An Interview With Author Dr. Mordecai Roshwald
Mike Strozier is a successful publisher and CEO of the World Audience Publishers.View all articles by Mike Strozier
With the permission of Mike Strozier, CEO of World Audience Publishers Bookpleasures.com is excited to post Mike's interview with Dr. Mordecai Roshwald.
Well-known academician and author Dr. Mordecai Roshwald was born in 1921 in Poland and later moved to Israel. For over fifty years, he has been living in America and he gained international fame with his novel Level 7. Dr. Roshwald has recently published two books in succession with World Audience Publishers, namely Biblical Revisions and Para-Biblical Visions and Modern Technology: The Promise and The Menace. Here is his interview with Mike Strozier, CEO of World Audience Publishers.
Please provide us with your brief biography, including but in addition to your publishing credits.
Let me elaborate here on my personal story. I could say that my existence on the spinning and revolving planet earth may be divided into three, chronologically uneven, parts: childhood in Poland for the first thirteen and a half years, adolescence and early adulthood for the next twenty-one years in Palestine/Israel, and continuation for the following fifty-four years in the United States. The latter period included prolonged stays in England, Israel, Canada, and Taiwan, as well as extensive trips in Europe, the total estimated at seven to eight years. Thus my identity strangely fits the ideal of a pluralistic personality, much in vogue to-day. Earlier in my life it would be defined as culturally-split personality—in no way considered a desirable condition. My own stand is to learn from everybody and to form my own cogent judgment.
Most of my life has progressed along the academic route, although I have not necessarily adhered to the academic routine. I came to like teaching which, among other advantages, offered me the security of reliable income and the illusion of not advancing in age. Meeting each year the faces of 18-22 years old students, I consistently felt about thirty-five years old, in midway of life (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, in the words of Dante's opening to his Divina Commedia). Although I took an early retirement from the University of Minnesota, where I had taught for twenty-five years, I still like to lecture to university students (which I do on my visits to Poland) and thus resurrect my blissful illusion.
My teaching allowed me to devote time and energy to writing. Some of it was academic studies and scholarly research, but I have had the penchant to address the general public, a touch of journalistic involvement. It was not the daily occurrences which awakened my reaction and comment, but the basic flaws in social and political conduct. I have been consistently judgmental—a pejorative characteristic these days, but a laudable trait in my opinion. For, to put it bluntly, just as humanity must distinguish between what is true and what is false, so it must discriminate between what is right and what is wrong.
Good and Evil are not merely subjective perspectives of various civilizations. They are basic notions of humanity, even if often erring. They have to be decided by thoughtful exploration and not by public opinion poll. Just as the belief that the world is flat is mistaken, even if at one time most people thought it to be true, so to kill a person who is blameless is wicked, even if in some cultures it may be justified.
Could you tell what inspired you to write your first book with World Audience, Biblical Revisions and Para-Biblical Visions?
Biblical Revisions and Para-Biblical Visions is a testimony to my life-long struggle with religion. It started in childhood, in an atmosphere of Jewish traditions at home; it progressed to a stage of exceeding the family traditions—perhaps under the influence of a governess from an orthodox family. It came to be connected with biblical and other Hebrew texts as I chose a private Hebrew school in Lwow, the Polish city where we lived. (It was my choice at the age of six, for my parents allowed me this kind of freedom.) It came into a full bloom when I continued my secondary education in a strict Orthodox school in Tel Aviv. For here, the scanty knowledge of some biblical texts expanded into a more intensive and extensive exposure to the power of the Word. It was the pathos of moral commandments in the Pentateuch which impressed me most and it was accompanied by respect of and attachment to age-old traditions, now better understood. It did not take long for me to become the ostensibly most devout among my friends who, as a rule, came from homes more observant than ours. Indeed, my friends jokingly called me by names alluding to my religiosity.
