For Father’s Day: ‘Time has given me back … my real father’
The Seattle Times | June 16, 2016
This Father’s Day, award-winning Seattle author David Laskin writes about his best memories of his brilliant can-do father, which have re-emerged to replace the haunting images of his dad’s illness and death.
500 Years of Jewish Life in Venice
The New York Times | March 9, 2016
A journey into one of the world’s oldest Jewish ghettos, where this year a long, rich history is commemorated.
Tear Through the World in Wild Disguise
Seattle Met | July 30, 2015
Ivan Doig was a Northwest legend. Before he died this past spring, the Seattle novelist had one last message to share.
William Shemin Gets His Medal of Honor — a Century Later
Forward | June 21, 2015
Nearly 100 years after he served his country in World War I, Sergeant William Shemin has finally received his Medal of Honor. But why did this Jewish hero’s family have to battle so hard for the honor?
Herod the Great’s Israel
The New York Times | April 2, 2015
I traveled to Israel last May to search for Herod the Great and I found him, or at least his ghost, at his tomb at Herodium. Halfway up an artificial mountain that the king had conjured from the desert for his final resting place, I stood gazing at what was left of the royal mausoleum: a couple of courses of limestone blocks as exquisitely faceted as jewels. Below, the arcing rows of a Roman theater descended in diminishing semicircles to the disc of the stage. Everything around me, even the contours of the earth itself, had been altered at the decree of this ancient ruler. Time has toppled the columns and blurred the carvings, but the majesty (and hubris) of this place remain intact.
The Carlton Complex Fire: A Harvest of Ashes
Seattle Met | December 1, 2014
He wakes on a midsummer morning to an orange sky. Not the flush of dawn but the angry pulse of fire to the north, upriver. Below that sky lies everything he has loved—his family, their homes, the orchards he inherited from his grandfather—all of it cradled in a narrow, tinder-dry canyon. The conflagration has crept toward Keith Stennes for days—starting three days earlier, when four separate lightning strikes ignited the Methow Valley—and this morning, July 17, 2014, it has almost arrived.
He tastes the air. The flavor of burnt forest. The fire, less than 10 miles away, will be at his farm by late afternoon.
Lanky, 69, silver haired, Stennes is the patriarch of a family whose business dates back to the 1890s, when his grandfather Britanus Stennes laid claim to the land and pushed an apple sapling into the fertile soil. Together with his 33-year-old twin sons, Keith helms Stennes Orchards, 550 acres from which they coax 20 kinds of apples, pears, pluots, and cherries.
‘Fields of Blood:’ tangled ties between religion and violence
The Seattle Times | November 9, 2014
Karen Armstrong, the author of a score of massively erudite books about the workings of the sacred in human history, knows more about religion than I ever will — but nonetheless I found myself arguing with her as I waded through “Fields of Blood,” her new book about religion and violence.
“We are flawed creatures with violent hearts that long for peace,” she notes, insisting that societies grounded in faith, or at least communal ritual, do a better job of channeling and containing both violence and the yearning for peace than strictly secular societies.
Irgun Fighter Remembers the Altalena
The Jewish Daily Forward | September 9, 2014
Malca Fein is a fit, sharp, outspoken, perfectly groomed octogenarian with a just a hint of an accent. But get her talking about the past and the fiery Zionist freedom fighter burns through her grandmotherly facade. At the age of 16, Malca, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1925 and now makes her home in Windsor, California, joined Irgun (also called Etzel, a Hebrew acronym), a paramilitary offshoot of Haganah that was bent on using armed force to expel the British from Palestine. In the fraught period between the end of World War II and the birth of the State of Israel, Malca put her life on the line proudly and unhesitatingly for the cause she believed in.
A Report From the Jewish Genealogists’ Summer Camp
The Jewish Daily Forward | August 25, 2014
As a latecomer and a relative newbie in Jewish genealogy, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive this July as I walked into the lobby of the Hilton Salt Lake City Center where the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies was holding its 34th annual conference. This was the tribe’s gathering of the tribes, the big powwow for the umbrella organization that oversees 74 Jewish genealogical groups around the world.
Though I had devoted a good part of the last three years to researching and telling my own family’s story, I really had no idea what to expect from a Jewish genealogical conference. Banks of computers occupied round the clock by googly-eyed family seekers? Tips on deciphering Hebrew headstones? A road map for navigating the labyrinth of JewishGen? Lively discussion and debate on Jewish history, the crisis in Gaza, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide? Passion, obsession, frustration, jubilation?
Echoes of History at a Tuscan Estate
The New York Times | May 9, 2014
Iris Origo was a 22-year-old newlywed Anglo-American heiress — as rich, brilliant and innocent as a Henry James heroine — when she and her husband, an Italian nobleman, decided to buy La Foce. “Treeless and shrubless but for some tufts of broom,” Origo wrote in October 1923 of her first view of the rundown 3,500-acre estate southeast of Siena; it was “a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman.”
