Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Man Who Saw Through Nostradamus


My second novel is coming out in October.  In honor of the book, called The Last Testament of Simon Peter, I thought you'd like to read a nice story a local writer did on my first novel.  My latest book contains the life story of the Apostle Peter, who is waiting with Paul for the Romans to execute them both and decides to pen his biography.  It captures the actual history of the time period, using real people and documented events.

By Mary Wentzel
Using his unusual one-fingered typing method, author Bill Lazarus entered the name of Nostradamus in the Google search engine.  In less than a second, more than 4,590,000 entries were available.  The 16th century French seer has never been more popular, now that his and other predictions of the coming end of the world in 2012 are circulating widely.
According to believers, Nostradamus foresaw a wide variety of world events, including Adolf Hitler, world wars, the approaching apocalypse and many more. One thing is certain, however, he never predicted Lazarus’ novel about him: The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus.
“It’s unauthorized because Nostradamus not only doesn’t know about the book, but wouldn’t have approved of it if he did,” Lazarus joked. 
The Daytona Beach resident was sitting by the computer in his home office.  His book is among the millions of listings, such as Nostradamus 101, the Nostradamus Society of America and Nostradamus Repository.
They are all somber explorations of the famed seer’s life.  Lazarus’ book, which has been nominated as Florida’s novel of the year, is anything but.  It is filled with jokes, puns and comical scenes.  “I really can’t be serious in my writing,” noted Lazarus, who teaches communication classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is also a religious historian who teaches in the Stetson University Continuing Education Department.   He regularly gives presentations on religious history topics at area organizations and Unitarian societies, all of which are laced with jokes and comedy bits.
That same humor flows through the novel.  Nostradamus finds himself regularly in pickles and odd situations, including swapping saintly relics like baseball cards.  In another episode, Nostradamus and Ernest meet a priest collecting autographs of famous people to sell in a fundraiser for the Church.  The signatures are all Xs.
The comedy touched reviewers.  “Few people write like this anymore, with details, emotion and, above all, humor,” wrote Lester Myles, a reviewer with the Richmond (Va.) News.  “The book is filled with puns, plays on words and anecdotes that put Lazarus on par with some of the great comic writers of any generation.”
Of course, the book is not about jokes.  Underpinning the humor are serious themes dealing with religious beliefs and the strength of illusions.  Lazarus emphasized that aspect by using historical figures.  The people that Nostradamus runs into – collides with might be a better description – are prominent in his era, including English King Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey and many more.
In the process, Nostradamus becomes part of a conspiracy to kill Henry VIII, is mistaken for a false messiah of his day and later is caught in Munster, a city taken over by radical Protestants, and loses a healing contest with a witch there. 
The events are based on history; Lazarus’ comic take on them is definitely his own creation.
“It’s the funny book I ever read,” said long-time local publisher Bev Hanson.  She said she met Lazarus at a book fair and asked him directly where the idea for the novel came from.
“I told her that I don’t know,” Lazarus admitted.
A veteran newspaper and magazine writer whose stories have appeared in publications around the country for years, the native of Maine was working on a murder-mystery when Nostradamus popped into his head in the same way items about the seer appear instantly on the computer screen.
Lazarus immediately stopped working on the murder-mystery.
“It was just a much better idea,” he said.  “Fortunately, my wife got her Master’s degree in medieval literature so she had some texts on that era lying around.”  His library also had books of Nostradamus predictions as well as historical anecdotes from the Middle Ages.  Every night for six months, Lazarus would retreat into the library to type.  The first version had more than 1,000 pages.
That was chopped down to around 440 pages with whole chapters discarded.  “I got rid of everything that would slow down the story,” Lazarus explained.  Most of the jokes survived, although the manuscript barely did. 
Nostradamus was originally produced on a typewriter.   Copies were distributed to friends.  The last copy went to a publisher, who declined to return it.  Friends kept passing along copies until no one knew where it was. 
“I was really sick,” Lazarus said.  “I could never write anything like it again.”  Finally, he found an original version and re-edited it.  His mother, then in her 80s, volunteered to type the book into in a computer.  After that, Lazarus started sending it out to literary agents electronically.
“It’s the best book I read in my career as a literary agent,” said Mark Sullivan, who is based in New York and agreed to represent Lazarus.  “Years later, I still am dreaming about some of the scenes.”
However, publishers were initially reluctant to publish it.
“It didn’t fall into any genre,” Sullivan explained. 
In 2009, however, Halifax County, a small Florida press, took a chance on it.  “There’s simply never been a book like this one,” publisher Ron Howell pointed out.  “Bill has an absolutely unique background.  No one else could have written it.”
The book has already attracted an array of readers and praise.  “Since the author is not well known, it will be hard for him to reach the audience this book richly deserves,” Myles wrote.  “On the other hand, his publisher is planning to print a variety of his novels.  In time, Lazarus may finally be recognized as one of this country’s finest writers.  The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus is proof of that already.”
“I’m working to getting the book on the top of the Google list,” Lazarus said.  He laughed at the thought.  “I doubt Nostradamus would have predicted that would happen either,” he said.
The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus
Halifax County
2010
404 pages
$24.95
Available on Amazon.com, www.halifaxcounty.com , Kindle and www.williamplazarus.com