My religiosity did not exactly conform to the widely observed forms and customs. I sometimes interpreted certain biblical commandments more literally than was the usage, which may have appeared odd. I was preoccupied with the true sense of daily prayer, and would repeat it, if not recited with proper concentration. This occasionally prolonged the morning prayer beyond the usual half hour.
I believe my father became concerned about my behavior, and (without alluding to it) suggested that I switch to another school which was not orthodox, that is to say, though accepting and approving of religion, did not make it the focus of education. My first impulse was to say "No," and there was no way in which I would be compelled to submit to my father's or parents' decision. But then I remembered the verse from Leviticus 19:3: "Ye shall fear every man his mother and his father;" and I meekly obeyed.
To be sure, my religiosity did not wither away instantly. I continued to follow the commandments and prayed daily each morning before going to school, and did not forget the evening prayers. Sometimes when I was out of home as the sun was setting, I would stop anywhere and recite the prayers, which by now I knew by heart. On Sabbath eve (for Jewish holy days always start on the eve of the preceding day at sunset and end next day somewhat later in the evening to assure a margin for the holy day), my father would go to the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, which had a good cantor and an all male chorus, and of course I would go with him. He did not observe this habit on Sabbath morning, so I found a small local synagogue in the home of a Hasidic rabbi and go there by myself. This looked odd to the Rabbi and the congregation, and eventually my father started to go with me--not out of any pressure or due to my request, but probably out of respect for Jewish practice and custom, which he acquired in a strictly orthodox home in his own childhood.
During the first year in the new school, I felt rather a stranger, but this changed in the next two years, as I adjusted and found new friends. The studies were becoming increasingly more interesting, the teachers were mostly very good, and themselves very well educated. There was a pleasant collegial atmosphere among the boys and girls (for the school, unlike the religious one, was coeducational).
Among the teachers, one stood out as a remarkable, inspired man. Mr. Moshe Frank, originated from Lithuania, a well known centre of Jewish learning. He could make any subject interesting--even Hebrew grammar. When he taught the Bible, he combined the intellectual inquiry with the sense of prophetic inspiration or with the anguish of the suffering Job. His teaching of Jewish history and Jewish martyrdom in the Middle Ages or in the outrages of the leader of the Cossacks, Chmielnicki, in the 17th century tore at our souls. Thus, I came closer than ever before to participate in the tragic Jewish experience, as well as in the magnificence of some biblical texts.
At the same time, doubts started taking roots in my religious belief. Where was God when innocent Jews were murdered by blood-thirsty religious believers of one kind or another? What was the response of the Almighty to the queries of Job—representing humanity at large? There was no response. For the "official" answer was merely that Job or man could not understand the might of God. This was no answer. Job doubted the goodness of God. I felt similarly. Then I went one step further: I came to doubt God's existence. As I left home at seventeen to study at the Hebrew University, I did not take with me the phylacteries or the prayer book. Nor did I make any use of them during the long summer vacations. Indeed, at times I became anti-religious.
Still there was one aspect of Judaism which I cherished. That was the ethical message which saturated the word of God, and which had attracted me always. I started to make a very clear distinction between the religious garb and the moral essence. This was far from traditional Judaism, but it was not a total rejection. In time, I may have concluded that the religious element could help in making people behave morally. To be sure, this was not morality in the Kantian sense, which had to be free of any but ethical considerations. Yet, I thought, for practical social reasons, religion could have a beneficial impact on society.
In much later years, I came to comprehend, and even to share, a not clearly defined religious yearning. The notion that humanity, like other animals, lives only in order to perpetuate the species seemed senseless. There had to be some meaning in the perception of truth, of right, of beauty, of love, of compassion, of quest for these and other, ostensibly unnecessary yearnings of the human link in Evolution. What the meaning was I could not tell, but I could not erase or disregard it. Indeed, I was glad that I could not!