As we zipped south down the A1 autostrada in our rental car last spring, my wife, Kate, wanted to know exactly why we were bypassing Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Arezzo and Cortona and making a beeline for what Origo called this “lonely, uncompromising” corner of Tuscany. I waxed on about the rave reviews the estate-turned-rental-property had received from friends; about the garden, reputed to be one of the finest 20th-century gardens in Italy; about how Iris and Antonio Origo had transformed La Foce from a wasteland of degraded hardscrabble farms to an aesthete’s paradise with a rich, evocative history; about its proximity to Montepulciano and Montalcino and their superb wines.
But the real reason was Origo herself.
Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’: a dazzling history
The Seattle Times | March 30, 2014
Telling the story of the Jews, even in two hefty volumes (the second due out this fall) and a companion five-hour PBS television series, is a daunting task, but Simon Schama is more than up to it. Massively erudite in history, art, culture, and, on the evidence of this new book, scripture and archaeology, Schama is one of those charming polymaths that only the British Isles seem to breed. Reading Schama is like sitting across from the world’s most dazzling dinner party guest: there’s nothing the man can’t brilliantly riff on, though you may be furtively glancing at your watch before the evening is over.
If you are looking for an orderly march through the great milestones of Jewish history, look elsewhere. Schama’s approach in this volume, which begins with the emergence of the Jews as a distinctive people around 1000 BC and ends with their expulsion from Spain in 1492, is as eccentric and associative as a lyric poem. At the start of each section, he seizes on some artifact, incident or colorful individual and then waltzes off with it into great looping ruminations. You can practically see the telegenic writer, potsherd or papyrus scroll in hand, intoning for the camera, “Two and a half millennia ago, on this tawny island in the Nile River, a young Jewish soldier sat in his barracks writing a letter to his parents….”
Family Tree: Author David Laskin Reveals the Risks and Rewards of Researching Your Ancestry
Parade | December 28, 2013
As age 60 approached, I was seized by a strange new urge: the need to know my family history. I can only explain it as one of those out-of-the-blue impulses that accompany a new stage of life. With the kids grown and launched, I found myself dreaming of becoming a grandfather. What would I tell my grandkids about their heritage? All of a sudden, I became curious and then consumed by the desire to find out more about who we were.
I got off to a lucky start because my grandfather’s sister was the founder of the Maidenform Bra Company. A quick Google search revealed that Ida Rosenthal had been a socialist firebrand who was forced to leave Tsarist Russia at age 19 because she was fomenting revolution! She arrived at Ellis Island in 1905 with $12 to her name, went to work as a seamstress, and later opened a Manhattan dress-making business. In 1922, Ida came up with the first Maidenform bra—and the rest is history.
History, but not family history. Google drew a blank when I searched for other relatives.
Unread Family Letters Open Window Onto Life on the Eve of the Holocaust
The Jewish Daily Forward | October 19, 2013 | How David Laskin Came To Write His Family Story
On my first trip to Israel, just hours after I landed in Tel Aviv, my Israeli cousin Benny told me that he had nearly 300 family letters dating back to the 1930s and ’40s. I had come to Israel to research a book about the family that Benny and I have in common, and this revelation felt like winning the lottery.
“Most of the letters were from my mother Sonia’s family in Poland,” Benny explained over mint tea in the backyard of his house in Moshav Avichail, north of Netanya. “Her parents and sisters wrote to Sonia after she made aliyah in 1932.”
There were also letters written by Benny’s grandfather, Shalom Tvi, who had left Poland just weeks before World War II began to visit family in New York — my immediate family. Shalom Tvi spent the next seven-and-a-half years trapped in the States, agonizing over the fate of his wife, daughters and grandchildren in Europe.
‘Cultural’ Jew Label Grates On Me
USA Today | October 11, 2013
The findings of the recent report by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project nailed me. I am one of those 20% of American Jews “of no religion” and among the 58% of American Jews who have intermarried. The Pew study pegs me as a “cultural” Jew who honors his ancestors, feels proud to belong to the same group as Moses, Kafka, Freud and Barbra Streisand, wishes he had videotaped his grandmother making challah and chopped liver — but would sooner enter a church to admire the frescoes than don a yarmulke to davan with the faithful.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more it grates on me to be confined in this category. Having spent the last three years researching and writing a book about my ancestors — Orthodox Torah scribes who studied at the famous Volozhin yeshiva — I can honestly say that I have never felt closer to my religion.
Echoes From the Roman Ghetto
The New York Times | July 12, 2013 | Travel Section cover story about the Nazi occupation of Rome during the Second World War.
The Portico d’Ottavia is one of those chunks of urban surrealism that you come across only in Rome. From a cavity about 20 feet below street level, the ruin of a massive 2,000-year-old portico thrusts its crumbling marble geometry into the present. The dome of a Baroque church, Santa Maria in Campitelli, peers down from the next piazza like a nosy matron.