Mary Wentzel is an author/illustrator who lives in Ormond Beach, Florida.












Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Humor Part of Jewish Tradition


My wife was objecting to a recent t-shirt message sold to young girls that caused a stir nationally: it said to the effect that “I’m so pretty that I make my brother do my homework for me.”  My wife said it sent the wrong message.  I said it was just a joke. I’ve seen lots of t-shirts with comic messages.

In fact, I see humor in most everything.  Even my most serious writing usually contains jokes.  My novels do.  The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus, as the name implies, is laced with comedy.  So is even a more serious novel like The Last Testament of Simon Peter, which is supposed to be published shortly (a promise the publisher has made regularly since March.) 

I can’t help it.  Humor’s an integral part of my Jewish cultural heritage.  

I saw the cultural link first hand while teaching a class on Jewish humor in Stetson University’s Continuing Education program.  I taught it three times. The first class was composed of almost all Jews.  They laughed from breakfast through bedtime.  The next group was about half filled with Jews.  The Christian portion sat there quietly and watched me; the Jews in the group couldn’t stop laughing and telling jokes.  

The third class was all Christian.  On the first day of class, midway through my opening monologue, I endured what performers call “flop sweat.”  That happens spontaneously when no one responds. The students just didn’t get the jokes.  In fact, they didn’t appreciate the humor at all.   

Pity.   Jewish humor has become an integral part of American humor.  The names of Jewish comedians who established and continue what is now known as American humor could fill an encyclopedia:  Jack Benny, George Burns, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Jack E. Leonard, Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Myron Cohen, Danny Kaye, Adam Sandler, Jerry Lewis and so many more.

Probably without knowing the sources, they simply built on a centuries-old tradition born in the Bible and developed under the cruelest of circumstances.  

To the surprise of many, the Bible is replete with humor.  A sainted teenager in the Middle Ages used to berate Christians for telling jokes because, he pointed out correctly, there’s no humor in the New Testament.  He was right.  That’s not true with the Jewish sacred text.

The humor is often sardonic, even sarcastic.  In Judges, for example, a judge, Ehud, rescues the Jews from a Canaanite oppressor by stabbing a heavy-set king.  The guards don’t respond despite the resulting smell, because, the text reads, they were used to the stench when the king used the toilet.  That won’t get anyone rolling in the aisle, but raises a wry smile.  So does Haman’s comeuppance versus Mordecai in the book of Esther.  There are also puns, plays on words and much more.

By itself, that did not allow Jewish humor to blossom.  Ghettoes were needed.  Isolated in a Christian world, Jews were forced to live in small communities or walled sections of towns.  There, powerless and impotent to fight back, they used the only weapon readily available – their wit.

They created the Polish joke – an entire imaginary city of Chelm populated by dimwits.  They turned the spring holiday of Purim into a time for skits and parodies, all new to the entertainment world.  They came up with the funny emcee, a role Berle perfected; the schnorrer, a man who tries to con everyone, like Phil Silvers; the schlemiel, the clumsy oaf, who invariably trips over the schlamazzel.  Think the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.  All of these concepts infused American culture in time.

Jewish humor traveled here on several currents.  One, of course, was the massive wave of Russian immigration that started around the 1880s.  Emma Lazarus’ famed poem on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your huddles masses yearning to breathe free” – was originally written to encourage Russian Jews to leave the shtetls of Russia for the United States.  (Note:  I am not related to Emma.)  The Russian Jews brought with them their finely honed humor.  The Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof, reflects some of those comedic ideas.  