So when I returned to the Bible—its lofty Hebrew style, its inspired prophets, its refined morality, its deep social commitment—I would not leave the ancient but perennial text. Then in the New Testament, whose text was not in Hebrew, there remained the old Israelite quest of man for salvation, the yearning for the right way, the compassion for the suffering people, experienced by the early Jewish followers of Jesus, himself an observant Jew and an inspired teacher. His tortured death at the hands of the Romans touches me through millennia. It is the man Jesus and it is the symbol Jesus, symbol of Jewish martyrdom through history and symbol of the suffering of innocent humanity, that touches me. Alas, I cannot share the Christian belief of human salvation through Jesus’ torment.
Thus, it occurred to me to "revise" various biblical stories in line with my own convictions. I rejected some immoral elements—as I see it—and introduced some crucial corrections. This will be considered by many good people as the utmost chutzpa, but is not intended to show off, let alone annoy anyone, whether Jew or Christian. It is an expression of my painful conclusions. There may be some readers who may be in agreement.
What about your second book with World Audience, Modern Technology: The Promise and The Menace? How it came to be and what made you write it?
My book Modern Technology: The Promise and The Menace is, in a way, the antithesis of Biblical Revisions and Para-Biblical Visions. The problem of religion and its biblical perception gives way to the essentially material world of human needs, how they are met by technological means, how these means have increased and keep developing, and the like.
Yet, I try to show that human needs and man's response to meet them do not happen in a vacuum. They require natural resources and the conversion of these into diverse goods demands human ingenuity or technology. The working of technology may affect human environment. Thus, ecological conditions must be taken into consideration.
Then we need capital to invest in machines and factories and we need working men and perhaps women to perform the miracle of converting the raw material into desired products. The diverse classes of people engaged in such system, raise the problem of human relations. Over-production or lack of raw material may create crises of one kind or another.
Moreover, the system of production may prove so efficient that the demand for human labour decreases. How to deal with such a problem—whether by reducing working hours, or by switching the labour force to ever new public functions, or by some other method – is another urgent problem.
Mass production may lead to uniformity and mass consumption of entertainment may debase the quality of intellectual and artistic creation. Should culture be open to market forces, or should society protect what it considers of higher value? And who is "society"? The few elect, or the representatives of the voting masses?
What about the impact of technology on warfare and international relations? Technological developments radically changed warfare and menace a world cataclysm beyond human imagination. How can such prospects be effectively dealt with? This is only a gist of what the book considers in some, but not excessive, detail. An important feature of the work is that it tries to present a comprehensive picture of the problem, rather than focus on an important but limited facet. The comprehension of the whole is essential for dealing with any component of mankind's efforts to meet its needs and endeavors.
Thus, the book can serve captains of industry and labour organizations, experts in communication and military strategists, ecologists and artists—practically everybody who does more than perform the same limited task, as ordered by his superiors. This may include university students, who wish to comprehend the world they live in before embarking on a professional career.
Your most famous book is Level 7, which this year reached its 50 year anniversary. Would you tell a little about that book’s success and history?
It is the concern for humanity, of which I and my family happened to be a part, which made me write a novel, entitled Level Seven, which was first published in England in 1959. It was an imaginary tale cautioning the world of the dangers inherent in a world divided into two political blocs, each armed with nuclear weapons with efficient means of delivering them to their respective targets. I was scared and I thought I ought to make the world scared.
To my surprise, the book met with fairly widespread and occasionally strong approval by well know personalities, such as the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, the novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley, the American scientist Linus Pauling and many others. The book was reprinted several times in England and the United States and translated into 14 languages. A Polish translation is due in 2009 or 2010. Now, fifty years after the original publication, I still get an occasional letter or telephone call from someone who read the book as a teenager and has cherished it to date.
Curiously enough, the success has had some side-effects. The book came to be classified as science-fiction, and occasionally I have received reprimands (in print), why I did not produce additional books in science-fiction, as other writers did. As a matter of fact, I have published several more books—almost all of them non-fiction—which my critics were not aware of. However, I was branded—for better or for worse.
