David Hirshberg

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Jacobo's Rainbow

Post Publication Reviews:

JACOBO’S RAINBOW, DAVID HIRSHBERG’s second novel (it follows MY MOTHER’S SON) is, without a doubt, one of the best literary novels pertaining to the American Jewish experience that’s come along in quite a while. This book is creative, clever, and highly imaginative. It’s got everything you want in a good read: beautiful language, fascinating characters, and a riveting narrative that makes you not want to put it down. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls where you keep opening it up to find another one inside until the secrets are revealed and there’s no more mystery to be solved. 

This book takes you back to the 1960s (“the Sixties”), the turbulent decade of the Free Speech Movement, The Freedom Summer, and the Vietnam War. You find yourself dropped into this period with a parachute that lets you observe as if you were gently floating down without touching the ground. And there’s a lot to see: how the free speech movement defines what kind of speech is free; how anti-Semitism creeps into the landscape like a weed that can’t be expunged; how class, race, and religion are at the heart of people’s actions; how the original Americans are treated (non-spoiler alert: not well!); and how war can define alternative views on patriotism.  

Hirshberg is skilled at showing us how people aren’t necessarily what they appear to be at first glance. And he is like a magician who has you going for the feint, such that when one of the several reveals are made you don’t say, “Hey, I knew that was coming!”

Each of the characters’ speech and actions are true to what real-life people would say and do. That’s no mean feat, considering that there are Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, as well as an important native American character, student protest leaders, and a chief of police who’s having trouble with the new fault lines in American society. There is no exaggeration, caricature, or hyperbole. All characters — flaws and all — and scenes are true-to-life. What’s especially haunting is a chapter that takes place in Vietnam. You’ll get a feel for what it was really like, not some Rambo-type fantasy. And it wasn’t pretty, other than being pretty awful. One of your takeaways is likely to be that we haven’t learned our lessons. 

In addition to the jungles of Vietnam, the book’s settings include a remote isolated village west of the Rio Grande (it got me thinking about Brigadoon) and a fictitious university in New Mexico. The land (and the water) are prominent features, and they are reflected in the magnificent cover. 

As you get near the end, you realize that while Hirshberg is writing about the 1960s, in truth, he’s writing about today. He makes you think hard about what’s happening on college campuses nowadays in terms of how free speech is now defined and how anti-Semitism has come roaring back. And in writing about Vietnam, you get a feel as well for US involvement in 21st century foreign wars. 

Although the themes are serious, the book is exciting, and you feel as if you know and can identify with the lead characters. It’s provocative and fun at the same time. What could be better than that?—Howard Jay Smith, author of Meeting Mozart and Beethoven in Love, Opus 139.

 

Setting aside the Great Depression of the 1930s, there are two unforgettable decades that stand out in American consciousness over the past one hundred years: the Roaring twenties and the sixties—and if you’re left wondering what all the hubbub is about, you can’t do better than to check out some of the great books based on those periods: The Great Gatsby, say, or The Sun Also Rises; and for the sixties, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Helter-Skelter, and Slaughterhouse Five would be a nice start.

In Jacobo’s Rainbow, David Hirshberg is making a bid to join the short list of very special novels about the tumultuous sixties—a time of reckoning as the US finally began to confront systemic racism, poverty, its aggressive use of military force, and other societal ills. Today’s headlines betray a country still engaged in that reckoning fifty-plus years later.— Matt Sutherland, Editor-in-Chief, Foreword Reviews

 

A deftly crafted and inherently fascinating read from first page to last, "Jacobo's Rainbow" by David Hirshberg is an impressively scripted historical and literary novel that is set primarily in the nineteen sixties during the convulsive period of the student protest movements and the Vietnam War. Specially and unreservedly recommended for community, college and university library Historical Fiction and Literary Fiction collections. James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Midwest Book Review

 