Another avenue was theater.  Abraham Goldfarb, a Russian Jew, took advantage of a thaw in Russian anti-Semitic thinking in the mid-1800s to start a troupe of touring Jewish performers.  Jacob Adler became the most famous of the actors.  They moved eventually to England and then the United States, bringing their uncontrolled, ribald approach to the stage.  In the midst of a play, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, the cast might break into song or perform other hijinks.  

The concept traveled well in this country.  Singer Al Jolson, for example, became famous for continuing his performance after his allotted time and even inviting the audience to join him following the show.  He would tell them, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” and ignore the pleas of other acts to stop.  He was just following the pattern set by his Russian counterparts.  The Marx Brothers adlibs did that, too.

Finally, the American theater had Jewish stock characters, the Hebe.  Jews who saw the performers decided that if anyone was going to make fun of Jews, they were.  Jewish comedians began to flock to the stage.
Over time, Jewish humor imbued American humor with a robust, nonconventional current.  Their influence was so strong that the late comedian Buddy Hackett said he had to act Jewish to become successful in Hollywood.  And Buddy Hackett was Jewish.

The role Jewish humor has played in the United States is something worth celebrating, both for how it has added joy to our lives and for another reason that transcends comedy.  It serves as an almost daily reminder -- especially on t-shirts -- of the influence of foreign cultures and ideas on the growth and development of our country.  And that, thankfully, is no joke.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Religious Wars To Continue


The age of religious wars should have passed by now.  We should have gotten all over that in the Middle Ages when Catholics and Protestants attacked each other.  The 100 Years War depopulated Europe, for example.  It should have ended when Muslims took control of Istanbul and the remnants of the Roman Empire in 1453 and then unsuccessfully invaded Europe.  It should have disappeared after multiple massive wars between Muslims and Jews over Israel finally deteriorated into regular skirmishes after the 1973 stalemate.

Somehow, it hasn’t.  Nor will it ever.

The problem is inherent in the religions themselves.  It’s called monotheism.  By declaring there is only one God -- and only one “true” God – Christianity, Islam and Judaism guarantee a future filled with hate and bloodshed.

Each religion claims to follow the dictates of the lone God.  That God, called Yahweh, is a jealous God who will have “no other gods” before him, according to the Jewish religious text.  Christianity accepts that book, too, but its God is named Jesus.  Muslims, too, believe they follow the correct God, but his name is Allah.
Three Gods, all insisting on sole worship.

Moreover, both Christians and Muslims claim that their God is the only God and that other religions are not only unacceptable, but that their God demands they be eliminated.  They both believe that failure to believe in their God guarantees the deity will be angry and punish them.  

Jews, at least, set up a series of laws, based on the story of Noah, who lived prior to Abraham, the father of the religion.  The Bible calls him righteous, so early Jewish sages educed a handful of rules for non-Jews to be acceptable to God.  The Noahide laws include eating the proper food and believing in the Jewish God, but they are not onerous and were very widely followed throughout the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus.
Unfortunately, that idea never caught on with Islam or Christianity.

The antipathy between faiths has been building for more than 3,000 years.  Around the 1300s B.C.E., an Egyptian pharaoh named Amonhotep IV became increasing upset with the priests of Amon, who were dictating to him.  To counter them – and possibly because of sincere religious zeal – he changed to name to Ihknaton and declared the god Aton as the sole deity.

As a result, he is credited with creating monotheism.

His innovation had many benefits.  He swept away the entire hierarchy of priests, became the chief priest himself and wiped out all the mythology that dominated Egyptian life.  Henry VIII of England did much the same thing in the 1500s when he severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Anglican Church with himself at the head.

There’s only one major drawback.  If there’s only one God, who is at fault when something goes wrong?  Not God, who is perfect.  Therefore, mankind must have angered God.  That kind of thinking is why overenthusiastic religious and political figures insist God sent hurricanes or other natural disasters to “punish” sinful people.

After all, God is good; people are bad.  That concept is enshrined in Catholicism, which insists mankind has been sinful since the supposed first humans were exiled from the Garden of Eden.

Ihknaton’s belief did not survive him, but the monotheistic theory endured. Once humans swallowed such teaching, the path was set for collisions between competing and differing religious sects hell-bent to support their God.

As a result, the conflict between monotheistic faiths is not going to abate anytime soon.  It’s only going to get worse as pollution, overpopulation, climate change and more threaten human extinction and increase belief that God is punishing His respective followers for failing to convert others.

Soon enough, given the natural disasters rapidly encroaching on our lives, we may look back at the horrors of the religious wars of years ago with nostalgia at how meaningless they actually were.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.