Down Under and Back Up again

The author talks about her fascination with Mel Gibson, and how it became a novel.
By Sonia Taitz for Lilith Magazine

When a Jewish author, daughter of Holocaust survivors, writes a novel inspired by the life of Mel Gibson, there must be a good story attached. And there is. In fact, there are two parallel stories, one concerning the notorious international superstar, and one about his fan, that daughter of Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox, Lithuanian immigrants. The child of survivors of Stutthof and Dachau.

Let’s start with the second strand. The child, of course, is me – author of a recent memoir called The Watchmaker’s Daughter, which told of my life as the daughter of heroes. My parents met at a Lithuanian Survivor’s Ball in New York City. At the moment they took to the floor in a Viennese waltz, they’d already endured the ghetto, the camps, four years in Germany as DPs, and the arduous process of starting anew in America. My mother had been about to debut as a pianist when her world fell apart. Her father and two brothers were killed, and her mother sent to the “bad” line, marked for death. My mother heroically got her out, keeping her alive until liberation. My father had a similarly valiant tale. Years before the Nazis invaded, his father was killed by the Cossacks. This tragedy had forced him, at 13, to apprentice as a watchmaker — and that trade saved his life at Dachau. Germans needed someone to repair their timepieces. My father, by that time a master watchmaker, did that, and more. He saved lives as a prisoner in pajamas, bringing other Jews into his workshop whether they could fix watches or not.

These were my parents, people who could walk through hell, and do it helping others. They were also people who could really dance. When they fell into each other’s arms at the Survivors’ Ball, when they sailed across the floor to Strauss, or flew in the air in a polka, they recognized each other. Kindred spirits who could live like that and hope like that and dance like that must marry. Soon after, they did. And not too long after, they had a boy and a girl – a New World family dream come true.

My parents, especially my father, were proud of me as a student. I seemed to posses the attributes to do well at the yeshiva to which they sent me– sitzfleish (the ability to sit and study) and saichel (a reasoning mind). Unfortunately, I also had a lust for adventure. An ambition to know everything. Somehow, hearing my parents’ tales of a world gone mad, I felt dissatisfied in my safe, American world. In my early 20s, I applied and got into Oxford University, starting a journey that would lead me back to old Europe. I wanted to heal my parents. I wanted to know their pain. I wanted to play with fire. And I wanted to tame it.

There, as my memoir tells, I fell in for a young English student whose parents felt about Jews roughly the same way that mine did about “goyim.” This student, born Christian, admired the Jewish people in general, and me in particular. But both sets of parents objected, so this boy and I split up for a Biblical seven years. After all that, we did marry. But not before a miracle occurred.
I’m not talking about my Englishman’s conversion to the Jewish faith, but the emotional conversion of both sets of parents, who ended up falling in love with each other. Over challah, over Shabbat candles, the British and the Yiddish forged a bond. In fact, on his deathbed, my father would say, “Thank you for bringing these people into my life.” He wasn’t only talking about my husband, who insisted that our children have a Day School education, who served on the boards of our synagogue and that Day School. He was talking about the whole mishpocheh – strangers he and my mother had once feared, who now were kin.

And now we come to Mel Gibson. This was a man towards whom I always felt a kinship. A ma born and bred in New York, whose father whisked the family off to Australia to avoid the draft. An expat (like my parents), a movie star who often portrayed heroes (like my parents), a man whom People Magazine once dubbed “The Sexiest Man Alive” (my parents had bonded through the lively lure of dance). Most of all, Mel seemed playful, outspoken, and smart. Let’s just say that he had both the “chen” (charm) and the “chutzpah” that Jews treasure most. The fact that somehow he shot two movies on my very own Upper West Side street made him feel all the more like part of my world.

When the image cracked, its shards were sharp. The smiling superstar was caught, more than once, voicing anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic sentiments. “Sentiments” may be too fine a word for the rants. In one, he claimed that, “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” That was less painful than his blockbuster movie, “The Passion,” in which he conveyed (with all the craft at his command) that the Jews were not only his political but religious enemies – murderers of God himself. And that was less painful than his answer to queries about his father’s views on the holocaust – and its denial. Mel both dodged the question and answered it with the words, “My father has never lied to me about anything.”

My parents might have gone to their graves healed by my bridge-building marriage, but Mel’s anti-Jewish mania threw me backward. I felt an ancient Jewish pain begin to engulf and sink me. I worried that I could trust no one; that behind every smiling face lay a secret hater (and where did hate always lead? Nowhere good for the Jews). So I did what I always do when emotions come pouring: I wrote a book to settle my soul.

Down Under creates a fictional backstory for an Irish-American boy called Collum Whitsun, who is raised in New York, moves to Australia, and becomes a star. In the novel, his father, Neil, is an abusive drinker, a zealous rageaholic whose hatred for the Jews is paralleled only by the terror he inflicts on his sons. In high school, Collum meets a Jewish girl from a nice family. Though her father is a vigilant child of Holocaust survivors, Judy Pincus falls in love with this vulnerable non-Jewish boy. She loves not only Collum’s piercing, questing eyes, but the fact that sometimes they’re not only blue, but black. The teens bond, a latter-day Romeo and Juliet. They have more in common than love; they have blood-feuds. His father hates her, and her father hates him.
When Collum’s family is about to emigrate to Australia, his plans to flee with Judy go astray. For decades after — as he grows to manhood, marries, has kids, and divorces — Collum nurses a grudge against his first love. At the same time, he pines for her. This ambivalence comes to a head when he and Judy meet again in middle age. They rekindle their romance – and light a fuse.

Does Down Under resolve my fears of resurgent anti-Semitism, whether from Mel, the Muslim fringe, or modern Europe? Does it reconcile my heart to its beloved old hero? Not entirely. But if to understand is to forgive, the process of writing has helped melt my own grudges. As I created and embraced this book’s characters – Jewish and gentile, female and male, hurtful and helpful – my own heart expanded. My parents were healed by a link to the “goyim” they once feared. And I, their daughter, finished Down Under with a bittersweet sense of having grown.