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Jacobo's Rainbow

Jacobo's Rainbow

by David Hirshberg


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Winner, Independent Press Award 2021 Literary Fiction

Jacobo's Rainbow is an historical literary novel set primarily in the nineteen sixties during the convulsive period of the student protest movements and the Vietnam War. It focuses on the issue of being an outsider the ‘other’ an altogether common circumstance that resonates with readers in today’s America. Written from a Jewish perspective, it speaks to universal truths that affect us all.

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of a transformative event in Jacobo’s life the day he is sent to jail he writes about what happened behind the scenes of the Free Speech Movement which provides the backdrop for a riveting story centered on his emergence into a world he never could have imagined. His recording of those earlier events is the proximate cause of his being arrested. Jacobo is allowed to leave jail under the condition of being drafted, engages in gruesome fighting in Vietnam, and returns to continue his work of chronicling America in the throes of significant societal changes.

Jacobo’s Rainbow is a story of triumph over adversity (hypocrisy, loss, lies, murder, concealment, prejudice) that is told with vivid descriptions, perceptive insights, humor and sensitivity, which enables the reader to identify with the characters who come to life in a realistic fashion to illustrate who we are, how we behave, and what causes us to change.

It can be read on three levels: (1) The story of what it was like to have lived through and been a participant in the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam War (‘The Sixties’); (2) A metaphor for what is going on college campuses today, in terms of the shutting down of speech and the rise of anti-Semitism; and (3) What life is like for the ‘outsider.’

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941493281
Publisher: Fig Tree Books LLC
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 417,762
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Hirshberg is the author of the debut novel My Mother’s Son that won eight awards after it was published in 2018, and has published two short stories—A Gift in 2018 and Tikkun Olam in 2020. Hirshberg is a New Yorker who holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

Until 1960, all of us in Arroyo Grande were ignorant of electricity and automobiles, were unaware of plastic, steel, or homogenization, hadn’t been exposed to vaccines, x-rays or Freud, weren’t acquainted with Shakespeare or Hemingway, had never listened to Gershwin or Mozart, couldn’t have imagined Les Demoiselles D’Avignon or Starry Night, didn’t know what JFK, DNA, SOS, IBM, CIA or RBI stood for, were uninformed of the existence of George or Booker T. Washington and assumed that England, France, Spain, and Portugal were still the most powerful nations on earth. We used sassafras roots as toothpaste, made paper from pulp and colored it with plant dyes, played the lute and the lyre, and used percussion instruments made from animal skins. And we never went to sleep without our parents saying, “Then all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid.”

This is what I wrote in 1962, word for word, as the beginning of the essay part of my application to be admitted to the University of Taos (commonly referred to as UT), close to the Colorado border. It came out of an assignment from a creative writing project in our remote, small school, in which we were asked to re-imagine our family’s history in the form of an introduction to a novel. The part about the vines and fig trees wasn’t fiction. That’s what my parents, Aarón and Raquel Toledano, and seven other families who together comprise the entire village of Arroyo Grande—the Ávilas, Córdobas, Pontevedres, Gironas, Alicantes, Lisboas and Firenzes—say each night as the kids are put to bed.

There was more than a kernel of truth at the heart of this fiction, so to disguise it, I resorted to hyperbole, which found favor with the admissions office, who published the essay along with my photo in the UT newspaper on the day I registered, as an illustration of achievement from a member of the incoming class. It caused a sensation, especially since it included a picture of me with a scruffy red and blond streaked beard, grey marble eyes, and wearing a colorful Navajo shawl.

Waiting on line, I heard an echo of a muted howl that was picked up by a few others around me. It became a chorus of soft bays that I figured was some sort of musical conversation, one of many things I was going to have to pick up on if I wanted to fit in seamlessly. Within a few minutes, they were interspersed with shorter yelps, the cacophony similar to the sounds of the red wolves I’d hear late at night when I slept outdoors in Arroyo Grande. After a bit, the student closest to me tapped me gently on the shoulder and said, “Lobo rojo, lobo rojo.”

Red wolf, red wolf. From then on, I was sometimes addressed as lobo rojo—unless someone turned out to be my friend, in which case he or she pronounced Jacobo with the J as H sound, Hacobo, the typical way in Spanish, notwithstanding the fact that it should’ve been said with a ‘ja’ sound, as in Jake.