What are your thoughts about how the profession of writing has changed over your career?
I find it hard to speak about the profession of writing, perhaps because I have always seen writing as an urge, a calling, an individual involvement, and not a skill imparted through study and training. To be sure, there are aspects of writing which are indispensable, and have to be acquired through learning. Spelling, grammatical rules, vocabulary, clear thinking, and expression, all come to mind. These are, or ought to be, acquired in school.
However, I look askance at courses in "creative writing." Creativity has to emerge out of the inner resources of mind, of feeling, of some mysterious forces of the individual. This is the case of the writers of fiction, but, to some extent, also of the work of scholarly writers, as they find themselves floating in the realm of brilliant ideas. Brilliance may be most easily detected in poetry, where ideas and emotions are polished like a diamond for all to see.
Thus, I have never thought of myself as pursuing the career of a writer. I have considered myself a teacher. I pursued an academic career. Writing emerged out of the recesses of my being, and perhaps attached wings to me, as I meandered through the worlds of reality and ideas, jostling with one another on the winding path of my existence.
As to the writing at large during my life, I can hardly qualify to evaluate it. Although I have a certain passion for writing, I am not an avid reader, and certainly do not follow what is new in English or world literature. Occasionally, I roam through the display of books at a nearby Border's and pick up a book which has been on the bestseller list of the New York Times for five weeks or for four months. On skimming through the first page, I find a startling resemblance of style and composition of various books, even if the topics differ. A suspicion creeps into my mind: Have all these authors taken Creative Writing courses at the same university? Or, perhaps, have all the Creative Writing professors used the same bestselling Creative Writing textbook?
I made a point of reading a bulky bestseller which turned its author into a rich man. I read it carefully. It was very well designed to keep the reader in suspense through several hundred pages. It sounded like a documented piece of world history. It fabricated a historical intrigue and crime, which the naive readers took as gospel truth. Yet the plot was built on a trivial event which had never happened. The book was designed to keep the reader in suspense, where there was no reason at all to be in suspense. The book was a clever concoction of much ado about nothing. Well, nothing except making money for writer and publisher. It was a successful book, but success is not the yardstick to measure the literary quality of the book. Publishers, and even writers, have never been averse to success in their ventures. Yet, it seems that marketing—the way to success—has become of late the sole criterion of literary value. ("Ah, it was different fifty years ago," says the old man with a deep sigh of resignation).
We have talked about your youth in war-torn Israel. Would you mind sharing some of those experiences and perhaps commenting on the current state of that nation and its future outlook?
I spent in Palestine/Israel over twenty years, and most of those years were marred by the conflict between Arabs and Jews, or, as they were later to be called, Palestinians and Israelis. Our family emigrated from Poland to what was then called Palestine in December 1934. The Jewish settlement of the ancient Israelite land started in late 19th century, when the territory was a province of the Ottoman Empire. When the British forces had defeated the Turkish army in the process of the first World War, Jews saw it as the beginning of a new era, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream: the establishment of the Jewish National Home in their old country, from which they were forced out by the Romans in the early centuries of the first millennium C.E. When, under the impact of Islam, the Arabs started expanding out of Arabia, they soon conquered the territory from the Eastern Roman Empire, along with other countries of the region, and spread over all North Africa and into Spain. The conquered territories were gradually Arabized through Arab settlement and through the conversion of most old inhabitants to Islam.
The British control of Palestine was associated with His Majesty's government's declaration, promising to support the Jewish establishment of their "national home" there. Unfortunately, the British gave conflicting assurances to the Arabs. The latter rejected the idea that any territory inhabited by Arabs should be given to any other people. Thus, from the very beginning of the British rule, they made their sentiment known through attacking Jewish immigrants. This was done on a local scale on several occasions, but in 1936 erupted what the Arabs called the Great Arab Revolt, which spread all over Mandatory Palestine, and only slowly became subdued by the British regular army, coming to an end in 1939, with the outbreak of World WAR II.
