By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 16, 2014
[This is the first post in a new series about the writing of The Lion's Gate. After today the series will run Mondays and Fridays. "Writing Wednesdays" returns in this space next week.]
I found out I was a Jew when I was thirteen. My Dad told me. I never knew until then. It was kind of a shock.
Two thoughts struck me at once:
1. If my parents have been keeping this knowledge a secret from me and my younger brother all this time, they must really be ashamed of being Jewish.
2. I myself, through thirteen years of regular-kid U.S. life, had acquired a helluva dose of anti-Jewish prejudice. In other words, I was prejudiced against myself.
I remember thinking, “Me Jewish? There must be some mistake.” I peered at my face in the bathroom mirror. Holy cow, I am Jewish! How could I have missed it all these years?
A week of shell shock and denial followed. When I emerged, I made a decision.
I decided I would get with the program.
If I’m a Jew, I’m gonna be a Jew.
I started going to temple. There was none in my hometown so I hitchhiked to the next town. My Mom and Dad refused to drive me.
The weird part was, the real Jews at the temple rejected me. To them I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. I was the new kid from the next town who couldn’t speak Hebrew, had never had a bar mitzvah, didn’t know what Hannukah was and, to boot, had a bad attitude about being Jewish.
After about two months I realized that this new regime wasn’t working. I reverted. I went back to being a regular American.
I know how crazy all this sounds, but, trust me, scenarios like this were not that unusual in the late 50s, the heyday of the Assimilation School of being Jewish in America. Being a Jew was a secret that some parents kept even from their children.
But back to me being a regular American. I still knew I was a Jew. I began casting around for role models. What Jews or Jewish images existed in the culture that I could relate to and be proud of?
Borscht Belt comedians? Molly Goldberg? The Holocaust? I didn’t even want to think about it.
I’m thirteen years old. I want Chuck Yeager. I want Audie Murphy. I want John Wayne.
When I began encountering anti-Semitism in my own life, my confusion deepened further. I just couldn’t get any purchase on the idea of being a Jew.
Then came June 1967.
The Six Day War.
Israel kicks ass on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
All of sudden the TV was wall-to-wall with images of Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, Jewish tank commanders. And they were major-league studs. My mind was blown. I thought, Now we’re talking! Finally: some Jews I can relate to.
ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE
by Forde, Steven
Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.
by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov
Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.
by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)
Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).
by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)
This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.
by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)
Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.
by Houston, Paul
My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”
by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)
A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.
by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)
Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.
by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)
The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.
by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.
Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.
This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.
by Lazenby, J.F.
Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.
by Cartledge, Paul
Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.
by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)
Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.
by Carey, Christopher
Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.