, but I had never worked on a life story before, so I told Gidon that I couldn’t help him. But I was troubled. I knew that there are fewer than 200,000 Holocaust left living in this world – eyewitnesses to the greatest atrocity in human history. I felt I had an obligation to at least try to capture Gidon’s story. But I really didn’t know how to approach such a huge project. Then something unexpected happened – Gidon captured my heart! Even though we have a 30 year age difference, we became Loving Life Buddies, as I call us, and eventually moved in together! The book really came to life at the same time that our relationship blossomed, and Gidon’s story became very personal to me.
Q: What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
Simply overcoming my own fears and insecurities. I was very much cognizant that there were a couple of family issues that might be tough for Gidon’s family to read about much less be made public, so I ran those chapters past a cousin for a “sensitivity check,” if you will.
I also knew that I couldn’t write a book about a life lived largely in Israel and ignore the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was just terrified to get it wrong. Who could approach that topic objectively and make everyone happy from every point of view? I relied on two writer friends, Jo Roberts, the author of “Contested Land, Contested Memory” and Yossi Klein Halevi, author of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” who both gave me inspiration and support about how to write as sensitively and fairly on the topic as possible. I also read about the conflict extensively, and because I live in Israel, I have had many experiences with various peace initiatives in the West Bank. But you can see that there are a lot of landmines I could step on, in writing this book! So I was really paralyzed by doubt for a long time.
Finally, one day, having done my best, and my due diligence, I decided to take the biggest risk of my life and just write the book that I would want to read. When I gave myself permission to take that approach, I was freed up as a writer, and the pages began to flow.
Q: Did you find it difficult to work on such a personal story?
Oh, yes, it was challenging. For Gidon, many of these memories are just so painful. As his biographer and partner, I felt that I needed to walk him through these memories sensitively and responsibly, like an emotional guardian. When we visited the concentration camp where Gidon had been imprisoned, I was worried that it might even be harmful to Gidon, but he proved to be stronger than I was! For me, all of this was totally foreign; I had never actually seen that horrible sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” in my life. It stunned me. But for Gidon, the Holocaust has been a part of his reality for 85 years now, so he handled that visit with equanimity.
Also, Gidon has a big family, most of whom live in Israel, and between that fact and writing a book about his life, I sometimes felt a loss of my own identity, my own life, and my goals. I got a bit lost in the project. I had been working on my own memoir when I took The True Adventures on, so my own life went on hold, more or less – until something extraordinary began to happen – I realized that Gidon’s life had become a part of my life too. But yes, there were times when I would have to remind Gidon – and myself – that I too had a childhood, that I too had memories, a family, etc.
Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from readers?
So far, we are getting really warm, positive, enthusiastic feedback! I took a chance and used a “meta-narrative device” in the book. I think I can say with confidence that there is no other book about a Holocaust survivor that is written in the same way that The True Adventures was written. It’s not just Gidon’s story – it’s the story of writing the story at the same time. So the experiences Gidon and I were having as we were working on the book are included. I really wasn’t sure if that would “work,” but it was how the book felt natural to write. You could push me over with a feather when I see reviews coming in that appreciate that style and remark upon their enjoyment of it. We’ll see how the book is received in the wider world; I’m sure there will be readers for whom, subjectively, the book will not appeal. I understand that. I don’t love every book that I read, either. It’s tough subject matter, not everybody wants to read about the Holocaust, which really isn’t the center of the book but has, of course, influenced Gidon’s life very much. But so far, between friends and colleagues that I respect and perfect strangers leaving Amazon reviews, readers seem to be very touched and moved by the book.
Q: What inspires you to write?
Well, I hate to sound like such a cliched writer, but I can’t not write! I have been writing since I was a kid. Writing is how I sort out my thoughts and feelings. It’s how I try to make sense of things. I was a contributor to the Huffington Post for several years and have written articles for The Times of Israel, Moment Magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, and others. I have had two pieces of short fiction published in the Sanskrit Literary Magazine. So I’ve been writing for a long time. But to really sit down and get lost in the process of writing, I have to feel that there is something that I am writing that matters somehow – more than just wanting to share how I feel, that I have something to say.
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Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Gidon’s story?
I want readers to zoom in on one man’s life – and then zoom way back out to the big picture. My favorite concept in the world is “context.” These days, everything seems to be viewed and understood in simple terms without context or backstory. It’s as if things, people, and events just drop out of the clear blue sky – whether that be politics or art or even personal feelings and beliefs. I talk about this in the book, when discussing the Israeli national identity. We are taught these stories about what it means to be French or American or Israeli, through our education, popular culture, even national anthems. We come to see ourselves as having this or that identity, and we forget to question this. We often see history as existing in these silos – this happened here and then that happened there – but we forget that things are happening – developing, evolving, changing – all the time, everywhere and that these things are connected, like ripples moving across a pond.
I want readers to appreciate the consequences and interconnectedness of history, of humans, of our decisions to act – or not act. I want readers to have the courage to examine their own beliefs and carefully curated narratives – which Gidon very much does in the book. We need to question just how we come by our beliefs, how our narratives serve us, and how that affects our interconnected webwork of families, communities, and societies.
One of the key questions that many people have, and I very much wondered, as I wrote the book, is how it came to pass that Germany fell under the sway of such a psychotic murderous maniac. But – it didn’t happen overnight is the thing. It’s a slow process. Again, things don’t just drop out of the clear blue sky. The Germans were conditioned for decades before Hitler’s rise, to greet him with open arms. It’s commonly believed that this was primarily because of the humiliation of Germany after the Great War. Yes, that made Germans desperate to hear a new leader promise that Germany would avenge this humiliation and become “great again.” But in truth, while that was a powerful motivator, antisemitism was rife in Germany and in Europe long, long before Hitler. In the same way that America is really having this painful reckoning with the racism that was baked right into the American experiment, people need to appreciate how deep the roots of antisemitism are. It didn’t start with Hitler, and it didn’t end with him, either.
Q: What is on your current reading list?
I am such a serial reader – or bibliophile, really. So I’m usually reading (or listening) to several books at once. At the moment, on Audible, I’m listening to Mythos by Stephen Fry and The Story of Human Language, a series of lectures by famed linguist John McWhorter, I just finished Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell and I’ve been dipping into and out of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
Q: What is your next writing project?
I’m returning to my memoir, which I was writing before I met Gidon, called They Do Things Differently Here, which is about moving from LA to Israel on the heels of grief and loss. It’s actually a funny book. But it’s gotten weirder because the America that I left in 2012 is now a totally different place.
Q: Can you provide your web address and links to your social media profiles for the audience?
The True Adventures of Gidon Lev can be found on Amazon and any other places books can be purchased online.
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