In Jacobo’s Rain­bow, Hir­sh­berg presents a how-to guide for polit­i­cal unrest, art­ful­ly paint­ing a pic­ture of how caus­es take root and find their lead­ers, and depict­ing the pub­lic and pri­vate per­sonas of false prophets as well as the men­tal­i­ty of hang­ers-on and mobs. Anti­semitism is a major theme in the nov­el, which Jacobo becomes aware of from his Jew­ish friends’ sto­ries, which illus­trate the pre­car­i­ous­ness of Jews’ lives around the world.  Hir­sh­berg explores many oth­er themes, from the treat­ment of sol­diers return­ing from Viet­nam to the issues fac­ing Native Amer­i­cans. With a fast-mov­ing plot, well-drawn char­ac­ters, and an inspir­ing mes­sage, Hir­sh­berg has giv­en read­ers an engag­ing, thought­ful, and orig­i­nal story.—Renita Last, Jewish Book Council 

 

“If you remember the turbulent 1960s or if you are simply curious about its implications, issues, and characters, Jacobo’s Rainbow by David Hirshberg is a novel that you will want to read and ponder. There are multiple layers to the saga of Jacobo Toledano, who is an outsider in every way imaginable. From his involvement in The Free Speech Movement at his university, through his work as a medic in Vietnam, there is an undercurrent of Anti-Semitism throughout the book. Hirshberg takes us into Jacobo’s heart and head as he grapples with big questions of truth and lies and freedom and democracy. At every step of the way, Jacobo struggles with his own role in how to make the world better and how to bring about change. Hirshberg’s inventive fiction is set against the angst and turmoil of that tempestuous decade and yet its themes of the limits of free speech, the role and scope of government, and Anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, are as current as today’s news.” — M.F.A., Amazon 5 star review

"Idealism duped by intolerance masquerading as morality - book review of Jacobo's Rainbow.

Into the half-calculated chaos of a student protest, Jacobo follows a charismatic leader and “a girl with skin like a young western honey mesquite.”

Novelist David Hirshberg has chosen to take him in from an unusual, not fully modern community with origins even more exotic than the neighboring Navajos. “You couldn’t find it on a map, there were no records in the county archives, and we buried our dead without permits, up on a hill, from which you could see both the mountains to the west and the Rio Grande to the east.”

In his childhood, Jacobo hears myths from his father which involve ghastly medieval-sounding dangers and which end in rescue by a self-sacrificing humanoid called the Holyman.

After such a beginning, Jacobo’s Rainbow can count on the reader to accept some more mildly farfetched ideas such as a secret passage into the basement of a university building that the student protesters have taken over. The invaded building belongs to the University of Taos, near New Mexico’s border with Colorado.

Hirshberg’s name is a pseudonym but the publisher’s own publicity on the web doesn’t conceal his real name. He was in college during the Johnson administration in America, and sets Jacobo’s Rainbow during those years; as an alumnus of similar age, I can confirm that Jacobo’s point of view – as a new kid among the college radicals – is authentic.

Like the protagonist of Hirshberg’s debut novel, My Mother’s Son, Jacobo is involved in the action as a kind of junior participant, an apprentice or protégé. He is not uncritically committed, and a firm-armed friend named Herzl shares his reservations.

What do the rebelling students really want? “Thinking back on it now,” says Jacobo, “this might’ve been the first time I’d experienced a situation in which I had to evaluate someone’s motives as opposed to simply accepting their actions at face value. I was on that cusp between childhood and adulthood.”

The leading student activists are a firebrand named Myles and his mutually abusive girlfriend Claudia. Also present for the seizure of the university building is Mir, the honey-skinned girl, along with Jacobo, who – like his biblical namesake – is a dreamer.

The other followers are less of a vivid presence in the book, so that on the one hand telling the characters apart isn’t too difficult, but on the other hand the realism surrenders a bit to a dreamlike selectivity of focus.

The novel’s dialogue too could be described as dreamlike, as a way of excusing occasional words or constructions that aren’t normally heard from real people in real life. For example, there’s Herzl describing Fridays at the school cafeteria of his youth: “‘If you can believe it, these guys took out their antipathy toward fish on me,’ he said. ‘And recess was something to be feared, as they’d wait for me and pummel me with food and fists.’”

And after Jacobo leaves college, the way the narrative jumps months into the future, ignoring much that must have happened along the way, is as quick and smooth as a dreamer’s change of scene.

At that point, Jacobo meets another ally and his name is Hank. Hank seems to complete a trio of protectors for Jacobo, following the mythical Holyman and the formidable companion Herzl.

