Soviet Jewry. Suicide bombers. Single parenting.What it means to be a Jew. Judging by the central themes of Michael Lavigne’s novel, The Wanting, there’s something for nearly everyone in this year’s pick for One Book One Jewish Community.
“We have found that our audience is the baby boomer and up generation,” said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, the executive director of Jewish Learning Venture, which sponsors the program, now in its seventh year. “So we have tried over the years to find books that would be interesting to them and also bring in a younger demographic.”
If that younger demographic is looking for a challenging work that spans decades, countries and narrators, The Wanting appears to be a good choice to help Warmflash achieve his goal.
Set primarily in Israel in 1996, the book follows the life-and-death (and after-death) choices of Roman, a celebrated Israeli architect who spent the first part of his life in Soviet-era Moscow; his daughter, 13-year-old Anya; and Amir, a young Palestinian man who blows himself up in front of a bus and Roman’s office, severely injuring Roman.
“It looks at a really difficult subject, the subject of extremism and terrorism in Israel and what happens when you go through an experience like that,” Warmflash said. “And it looks at the question of what leads someone to even consider an act of such craziness.”
Lavigne gives each character ample time to narrate their respective journeys: Amir’s quest to discover why he is stuck as a phantom in Israel instead of enjoying his promised afterlife; Roman’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality and unceasing reveries through the Moscow of his first love affair in the 1980s; and Anya’s struggle with being abandoned by her mother and all but ignored by her father. Together, the three voices create a broken harmony of longing and loss.
Lavigne said he takes pride in his ability to give voice to such disparate characters, something that he learned to do while racking up numerous awards — including Clios and Cannes Lions, the advertising industry’s Oscars and Golden Globes — during a 25-year career in advertising with companies like Ogilvy & Mather, Leo Burnett and his own shop.
IF YOU GO
Sunday, Jan. 26
The Jewish Learning Venture
will host Michael Lavigne, author of The Wanting, at 3:30 p.m.,
at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.
Wednesday, Jan. 29
Rabbi Avi Winokur will discuss the book at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.
For more information,
For more information on events and resources related to One Book One Jewish Community,
go to: onebook.jewishlearningventure.org
His career, he said, “taught me how to write precisely, how to get to the heart of things quickly and colorfully. Look at any billboard: It’s seven words long, so you really have to know how to focus people’s attention. It also taught me about listening, hearing the natural cadence of dialogue. People repeat themselves a lot, and they don't speak in a straight line, but rather in leaps and swirls and designs.”
The 67-year-old Lavigne, who spent part of his childhood in Millburn, N.J., and went to Millersville University in Lancaster County, said the voice of character Anya “came to me easily, channeling a 13-year-old girl — it seemed very natural,” explained the married father of two grown sons.
The men’s voices were another story. “Amir took work,” he said. “I had to make him a normal, natural person, not a caricature or a political character” — no small feat for someone willing to die in order to kill Jews. “Once I was there, I totally fell in love with him and his voice. He has the voice from beyond, which has a poetic side to it, but when he is speaking from life, it is a very different voice.
“The hardest voice was Roman,” Lavigne continued. “He is the least sympathetic character: a little dense, a little distant and he has essentially abandoned his daughter. He was the one I worked on the hardest to get to his soul in such a way that he became more likable.”
Lavigne also had to do an enormous amount of research. He spent six weeks scouting locations in Israel and, in addition to interviewing schoolchildren, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, he worked with Islamic scholars to make sure he could write convincingly and accurately about the Koran and the Hadith, a major source of guidance for Muslims outside of the Koran.
Although he spent time poring over archives of trial transcripts of refuseniks and researching Soviet-era prison life and schooling, the sections of Lavigne’s book that are dedicated to Roman’s life didn’t require any additional fieldwork, primarily because he lived that life. He spent three years in Moscow during the 1980s with his wife at the time, a Slavic studies scholar on a Fulbright. “It was an amazing, life-altering experience,” he recalled. “The people I met, the refuseniks and non-Jewish dissidents, they were truly free — they stepped outside their oppressive society and lived their lives,” regardless of the consequences.
Even three decades later, he said, he still feels the impact of his Russian experience. Seeing what happened to the Jews of Moscow directly led him to become involved in the Soviet Jewry movement and with the Anti-Defamation League upon his return to the United States. And he chaired the creation of a synagogue-based Jewish studies program in San Francisco, where he lives now.
Lavigne said he knew he would ultimately have to write about his experiences to get Moscow out of his system. “I really didn’t want to write about” Russia, he recalled. “It was a hard experience, but I had to — it was definitely the driver” compelling him to write The Wanting.
Considering the pivotal role the Philadelphia Jewish community played in the Soviet Jewry movement, Warmflash is hoping that The Wanting is an especially big draw for this year’s One Book, which he said is the longest-running program of its kind in the United States.
That would be a welcome development for the staff of the Jewish Learning Venture, which is relying on word-of-mouth marketing due to steep budget cuts to both the organization and the One Book program.
Warmflash said they’re spending around $5,000 compared with $30,000 last year. Even with such a drastically reduced budget, he said, his staff and lay leaders were committed to moving forward with the program. With the help of volunteers and last-minute fundraising, he said, the program will go on, albeit with a limited event schedule.
“It will still be an excellent program,” Warmflash predicted, “and it will lead to community-wide conversation.”