A few steps from the ruins, multilingual waiters reel in tourists to dine on their terraces amid pyramids of artichokes. A poster on a palace wall hawks kosher sushi — coming soon! Bearded men in skullcaps jostle students in tank tops.
No one seems the least bit thrown by this jarring mosaic of times and cultures. Everybody is too busy talking, sipping, pointing, sauntering, forking up something delicious.
Chief Joseph’s Trail in Idaho and Montana
Seattle Met | September 3, 2013 | Travel piece about following the historic Nez Perce trail through some of the most spectacular and haunting scenery in the American West.
I went to Idaho and Montana in search of Chief Joseph—and like the U.S. Army back in 1877, I bungled it. I thought I knew the story—or at least the headline: For four months in the spring and summer of 1877, the Red Napoleon, as the American press dubbed the striking 37-year-old Nez Perce chief, evaded a ragtag collection of befuddled regulars and hopped-up volunteers on a thousand-mile “fighting retreat” through some of the most spectacular and treacherous scenery in the West.
Only it turns out that the press got it wrong. As I stood beside my idling rental car in the blast of summer’s first heat wave, it dawned on me that I had come looking for the wrong guy. The historic marker by the Clearwater River at the eastern edge of Idaho’s Nez Perce reservation proclaimed “LOOKING GLASS” in letters big enough to make out at 50 miles an hour, so I braved the heat to get out and read the rest. That was when I realized it was Looking Glass—the tall, gaunt, tragically flawed chief of another Nez Perce band—I should be tracking down instead of Joseph.
The Most Treacherous Terrain
Seattle Met | November 21, 2011 | This feature story profiles the Northwest Avalanche Center by unfolding the tragic death of a college student in a freak late winter avalanche.
No way were they passing up a snowboarding trip. The next day was the last day of spring break, and Riley McCarthy and Stuart Beckman, University of Washington students and frat brothers at Alpha Sigma Phi, had their plan nailed down by late in the evening, Saturday, March 26, 2011. Riley, 20, a sophomore who had just decided to major in engineering, and Stuart, who at 22 had two quarters to go on his degree in mathematics, were fit, lanky guys who possessed a special grace when airborne over untouched powder. And late last winter and well into the spring, powder was pretty easy to come by in the Cascades.
Riley arranged to borrow his mom’s car, pick up Stuart in the morning, and drive up to Stevens Pass ski resort. They’d meet up with three other members of the Husky Snowboard Team in the resort parking lot around 9am and the five of them would ride their hearts out. “Bring backcountry gear,” Stuart told one of the guys on the phone that night. “We might ride that stuff.”
Stuart and Riley knew about backcountry avalanches. They talked about the weather and the physics of snow all the time. But avalanches happened to other people.
When History Speaks
The New York Times| September 29, 2010 | Travel Section cover story about tracing family history in Israel.
CHAIM KAHANOVICH, an 18-year-old Polish Jew, caught his first brown glimpse of the Holy Land from the deck of a steamer in November 1924. He would never leave. Dark-haired, short and solid, Chaim brought with him a teenager’s blazing passion and an ideologue’s stubborn commitment to a cause. The long, slow journey had taken him from Warsaw by train to the Black Sea port of Constanta, then by ship through the Bosporus Straits and across the Mediterranean to . There at last, rising like the back of an ox from the blue water of Haifa Bay, was the sere ridge of Mount Carmel — the Promised Land.
From his boyhood study of Torah, Chaim would have known that Carmel was the place where the prophet Elijah faced down the pagan priests of Baal and fled the wrath of Queen Jezebel. But he had not come to Palestine to study Torah. He and his comrades were called halutzim — pioneers — and they had made aliyah (literally the ascent) to the Holy Land to plow the soil, plant grapevines and citrus groves, raise chickens, tomatoes and children, and to found a new nation.
On Hallowed Ground, a Place of Painful Beauty
The New York Times| September 30, 2007 | Travel article on Visiting the Argonne Battlefields of France.
It’s strange that a military graveyard should be so lovely, but lovely is the only way to describe the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, 26 miles northwest of Verdun. As exquisite as any French park or chateau grounds, the cemetery is a formal garden of perfectly clipped trees, immaculate lawns, fountains and roses and long white rows of grave markers. Given its beauty, it’s also strange how empty the place is — and stranger still since this is the largest American military cemetery in , the burial site of 14,246 service members who died in the war to end all wars.
When we Americans think of travel inspired by world war, Normandy is what springs to mind, and in fact each year more than a million visitors crowd the Normandy Cemetery and the nearby Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach Monuments. Yet the countryside north and east of Paris is rich in memories — and monuments — of United States involvement in the other world war. Twenty-six years before D-Day, more than two million American soldiers were in France fighting in battles whose names now sound as archaic as jousting sites — Oise-Aisne, Château-Thierry, Aisne-Marne, St.-Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne. What’s astonishing when you travel to these battlegrounds is how much remains on, or just below, the surface and how few people there are looking for it.