The Arab warfare followed its own rules. The basic rule was to kill as many individual Jews as possible, without discriminating between genders, age-groups, combatants, and civilians. As the British became involved in maintaining peace and order, British policemen and soldiers became targets, as well as the members of the civil administration. Moreover, as there was an Arab faction which was ready to negotiate some kind of co-existence with the Jews, they too became a target of the dominant faction and many of them were assassinated by their patriotic brothers.
The British, who could not control the situation by themselves, tolerated the Jewish semi-clandestine organization, which put their members in defensive positions along threatened ethnic borders, in order to repel assaults, which would lead to slaughter. This was not a theoretical threat. In two cases, if I remember correctly, Kefar Ada and the Jewish quarter in Safad, the Arab terrorists overpowered the defenders and murdered many civilians.
When at the conclusion of World War II, the British government took steps to grant the Arab majority in Palestine eventual independence, the Jewish population, realizing that this would put an end to the Zionist dream, was on the brink of revolt. The situation was exacerbated by the encounter with the Jewish survivors of the Nazi extermination policy.
Some so-called extreme factions attacked government and military targets. Eventually the tolerated semi-clandestine forces adopted a similar policy. The British were fed up, declared that they were giving up their control and leaving the country. The issue was brought before the General Assembly of the United Nations which, by the required majority of two thirds, recommended the partition of Palestine into two states—Arab and Jewish. The rest is the continuation of the bloody history, on an ever increasing scale. The big difference has been the consistent increase in the military, economic and scientific strength of Israel. The Arab hatred and intransigence, spreading all over the Arab world, and occasionally joined by Moslem countries, have not abated. The prospects cannot be described as rosy.
Living in such conditions was marked not only by shooting, bombing, casualties, including pupils, neighbors—personal tragedies of loving families, which evoked deep sympathy among those who happened to be spared. The tragedies were not reconstructed from newspapers; they also happened in one's neighborhood or next door. Surprisingly, people followed their careers, dreamed their own private dreams, tried to make money, and occasionally succeeded, and the country faces many problems, some of its own making. Life—such as it is—continues.
As a scholar of the Bible, what are your thoughts on how that book has evolved throughout human history, and is there anything else you would like to relate about the Bible and how the fate of man is tied to it, particularly in modern times?
I would not say that the Bible evolved. The Bible retained its text, but the attitude to the Bible has varied and changed along two distinct lines. One change has occurred over time, and as the biblical text is nearly two millennia old, there was plenty of time to allow for changes and modification of attitudes. Another change has occurred due to the variety of denominations which have considered the Bible a sacred book. Moreover, within some religions—notably the Jewish—there are many commentaries, partly overlapping and partly choosing their own way. This, to a lesser degree, may be the case of the Christian churches.
Then there are diverse approaches to the holy book. One considers parts of the Bible as the verbatim presentation of God's words. Others regard it as a human creation over a long period of time, presenting the beliefs of various ages and people. Some scholars analyze the text and believe to have discovered technical flaws and even linguistic mistakes. There are very few scholars who belittle the worth of at least some biblical books. If they did, they would have found another subject of interest.
A problem which has bothered me for some years is the neglect of the Bible, despite the allegation that it is a consistent bestseller. In my trips with my wife across America many years ago, I found that every motel had an English Bible donated by the Gideons Societry. Even more surprising was the impeccable condition in which the motel copy had been preserved. One explanation was the piety of the travelers who wanted to leave the good book as perfect in its external appearance as it was in its content. Another biblical commentary suggested that hardly anybody opened the nicely bound volume. The tired travelers preferred the distraction of television to the concentration on the alleged word of God.
My own attitude is that the Bible, or at least a substantial part of it, has played an important role in the shaping of the bright side of what we call Western Civilization, and should not remain the monopoly of Synagogues and Churches. It is too important a book to be ignored by agnostics or even atheists. If they study and read Homer and Virgil, who introduce deities not taken seriously by anybody, it will benefit them even more to study some of the books assembled in the Bible.
