Monday, January 24, 2011


What was that noise? Ben wondered. It was faint—barely louder than the roaring in his ears. But it sounded almost like people screaming—how could that be? And why did his hands feel sticky?

The scream-like noise was louder now, and there was something else, a strange rising and falling tone, like from one of those old European movies his zaideh, his grandfather, used to watch. But why were his hands so sticky?

The screaming—it was clearly screaming—got louder. The odd tones, Ben realized, came from an ambulance siren.
But why was he covered with gore?

He raised his head, looked around. Dozens of people, dead and dying, lay in the ruins of a café. A few staggered outside into the street. He must help them, he realized, and turned to kneel beside a pale young man. Choking sounds came from his bleeding, ruined face.

Ben saw that the man had swallowed his tongue. He reached into his mouth, wincing as he realized that he, too, was bleeding—that his hands and arms bore numerous cuts.

Blood dripped into his eyes. It was hard to see, but he must get his tongue out. Somehow. The screaming was overwhelming, crowding out even the sirens.

It must have been a bomb, he realized. That was it. A suicide bomber! Rachel was visiting and they had just ordered dinner. Where was Rachel? Where?

Oh God! Please! Please! No! No!

Ben sat up in bed, dripping with sweat.


Kicking off the sopping sheet, Ben turned to look for the alarm clock. The glowing red digits should have been to his left on the nightstand next to the bed.

Nothing there but his glasses. He put them on, then swiveled his head until he saw blue digits glowing in the darkness off the foot of the bed.

Of course. He was in a hotel room. In California.

It was a little after five. He’d slept almost six hours. His meeting was at nine, and they’d probably be a little early. Might as well get up, he told himself. Find the gym, get his heart pounding, a nice sweat going, a long hot shower, some coffee.
                                 *  *  *
It was ten to nine and Ben was on his third cup when the Beit Joseph people entered the hotel coffee shop.  He was expecting only three, but there were five people. They hesitated at the door, looking around, unsure of themselves. The tables were filled with noisy families with young children; the lone solo diner was a robust, red-headed, fair-skinned, smooth-shaven man an inch or two under average height and dressed like a tourist in an open-necked sport shirt, faded jeans and well-worn Nike running shoes.
The newcomers looked at each other—had they gotten the wrong hotel? Was it the Red Lion Hotel Anaheim or the Anaheim Plaza Hotel Suites?  Or were they simply too early?

Ben stood up and waved.

They trooped over, four men and a woman, all over forty and under sixty, neat and tidy in business attire. Ben decided that the bearded man about fifty had to be Rabbi Hank Kimmelman. The tall, graying, blue-eyed, good-looking fellow? A lawyer—probably the congregation’s president, he concluded. The short, very pretty, dark-haired, slightly zaftig woman—an educator. Perhaps a college professor. Maybe the synagogue treasurer. The other two were older.
More reserved, harder to read. Probably the money guys, he thought. Businessmen.

“Rabbi Ben Maimon?” ventured the bearded man, extending his right hand. “I’m Hank Kimmelman. We exchanged emails—”

“Call me Ben.” They shook hands.

“This is Dr. Tova Levine, our immediate past president,” Kimmelman continued. “Gary Burkin, our president,” he said, indicating the tall, handsome man. “And board members Aaron Ferguson and Manny Seddaca.”

Ben shook each hand in turn, then looked around the room. “We’ll need a larger table.”

“I’ll handle it,” Ferguson said. He headed for the cashier’s desk, all but breaking into a trot.

“I apologize for meeting in such a goyishe place,” Rabbi Kimmelman said. A place suitable only for gentiles.

“I understand. We’re fifty miles from your shul in a place no Jew would come to eat. I’m getting that whether you hire me or not, discretion is vital.”

Kimmelman and the others exchanged guarded glances.
“You come very highly recommended.”

“Thank you. Your email said that you knew my grandfather, of blessed memory?”

Olav hashalom—may he rest in peace. He taught Talmud my first year at J.T.S. Just before he retired.”

“So he would have been in his eighties. By then he was bald and his beard was white. Otherwise, I look just like him.”

Everyone smiled.

“So, Dr. Levine—”


“—you’re still at UCLA in… the Political Science Department?”

Tova’s mouth dropped open. “How did you know that?”

“When I got Rabbi Kimmelman’s email, I visited Beit Joseph’s Website. It hadn’t been updated in a while, but you were listed as a board member.”

Tova smiled. “But—”

“I Googled Tova Levine and discovered five in Southern California. Two were very young, judging by their Facebook pages. One was awaiting sentencing on drug charges, one a pediatrician and one teaches at UCLA.”

Kimmelman said, “But I introduced her as ‘Dr. Levine.’ How did you know she wasn’t the pediatrician?”

“Because she’s put on a few pounds lately—forgive me, Dr.
Levine—Tova—but your jacket is a little tight—and the sleeve has a faint odor of old tobacco smoke. So I guessed that you might be trying to quit smoking—”

“—and no pediatrician would smoke,” Kimmelman finished.
“I told you he was good.”

