My dear old friend, editor, and publisher Allan Kornblum died Sunday after a battle with leukemia. He founded the now estimable Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, but back when Allan, with his huge frizzy “Isro” of a haircut, shifted from being a young poet in late 1960s New York City to being a publisher, his operation was only a letterpress in the basement of his farmhouse in Iowa City. It was powered by his love of poetry and typography and a personal credit card he was always willing to use to keep his labor of love afloat.
The original press was monikered Toothpaste Press, under whose strange dental colophon Allan published, in 1975, my book of young man’s longing lyrics, Not So Much Love of Flowers. Later, when he moved to Minneapolis in the mid-1980s and Toothpaste became Coffee House Press, he edited and published three of my novels: High Holiday Sutra, Club Revelation, and, most recently, The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air.
In the obits in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, Allan is being justly praised for being a leader of the small-press movement and, in particular, for publishing Japanese-American writers, such as Karen Tei Yamashita, and writers of Chinese-American, Cambodian-American and other lesser-heard ancestries.
It’s important to state that what was important to him was first and foremost good writing, words that moved him, and stories that took him to surprising places, not any kind of presentation of an ethnically or religiously segmented world.
Still, as the years went by, on more than one occasion I did begin to wonder whether I was Allan’s “Jewish” writer.
That’s why, I suppose, it falls to me to add words of praise not about his acumen, his love of printing history, and his light but astute touch as an editor, but just a few thoughts about Allan and the Jewish Question.
These observations derive from his few, but always amusing, autobiographical revelations that emerged in our talks over the years. Allan’s dad Seymour came out of, I believe, a strong Jewish lefty background, which was why, according to Allan, his dad for many years did Jewish communal work in Philadelphia and ultimately ran the city’s flagship Jewish community center.
Allan was very proud of his dad. When Seymour died, Allan wrote moving words about him that he spoke at the funeral; he sent them to me because he knew I was interested. I was especially tickled by his recollections of two of his siblings, sisters—twins, I believe—who remained in Philadelphia. Taking a page from their dad’s organizing book, they did not waver, according to Allan, in their commitment to left-wing politics; all their lives they did organizing work for socialist organizations. If memory serves—and it often doesn’t—that might have included in their spare time passing copies of the Daily World along with leaflets and brochures about the imminence of the revolution, publications that my mother always, to my irritable amusement, used to call “literature.” During one conversation decades ago, Allan lovingly, and not without a touch of radical amazement at how one’s siblings can turn out, characterized his sisters as “the Stalinist twins.”
So Allan’s relationship to Judaism was all social justice and very little religion or ritual. However, in recent years, and especially after he received a leukemia diagnosis, we would stay in touch, especially at High Holiday time.
I would “shanah tovah” him and he would see my “shanah tovah” and raise it. We of course talked about our children, and Allan was particularly proud of one of his daughters who was majoring in Chinese in college. We talked about our wives, who are not Jewish, in part because I think he loved the idea both of where he came from, his Jewish roots, and how they also had given him a passport stamped with “tikkun olam,” that freed him to travel to new places, things, ideas, people.
Allan had a quiet deliberateness of speech that often ended in an infectious laugh, as if to say, Isn’t this just amazing! I think that in the best sense, he never got over the initial crazy joy of being married to Cinda, whom he often referred to as “an Iowa farm girl,” even long after they left Iowa and there was no farm in sight.
Toward the end of his life Allan sent me drafts of the initial chapters of a memoir about his own history interwoven with a history of printing. I’m sure I was not the only recipient, but I was touched, especially by the personal revelations that came through. My editorial advice to the editor was to put in as many of those as he could, like the thrill of his initial discoveries of the feel of terrific paper, or the look of a sans-serif or some of the medieval fonts that he uncovered.
In 1997, I published my first novel with Coffee House, High Holiday Sutra. It takes the form of a Yom Kippur sermon first-person-narrated by an emotionally lost rabbi named Jonah Grief. It’s in four chapters, just like the biblical Book of Jonah on which our hero frequently riffs, when not opining about how his small congregation is just not adjusting well to how he’s fallen in love with a Buddhist woman. I mean, What is their problem?
Allan took great care with, and delight in, the book’s design, especially in locating a font that was just perfect, and in creating enough leading between the lines and generous margins. The result: the book is like an ancient scroll, with each of the four long chapters headed by an imposing Hebrew aleph, bet, gimmel, and daled. No writer could have been more pleased than I with the final look of his labors.
I think Allan liked my books not because I was his one and only Jewish writer—there were other Jew-authored books in the 15 or so a year that Coffee House puts out, including, for example a memoir by Jack Marshall about growing up in a Syrian Jewish community in New York City. No, I think Allan liked the territory my fiction prowls—where different religious traditions collide, with the tension and humor that result—because it was his territory as well.
We had—or I did anyway—a touch of bad feeling or disappointment when I sent him the manuscript I lately have been working on. I’m now calling it Soul Catchers, but when I sent the manuscript to Allan, it was called Love, Death, and the Cheeseburger. It’s the story of the collision of Judaism and Mormonism, a story of two brothers, one a Jewish Theological Seminary drop-out and the other a reformed pothead and now would-be convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who go to emotional war about the whereabouts and disposition of their recently deceased dad’s soul.
Allan didn’t like the draft I sent him, and his response to me was, unusually, hard. He said there was, er, too much soul-searching, and no action for 200 pages, and that maybe I should just bag the whole project. Instead, he wrote, why not do some non-fiction, like a personal history of the Jews or some such, perhaps something akin to his personal history and the history of printing.
I was irritated, and I was certain he was wrong. Moreover, I told myself, maybe my manuscript had reached Allan when he was on the wrong side of the debilitating peaks and valleys that accompany the rigorous chemotherapy and other treatments he was undergoing.
Of course, Allan was not wrong. And I want the world and especially you, Allan, to know that I’m still working on it. It’s not easy, and, as you know, it’s all in the careful editing.
Please let me know, as soon as you are settled, where I can send you the re-write.
Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard.
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