Herzl’s name goes unexplained for a while, but once the novel has made some progress in capturing the reader, explanations emerge and so does a heartfelt element of the novelist’s agenda. Jacobo discovers that he knows more Jews than he realizes. Why hadn’t he recognized that “Ben Venisti” means “the son of Venisti”? (Well, it doesn’t. Maybe that’s Jacobo’s mistake but I wish I could be sure it isn’t the author’s.) And Hirshberg draws a bold line connecting the Free Speech movement on the college campuses of the 1960s with communism and antisemitism.

Clearly, the reader is meant to see today’s campuses and today’s political intersectionality reflected, if not rooted, in the ‘60s, with Herzl’s girlfriend Mir complaining that “an antisemite can hide behind the curtain of anti-Zionism and not be accused of being a bigot.” Mir suffers from cancel culture, not yet known by that name, as a news report she has submitted to a local paper about goonish anti-war demonstrators is spiked.

The politically motivated squelching of the news report is all the more painful because previously Mir’s coverage of the student uprising at the University of Taos had been snapped up by Life magazine. 

By reminding us that well-intentioned idealists were sometimes duped half a century ago by intolerance masquerading as high morality, it warns us that similar intolerance is once more entrapping the college kids."— Mark Levenson, Jerusalem Post

 

Having published two literary novels, David Hirshberg is 2/3 of the way to a trifecta. My Mother’s Son, his fine debut, took place in the nineteen fifties. He’s followed with the raucous, thoughtful Jacobo’s Rainbow, a magic carpet ride to the sixties, when campus activism about free speech, voting rights, and Vietnam made headlines.

Through Hirshberg’s writing we travel behind the marches and protest signs for glimpses of how leaders can push followers over the edge, how flames of misogyny and anti-Semitism burn within a supposedly egalitarian movement, how free speech is defined by those who set the agenda, and how movements marginalize outsiders.

Hirshberg may be writing about an earlier time, but he’s describing our world today, where life is more complex than headlines and sound bites. He warns us to be careful about what we read and encourages us to shift our thinking as time provides perspective.

Hirshberg cleverly reveals secrets and builds excitement throughout the novel. A chapter that takes place in Vietnam is particularly impactful both for the story it tells and its long-lasting impact on characters and readers alike.

This reader is already looking forward to the author’s next effort!— Jeff Wallach, author of Mr. Wizard

 

David Hirshberg has moved from Boston in the ‘50’s and resettled, a decade later, in New Mexico. And, again, has created a tale, unconstrained by time or geography, with insight and compassion. In Jacobo’s Rainbow the commentary is both personal and societal as we follow Jacobo Toledano through the turmoil of the 60’s at home and abroad. War, intolerance, religious discrimination and ethnic biases are juxtaposed with personal honor, social activism, empathy and pride in one’s heritage. As in My Mother’s Son, in which Hirshberg’s attention to detail made that story seem autobiographical, this same facility seemed to insert him directly into the narrative, not only as a perceptive and sensitive onlooker, astutely recognizing and conveying the humanity of his characters, but also as a participant endowing those characters with values we celebrate. The fluidity of the transitions from events current to that time, to the history of a people from time immemorial, creates seamless layers of plot and character development which culminate as the final chapter closes. Once more, we are left with a lasting image, implied in the book’s title, but not revealed until the story ends. From red to indigo Jacobo's Rainbow is a joy to read.— A.E., Amazon 5 star review

 

“…the book is riveting, and about half way through the story is a credo — a statement of faith recited every Saturday night chronicling the journey of this community and, in a sense, of the Jewish people as a whole — which I found extremely moving. Mr. Hirshberg … is an extremely imaginative and talented writer. His first novel, My Mother’s Son, which I reviewed in 2018 on these pages, was equally well written and satisfying.”— Aaron Leibel, Washington Jewish Week

 

Reading Jacobo’s Rainbow, I was amazed and delighted as I had been by Hirshberg’s first novel, My Mother’s Son, by his ability to create a completely believable imaginary universe. Most of the novel takes place in the 1960s at the University of Taos, which we all know never existed. We quickly forget that, overwhelmed as we are by the accumulation of realistic, plausible details. (I was often tempted to Google the University of Taos just to be sure that it was purely a product of Hirshberg’s imagination.) And, as with My Mother’s Son, I found myself reluctant to put the novel down, both because of its delightful pace and readability, and because he continually drops clues that will eventually help us understand the novel’s mysteries.

