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Writing in the Family

Boston Phoenix/Kelly Davidson photo
UMass professor Joseph Zaitchik began working on his recently published first novel decades ago as a young man. 

Boston Phoenix
By Alex Zaitchik

Once a year, Joseph Zaitchik tells his favorite joke.
He has been telling it for nearly five decades, always on the first day of his "Bible as Literature" class, which he has taught continuously at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell since the Johnson administration. It goes like this:

One day, the Absentminded Professor is smoking his pipe in his 10th-floor office. After years of internal debate he finally he summons the courage to quit smoking. "Damn pipe!" he shouts. "No more!" He leaps to his feet, tears the pipe out of his mouth, rushes to the upper-story window, and throws it outside.

Only, he forgets to let go . . .

Over chuckles and groans, Zaitchik explains the metaphor: fixed certainties, he says, are a lot like the Absentminded Professor's pipe — they can be hard to release when you most need to let them go.

Zaitchik — my grandfather — has never been one to cater to preconceived notions. For example, retirement. When he delivered his Absentminded Professor joke this September, he was 87 years old, among the oldest active professors in the history of the institution.

He's also become a first-time novelist. In November, a small press in Florida publishedThe Fitting — a project he began as a young man, and reworked many times throughout the course of a writer's life in which he produced 1940s pulp fiction, 1950s mystery stories, college humanities textbooks, and a Stanley Drama Award–winning 2004 play, Be Our Joys. ("They told me the competition was for aspiring playwrights, but my hearing is not so good, and I thought they said expiring playwrights," he says.)

The Fitting revolves around an elderly Russian Jewish tailor named Alex Shapiro who becomes drawn into the investigation of a university student's murder. Shapiro — like the author's immigrant rabbi father — likes to quote the Old Testament prophets.

"The main character quotes from the Bible not because he's a Jew," says my grandfather, who emigrated to Boston from Minsk as a boy in 1927, "but because he finds much in the Bible that casts light on human nature, our strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, achievements and failures, hopes and despairs."

I recently sat down with my grandfather at his home in Wayland to discuss his Russian-Jewish heritage, his new novel, and what the hell took him so long.

WAS THE PLOT OF THE NOVEL INFORMED BY YOUR DECADES AT LOWELL? IT DEALS HEAVILY WITH "TOWN-GOWN" TENSIONS AND RADICAL STUDENT GROUPS, AMONG OTHER ACADEMIC THEMES. I was chairman of the Student Affairs Committee during the turbulent '60s and '70s. I had to deal with conflicting perspectives and values of administration, faculty, and students. We never experienced the confrontations and violence of some of the larger universities, but we did have some close shaves: the president threatened to shut down the student newspaper, there were angry protests, and after Kent State final exams were cancelled and the college shut down. The committee spent many late and early hours with administrators and student leaders trying to keep the peace. Compared to many other colleges, we were fairly successful.

IS THE NOVEL'S PROTAGONIST BASED ON YOUR OLDER BROTHER YANKEL, WHO CAME TO BOSTON IN 1991, MORE THAN 60 YEARS AFTER YOU? My older brother Yankel fought at Stalingrad, came to the United States after the implosion of the Soviet Union, and like the novel's Alex Shapiro, had no love for Stalinist Communism, and he worked hard to make a living, but there the resemblance ends. Yankel was not an intellectual and would not be quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marcus Aurelius.

DESPITE HIS YEARS IN THE US, SHAPIRO LOOKS AT THIS COUNTRY AS IF FROM ACROSS A GULF. WHY IS HE SO REPELLED BY THE NARCISSISM HE SEES ALL AROUND HIM? As the main character Alex sees it, the major problem with narcissism is not that you're wasting a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror, but that your self-absorption empties you of any empathy that you may possess as a human being. In one scene, Alex and another character come up with a fairly long list of "false gods," many of them arising from a culture that seems obsessed with gastronomy, fashion, loveless sex, entertainment, and general self-adulation. When you're carrying all that inside you, you have no room for any concern for the needs of others. Unfortunately, too often, we fail to distinguish between self-esteem and self-absorption, and our individualism leads to narcissism.

YOU SAY, "AS ALEX SEES IT." NOT YOU? Well, Alex and I agree on many things, but not all, and the intensity of our feelings may differ, because, obviously, we are living different lives. But since we are both octogenarians — like Alex, I prefer not to talk numbers, since it invites profiling — we share the same vantage point. But, as you know, there are five [points of view] in The Fitting — and obviously they all cannot possibly be speaking for me.

YOU'RE NOW ONE OF THE OLDEST ACTIVE PROFESSORS AT UMASS-LOWELL. WHY DO YOU ENJOY THE BIBLE CLASS SO MUCH? I still teach "The Bible as Literature," but it can't really be taught just as literature. It's religion, ethics, history, philosophy, culture. What I try to do in my classes is get young people from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from fundamentalist to atheist, to join, harmoniously, in appreciation of what may very well be the most influential book in human history, certainly in Western history.

YOU STARTED WORKING ON THE FITTING IN THE 1950S. DID YOU EVER THINK IT WOULD SEE PRINT JUST MONTHS BEFORE THE END OF THE MAYAN LONG-COUNT CALENDAR IN 2012? Way back, it was a short story, then an aborted novel. Many years later it was a play. It was a finalist in three competitions, but I was unable to get a production. Finally, after I semi-retired, I decided to make use of my free time to get the damn thing done! And so I spent almost a year, radically revising the entire work, pouring much of my heart and mind into it, until I was satisfied that I had written a novel that said what I wanted to say.

ANY ADVICE TO POTENTIAL UP-AND-COMING WRITERS WITH UNFINISHED OR ABANDONED MANUSCRIPTS? Advice to young writers: don't wait so long to up and come! Advice to old writers: so long as you're still around, you still have time to up and come!