My third novel, Kabbalah, was inspired by events in my life and my relationship to Aba Leiter, a close childhood friend. An elderly candy-store-owner in our neighborhood, Mr. Cua, was senselessly murdered by a kid from the neighborhood, and Aba, who had become a rabbi, was the killer’s chaplain in prison. I was haunted by this murder and eventually decided to write about it.
I hadn’t seen Aba for some time. I found out he was living in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where he was rabbi to a local congregation. I visited with him and his family and he told me about Mr. Cua’s killer and when I said I would like to have some sort of theological underpinning for the novel, he told me about Kabbalah, a mystical system of Jewish thought that attempts to define the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. One of the powerful ideas in Kabbalah is the notion that if one can save a single human it is as though you are saving the universe. I felt I could use that in my novel as my rabbi sets out to save his childhood friend, the man who has killed the candy-store-owner.
Aba’s father was Rabbi Zev Wolff Leiter, a noted Talmudic scholar, a gadol, one of the most revered rabbis of his generation. Aba had two older brothers and a sister. David, the brother immediately ahead of Aba, also became a rabbi. Aba’s sister, Debbie, had severe mental problems and for a while was befriended by my mother. Aba’s oldest brother was Saul who had begun training as a rabbi, but gave it up to pursue a career as a painter and photographer in New York. He became successful as a fashion photographer. I knew Debbie, of course, met David, but did not know Saul, who was eleven years older than Aba.
In my novel, I fictionalized the Leiter family. I used Saul’s worldliness as a contrast to the Aba character’s spiritual obsession. The novel was a roman noir where the rabbi and an anti-Semitic cop, both of whom went to high school with the candy-store-owner’s killer, are chasing after him, the rabbi to save him, the cop to destroy him.
Scattered through the novel are details of my life and my relationship to Aba and his family. The character of Aba’s oldest brother is entirely invented save for the fact that he had become a successful fashion photographer.
In all of my novels, plays, screenplays, I’ve used elements from my life and there’s a sense of discomfort about how the real people are going to relate to this. Sometimes I’d be surprised to run into someone who’d tell me how they’d recognized themselves and I hadn’t been thinking of them at all; usually when I’d actually used some element of a real person, they were flattered.
I never did find out what Aba felt about Kabbalah. I sent him copy of the book and never heard a word from him.
A few weeks ago, Aba’s oldest brother, the photographer Saul Leiter, died. I thought of my novel and the character that I had created for it. As I’ve said, I only knew that Saul Leiter was a successful fashion photographer. What I didn’t know and what I learned from his obituary in The New York Times and further delving was that Saul Leiter was not just a fashion photographer, but a great artist, perhaps the greatest photographer of our day, an artist of extraordinary vision and originality: some proclaimed him a genius. He was vastly different from the character I had created in Kabbalah.
I had a feeling of unease. I had never really known him, knew almost nothing about his life. He was a secondary character and I gave him only surface thought.
I hadn’t treated him well in Kabbalah and I feel guilt about that. Some years ago I ran into Melvin Sakolsky, a successful fashion photographer. He had read Kabbalah. “I recognized Saul Leiter,” he said. He hadn’t recognized the real Saul Leiter, but only the surface aspects of him. I suppose it’s rare for an author to try to correct a fiction, but I was so impressed by Saul Leiter’s real character that I feel a correction is warranted, a kind of addendum to my fiction. Here is his obituary in The New York Times.
Here is a wonderful article about the genius of Saul Leiter, followed by a video interview with him, interspersed with some of his photographs. Watch the video. Pictures will occur, then more video. It’s a wonderful video. The author of the article only makes one error: he says Saul was born in Philadelphia when of course he was born in Pittsburgh.
And here is Kabbalah, for anyone interested in the fictional Saul Leiter I created.