“Okay, what do you make of me?” Burkin asked, as Ferguson returned with a waitress.

“I can seat you now,” she said, and the group followed her to a booth across the room.

After everyone had ordered, Burkin looked at Ben. “Rabbi Maimon—” Burkin began.

Ben said, “You’re an attorney. Managing partner in Burkin, Turner and Overstreet. You’ve made a reputation handling criminal cases, and you seldom go to trial.”

“You’ve done your due diligence.”

Ben shrugged. “Now please, before we go any further, can you tell me why I’m here? What is this all about?”

Burkin and Kimmelman exchanged glances.

“Someone got into our bank account,” Kimmelman said.

“How much did you lose?”

“That’s the crazy thing. He didn’t take anything.”

“Then how do you know that—”

Burkin said, “Someone deposited over two million in one of our accounts. We’d like you find out who.”

“And why,” Tova said.

“And if we can keep the money,” Ferguson added.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Birth of Rabbi Ben

How This Book Happened 
(An abbreviated history of my writing career)

Rabbi Ben, or someone like him, has been flitting around my mind for literally decades, never quite coming into focus, occasionally haunting my dreams, less often appearing on periodic to-do lists of projects or books that I wanted to think about.

I don’t know about other writers, but I often mull things over for years before ever embarking on the perilous voyage from cerebral fantasy to finished project. Or I start a project, it goes off track, I get frustrated and decide to start over. Eventually.

But not always. I got into the book writing racket on a quirk and in a hurry, and that goes to the birth of Rabbi Ben and The Tattooed Rabbi. In 1982 I was working as a photojournalist and accepting corporate gigs when I could get them—they paid far better than magazines or newspapers. An obscure California ad agency hired me to create the images for a marketing campaign to introduce a line of products from a new company. I spent two weeks crawling around Epson’s computer factories in a remote corner of Japan, and as I exposed over a hundred rolls of film I was also exposed to an entirely new take on Japan’s postwar economic “miracle.”

When I got back to California and turned in my pictures, I began to think about a magazine piece about labor conditions in Japan. This led to a New York City meeting with a book publisher. I was sent back home to California with a steamer trunk filled with newspaper and magazine clippings about Japan, and instructions to see how the information in those articles fit together with my first-hand observations. Five months of 18-hour-days later I turned in my first book, The Japanese Conspiracy, which earned many excellent reviews and stirred up much controversy. The publisher, however did a poor job of promoting it—he didn’t even start until the books were starting to come back, unsold, from bookstores—and although the work established me as an author, it never earned the kind of royalties I expected.

 I returned to photography—and then a year later my daughter, 13, came back to live with me. An alienated teen needs at least one parent on the job; it soon became obvious that I couldn’t be a globe-hopping photojournalist and a successful single parent. I had to find another way to earn a living. I decided to write another book, and this led to days in the library looking at microfiche of New York Times best-seller listings going back several years. I concluded that there were two kinds of books that most often made that list: books about celebrities, and books about crimes.

I didn’t know any celebrities. And I didn’t think I had the chops to write fiction. I didn’t know enough about writing. So I embarked on a career in nonfiction, learning more about my craft with each successive book, often collaborating with others who had a story to tell but not the tools to tell it. I learned a lot from writing each of these books, as well as from writing book proposals, including many that never sold.

So about ten years ago, with my sixtieth summer staring me in the face, I felt at last capable of tackling fiction. I began writing screenplays.

That’s right. I’m not only an old dude, I was foolish enough to think I could start a career in a business notorious for ageism against writers. Also, you can’t get into that business without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’re in your twenties with fifteen years experience. I mean, it’s that hard.

Much harder than actually writing a screenplay, as it turns out.

Nevertheless, working with a slightly younger but more experienced screenwriter, I sold a  screenplay, sold a treatment (so someone else could write it) and optioned another. It was years of work at damn near starvation wages, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

And then, in November 2009, while I was in a nearby park walking Sampson, our Chihuahua-Terrier mix, I was struck by a blinding headache in and around my right eye. A filmy white curtain descended. I could see almost nothing from that eye.

I don't get headaches. Once in a great while I give them.

It was a stroke, I decided.

Sampson knew the way home, and I followed. My daughter drove me to the Emergency Room.
Fortunately, I'm a better writer than doctor: The ER doctor sent me to the eye clinic, where an ophthalmologist diagnosed a classic case of a rare type of glaucoma. The only type that can be reversed.

Over the next year, at times half blind between one of eight eye surgeries, I finally had the enforced leisure to think about Rabbi Ben (although he didn’t have a name yet) and how I could use what I knew about synagogues, rabbis, crimes, Jews, human nature and the crime mystery genre.

And then one night, quite unexpectedly, I dreamed the first chapter of The Tattooed Rabbi. Although that wasn’t the title and I hadn’t even thought of the tattoos.