JLife speaks to local writer, Paul Cohen about his latest novel, Tales of Freedom, a moving story of Jewish resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe ahead of its launch at Menorah Synagogue on 19th May and a presentation at Limmud on 30th June.
Tell us about yourself –you were born and raised here?
You hear right – I grew up in North Manchester and was at King David Primary School before going to William Hulme. I read English at Leeds University and developed my love of theatre, first kindled with the New Jewish Theatre Group when I was 11 years of age, by acting and directing university productions.
As I was finishing at Leeds, I won a scholarship to Vanderbilt University to study for a year and worked towards a Master of Arts in English. I returned to the UK wanting to be a director and thrashed about making contacts, but it was difficult. And then I began to write.
How did you begin your career as a writer?
One day, I started writing a play and it was given what is known as a staged reading at the Gate Theatre in London. Being a writer lodged in my mind as a life goal, and I still feel that way.
I wanted to explore writing beyond just plays and so chose a multidisciplinary writing programme at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I did not know how long I would be out there – the programme was for two years – but I ended up staying nearly 10.
What was it like living the LA lifestyle?
If I lived the LA lifestyle at all, it was by enjoying the constant sunshine, strolling on the boardwalk on Venice Beach, and occasionally meeting famous people. I interviewed Samuel L. Jackson and developed a career as a freelance theatre and film critic.
One of the greatest aspects of life in LA was an immersion in a vast and varied Jewish community. I was pretty involved in the community in a number of ways, most notably as one of the organisers of Makor, a once-a-month Shabbat dinner and discussion get-together on Friday night across a number of homes in Pico-Robertson, a neighbourhood “adjacent” (Jackie Mason was spot on making fun of that adjective) to Beverly Hills.
How did your return to Manchester come about?
My three-year visa was renewed once but couldn’t be renewed again, and despite an excellent lawyer, I couldnt get a new visa, even though I was gainfully employed. I left with great reluctance, although I always intended to return to the UK one day – but when I chose!
I ended up spending about seven years in London and met my lovely wife Deborah there, who was from Didsbury. When we went from one to three kids pretty quickly, we moved back north in 2007.
Tell us about your latest novel.
Although the Holocaust – I prefer the term Shoah, meaning calamity, rather than the connotations of sacrifice with the word Holocaust – is rightly memorialised in numerous books and films, I feel that the reality of Jewish resistance is less celebrated and far less known than it should be.
I wanted to write about two main things: the role of partisans in World War II and the Golem of Prague story (a tale that has proven to be compelling to all kinds of Jewish writers).
The golem was created by the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who is known by the acronym Maharal. The legend goes that the Maharal created the golem to patrol the streets of the ghetto at night and guard against any planting of dead children who would be used to frame the Jewish community for the blood libel – the charge that Jews use Christian blood for matzos at Passover.
I had always loved the golem story and wanted to bring it into the modern era, and in Tales of Freedom I have managed to do that.
Why do you feel its important to keep the history of the Jewish struggle alive?
Because the horrid phrase ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ may still resonate. Jews struggled heroically against the Nazis and their allies, and any gentiles who assisted them in any way were similarly heroic. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943 was not only a year earlier than the general Warsaw Uprising – it was the first civilian rebellion against the Nazis during the entire war.
In addition, there were many partisan groups who fought back, and I feel passionately that we must keep telling their stories.
Have you written other Jewish material?
Plenty. I have a one act play called The Tally, set in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which has been produced a few times in the US. Most notably, I won Moment magazines annual Short Fiction Awards for my tale Lecha Dodi. The judge was the renowned novelist Alice Hoffman, and in addition to prize money, I was flown to New York for the awards ceremony. That evening, I met Anita Diamant (The Red Tent) and Dara Horn (The World to Come).
Tales of Freedom is available now as an eBook and in paperback via Amazon