I highly recommend Jacobo’s Rainbow, a totally enjoyable, moving, and masterful work of literary fiction.—Paul J. Schwartz, author of The Rosendale Suite

 

Jacobo’s Rainbow is a fictional memoir that reads true to life with its elegant prose and historical detail! Like a masterpiece on display, this story is rich with layers waiting for the reader to pull them back to reveal hidden truths…Jacobo’s Rainbow resonates with authenticity that captivates readers from page one!—Tricia Hill, IND’Tale Magazine

 

Pre-Publication Reviews:

A beautiful novel set in the past but perfectly, scarily, relevant to our current moment.—Gary Shteyngart, author of Lake Success

 

Jacobo’s Rainbow is a sweeping examination of the unique buckle in time that was the ‘Sixties,’ told from the perspective of the ultimate outsider—a young man who was born and raised in the tiny New Mexico town of Arroyo Grande, a town so isolated, it didn’t even legally exist. Jacobo’s journey takes him from that remote enclave to a college campus, where he becomes immersed in the Free Speech movement, and to the battlefields of Vietnam. His insights and observations about society, his peers, bigotry and anti-Semitism are both trenchant and currently relevant to the culture wars and threats to free speech we see on our college campuses and society at large today. Jacobo’s Rainbow is a deeply moving, sensitive, and profound novel—a definite must-read.—Marcia Clark, author of Blood Defense and Final Judgment

 

Blending together historical events and wonderfully imaginative settings, David Hirshberg explores the American Jewish experience in this evocative novel of self-discovery, belonging, and the complexities of identity.—Shulem Deen, author of All Who Go Do Not Return

 

Although set in the nineteen sixties, David Hirshberg’s Jacobo’s Rainbow is infused with prescient relevance today.  This hero’s journey shines a light on activism and protest on a college campus as well as the idea of patriotism and serving in the army.  Most profoundly, it depicts a search for identity as young Jacobo Toledano struggles with the blurry distinction between who people are and how they present themselves in public.  I loved this novel for its timeless message: that building a home of one’s own means leaving the safety of childhood and being resilient to the knocks the world hands you, true for an individual as well as a tribe.—Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg, author of The Nine and Eden

 

David Hirshberg propels the reader into the mix of the turbulent nineteen sixties, as if this novel was constructed from personal conversations between the characters and the author. They are all agents and witnesses of their times with intersecting ethnicities, religions, races, genders, languages, and ages. Characters in this captivating narrative hide, discover, and reveal their true inner selves as they interact with events and each other. This is a saga that drops bread crumbs for the discerning eye and gratifies the reader who recognizes them and revels in the aha moments when the pieces come together. Hirshberg is immensely skilled at conjuring plausible events that serve the narrative. He captures the essence of anti-Semitism experienced by Jews of different hues and origins. The author represents with imagined accuracy the experiences of young men and women caught up in the Free Speech movement and in the jungles of Vietnam.—Debbie Wohl-Isard, Editor, La Granada

 

In Jacobo’s Rainbow, as he did in My Mother’s Son, David Hirshberg explores that stunning moment when youth gives way to maturity—and uncovers the lasting effects of that profound transformation. The year is 1963, and Jacobo, who was born and raised in a sheltered, idyllic New Mexico village, enrolls in a university and quickly becomes embroiled in the turmoil and passion of that one-of-a-kind decade. As he begins to find his voice and take stock of his individuality, he also sees, in surprising fashion, how truly connected we all are. A highly original novel by an inspired chronicler of fact and fiction that reveals our darkest instincts while celebrating our innate humanity.—Barbara Josselsohn, author of The Lilac House and The Bluebell Girls

 

Jacobo’s Rainbow is a powerful, electrifying glimpse into the life of a young student advocating for the Free Speech Movement and protesting the Vietnam War. It’s a story about truth, loyalty, tradition, and the shortcomings of human perception, an all-too-often occurrence for those who haven’t yet experienced much of life. Hirshberg’s keenly nuanced characters will remain with the reader long after the last page.—Crystal King, author of The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow

Copyright 2021 David Hirshberg