‘Tsuris ahead,” Steve Israel opens his debut novel, “The Global War on Morris” (Simon & Schuster). I’m not sure how many of his congressional colleagues in Washington would know the Yiddish word for troubles, but the meaning quickly becomes clear.
“Being in Congress under the best of circumstances is a world of tsuris,” the Long Island Democrat tells The Jewish Week. “In the post-9/11 environment it’s even more complex.”
The eponymous Morris Feldstein of Great Neck is really auf tsuris; he has serious troubles. A gentle-natured man who loves baseball and black-and-white movies, Feldstein prefers anonymity, and if he had a life philosophy it would be, “Don’t make waves.” He works as a pharmaceutical salesman, serves as second vice-president of his synagogue’s Men Club, and returns home daily, at the same time, for a dinner of take-out food procured by his wife Rona, wanting only to watch the Mets from his recliner. No one really notices Morris, until government agents wrongfully finger him as a terrorist, central to a plot to blow up a presidential debate.
Israel has served in the House of Representatives since 2001. He represents New York’s 3rd Congressional District, stretching from the Whitestone Bridge in Queens across the North Shore of Long Island, incorporating parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties. Earlier this week, he was in Manhattan to launch the book, and we met up in a café in Lower Manhattan. As we sat down, he spotted fellow Rep. Jerrold Nadler walking by — in his district, the 10th — and Israel’s aide went to catch up with him and invite him in. The two greeted each other like old friends and paid tribute to the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.
The idea for this novel was sparked by Israel’s experience in Congress: Once in 2006, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, military officials revealed that they had accidently spied on a group of elderly Quakers, mistaking these religious pacifists who were engaged in a peaceful protest for terrorists.
“At the end of the hearing,” the upbeat Israel says, “I had my story.” He began thinking about how plausible it was for an innocent person to get fingered as a public enemy, even with all the government’s sophisticated surveillance systems. That was when Morris Feldstein was born. The story evolved over the next few years, as other real events, including Israel’s visit to Guantanamo, made their way into the narrative.
“I’d sit in meetings and watch Bush and Cheney,” he said, “and I’d come out and write, describing the scenes.” He’d have to leave his cellphone in a cubicle outside the meeting rooms, but afterwards he’d use it to jot down impressions and details, without disclosing information discussed in these closed-door briefings. He actually wrote and edited the manuscript on his Blackberry and then on his iPhone, in the early mornings, between meetings and while traveling.
“The biggest challenge” on the committee,” he says, “was trying to find the balance between the real threat of terror in the world and our overreaction to that terror.”
“There’s nothing comedic about terror. I believe there are major threats out there, but there are moments in government that are funny.”
When asked about the source of his sense of humor, he says that he can’t say it was a family trait, but rather, “you have to have a sense of humor to survive in this environment,” referring to Congress.
And, Israel says, it’s Jewish humor. “There are two things you can do when you’re exposed to challenge: You can cry and crawl under a bed, or you can use humor. I chose humor.”
The congressman says that he could have written a non-fiction public policy book about terrorism, but that it’s more interesting and accessible when done as satire.
The novel is funny, fast-paced and cinematic, divided into short chapters with titles like “Monsoon over Miami,” “Nothing to Fear but Fear” and “The Safe House with Lox.” The trio of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and Dick Cheney make appearances, as does the sage Rabbi Hillel, along with an advanced secret supercomputer named NICK for whom “everyone was either suspicious or a suspect, a patriot or a Democrat.” The many security and intelligence task forces and agencies trip over each other in a major bureaucratic tangle.
As for the outgoing Rona, she realizes that she can’t change Morris, so she tries to change the world — she joins Hadassah’s social action committee, volunteers for local political campaigns, and makes friends everywhere. While her husband might be boring, she counts her blessings that Morris isn’t the kind of guy who would cheat on her. A marital misstep (his) results in their buying the Florida condominium she covets, and the narrative shifts from Great Neck to Boca.
Israel gets the Long Island accent and cadences just right — he grew up in Levittown, and indeed knows his constituents. Upon request, he does his imitation of Rona, asking for more caw-fee, complaining about the café’s services as she advises how she’d run the place. It’s Rona who’s a hero — she’s forgiving and ultimately becomes the therapist to a group of Arab alleged terrorists.
The author raises another idea that drove the plot — his own love of America, which makes him think that people who come here with dark motives might also fall in love with the idea of democracy.
Israel says that he always wanted to be a writer, a public official and to play for the Mets. (Two out of three isn’t bad.) His interest in political life was awakened in fourth grade, when the principal announced that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot. In the mid-’90s, he took a fiction-writing course at NYU and flourished.
Before serving in Congress, Israel served on the Huntington, L.I. town board and founded the American Jewish Congress office in Suffolk County. He edited two books, “Great Jewish Speeches Throughout History” and “Charge! History’s Greatest Military Speeches,” and has written satire for The New Yorker. Now, he is writing a column for The Huffington Post, “Kings of the Hill,” sharing humorous insider accounts of Congress.
“The Global War on Morris” is dedicated to “former vice president Dick Cheney. And to my Dad, who didn’t particularly care for him.” Israel speaks lovingly of his late father, a lifelong Democrat who closely followed his son’s career. The dedication doesn’t stop Israel from taking sharp aim at Cheney, noting that he looks more frightening in person than the way the caricatures portray him — and that they don’t capture the permanent sneer. He also pokes fun at a senator from New York who is “physiologically incapable of declining any request that involved a camera.”
Israel, who tries to travel to Israel at least once a year, was part of the first congressional visit to Israel last summer during the war. Looking ahead, he has come out strongly in support of Hillary Clinton for president and hopes that she’ll run. Back to his iPhone, he’s now working on a new novel, a parody having to do with gun control, set on Long Island.
He enjoys telling a story of how he and other Jewish representatives from New York, including former Congressman Gary Ackerman and Anthony Wiener, as well as Nadler, were engaged in conversation and started yelling and screaming at each other. “And all these members of Congress were looking at us and Gary stood up and said: ‘It’s OK, this is just how we talk.’”
Before leaving for a radio interview, he signs a copy of the novel with a message to all, “Here’s to a tsuris-free 2015.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Israel will be reading from and discussing “The Global War on Morris” on Sunday, Jan. 11, at 2 p.m., at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, 246 Old Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington Station, L.I.