You travel to Poland each spring. Would you please describe the purpose of your visits?
My Polish adventure is still a surprise to me. It occurred almost incidentally, and after serious hesitations; yet the important thing is that it did occur. Let me explain.
My wife and I traveled a lot—mainly to Israel and Western Europe (United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland, Benelux, Scandinavia, Spain). In the last years of the Communist regime, we visited Prague in Czechoslovakia and Budapest in Hungary—an interesting trip not only because of the beauty of the two cities, different from the splendid cities of Western Europe, but also because of the opportunity to see the two countries under a hated regime, and to face the cordial attitude to visitors from the West, especially America.
Yet, we deliberately avoided Poland. This for two reasons: the two cities we would visit there would have been the places where we had spent our childhood—Warsaw in the case of my wife and Lwow in mine. To come to the cities of our early youth and to see one third of its population, the Jewish inhabitants, absent—mainly due to the Nazi extermination—would have been an ordeal which we preferred to avoid.
Moreover, the memories of Poland of those years—especially of my wife, who had left with her family in 1938, one year before the war—were less than pleasant. The widespread anti-Semitism which I remembered grew even worse with the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany. The Germans cultivated friendly relations with Poland, and their open policy of hatred fell on fertile ground in Poland. The Polish government was flattered by the friendship of the rising star, apparently having no inkling that this was merely a temporary tactic, while the plans of annexation in due course were brewing. The death of the Polish national and political leader, Marshal Pilsudski, who was decent in his relations with Jews, facilitated the official change of policy. The government thought of ways to reduce the Jewish population from 10 to 1 per cent. The problem was to find a place to which the Jews could emigrate. Thus, we excluded Poland from our travels.
It was a mere accident that I met a Polish student who came to America to earn some money during her summer vacation. I had an opportunity to speak Polish, and tried to encourage her to continue her studies in health sciences, which she did with outstanding results. She asked me to visit her, but I explained my reservations, doing my best not to blame the present generation for my childhood experience in Poland.
Another connection was a student in another Polish city, who was interested in my wife's book in comparative literature, which dealt with the attitude of three Jewish writers—Franzos, Sholom Aleichem, and Agnon—to the Jewish small town in Eastern Europe. I sent her the book and the e-mail contact showed her amazement and strong impression of contact with someone of Polish origin and memories from times of her great parents or earlier.
At a certain moment, I made the decision to stop in Vienna on my returning trip from Israel and take the train to Poland for a one week visit. Next year, I made an arrangement for ten days in Poland, deducted from a visit to Israel. Next three trips, in 2007, 2008, and 2009 were made to Poland only and lasted five weeks each time. A similar trip is planned for the spring of 2010.
Without going into details, let me say, that through these and other contacts, I met charming people in Poland. They were usually strict Roman-Catholics, but friendly to Jews and Judaism. Most of my new friends were professors or lecturers in various universities, where I was invited to give lectures in Philosophy or on Jews and Judaism. I have done it all in Polish—a challenge which I met with increasing confidence. Actually, I came to like Poland—at least the Poland I met. I keep contact by phone and e-mail and I am deeply concerned about the well-being of my friends and their families. I realize my friends are not an average sample of the population, but this is true also of other countries where I have friends.
A deeper explanation of my ongoing Polish experience may point to subconscious memories from childhood, although having attended a private Hebrew school, I had no Christian friends. A deeper reason may be that, with my wife no more alive, I had a need to love somebody, beside my only son, and Poland offered me several people I could love, including some splendid "grandchildren" of my choice. I rejoice in their happiness; I carry the burden of their disappointments.
Dr. Roshwald’s books can be found online at http://www.worldaudience.org/pubs_bks/pubs_bks_Roshwald_Bible.html and http://worldaudience.powweb.com//pubs_bks/ModernTechnology.html.