Eight families had lived in Arroyo Grande in the west-central part of New Mexico since 1677, having arrived there after a five year sojourn that began in Constantinople and worked its way to Mexico. At the outset, they put down roots far from others, and only in 1867 when a Navajo Indian group set up camp a few miles away did they begin to assimilate. They thrived in the high altitude and benefited from the remoteness of their existence; the community had never been breached by plagues of war, disease or fear. Their seclusion contributed to their self-reliance, and was something that was handed down and practiced without aforethought. Food, water, clothing, shelter, entertainment and medicine were omnipresent. They’d opted to preserve a segregated way of life as a method of community survival. Initially interacting with the Navajos, and then later trading with settlers, ranchers, and prospectors who’d traveled down the Rio Grande, they gradually become acculturated into the American way of life by the nineteen thirties.

Not that they were fully integrated.

There were no telephones or electricity or paved roads. None of that was a hardship. Several ancient cars and trucks were used within the village (not that anyone had a driver’s license), there were no prohibitions against using modern conveniences such as battery-powered tools and radios, and we’d accumulated so many books that a library was built right off the central plaza. No one had a social security card, registered to vote, or served on juries. The truth is that Arroyo Grande legally didn’t exist. 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.

My father ran the general store, which was constructed at the easternmost part of the village nearest the road the WPA had built in 1936 in order to enable trucks and personnel carriers to have unfettered access to a new army base that was being built on the western side of the river, where the higher elevation would preclude flooding in the spring, when the heavy melt would flow south and cut off communities, sometimes for up to several weeks at a time.

The store was universally called The Trading Post, especially after Joseph Deschene, who was commonly referred to as Navajo Joe, opened an Indian boutique within it, where he sold blankets, other woolen goods, carved figurines, and silver jewelry to tourists, army personnel from the base, and then to new-age seekers who increasingly flocked to remote parts of New Mexico to align with nature and seek out those spirits that welcomed their embrace.

The arms that the founders of our village had brought with them hundreds of years earlier—unused muskets, lead balls, and knives of assorted lengths and shapes—testaments to the great victory of the community’s isolation, were prominently displayed in alcoves in the back, perched above the two massive fireplaces on the opposing side walls, and hung down from massive hand-hewed rafters that supported the ceilings.

My father enjoyed greeting customers in an effusive manner, finagling them to tell their stories to a perfect stranger. He was adept at using the anecdotes he’d just heard to then steer someone to an item that hadn’t been in consideration when the person had walked into the store.

Aarón Toledano was an imposing figure, the tallest person in Arroyo Grande. He moved with a grace that was uncommon for someone of his height. Although one would say his hair was red, it was more appropriately defined as reddish. If you looked at him straight on, you’d notice streaks of different red hues forming a rainbow-like impression that culminated in the bun that knotted it all together, a common style worn by many of the adult men. His beard was long and full, and his moustache hung down over his upper lip, concealing his smile, which had the unintended effect of some not being able to determine his mien, not a disadvantage when he acted as the unofficial leader of Arroyo Grande.

After dinner on Friday nights, my father would tell stories to me, my older sister Débora and my younger sister Nohemi. We’d sit, legs crossed, with our backs to the great fire, listening to him raise and lower his voice, watching him standing, walking around the room, hearing the wood crackling, seeing ashes floating in space, noticing shadows flickering in an otherwise darkened room. When the stories got too scary, Nohemi would crawl inside her blanket, roll to where she was touching my legs, and peek out, turtle-like, only when there was a pause for a transition from one scene to another. When she was really petrified, we’d hear a loud uuuuuuuuuum, uuuuuuuuuum and would see the blanket move up and down, side to side, which wouldn’t annoy anyone except the cat who’d settled in for a snooze in one of our laps.

The stories would all start out the same way: a group of three children, one boy and two girls, all related, would sneak out of their house at night, go into the woods and dig up dirt, clay, and loam, and fashion the materials into a person twice the size of a normal man. The giant creature would spring to life as they poured hot coals over it, then the children would throw water to cool the figure, and watch it form hair, eyes, fingernails, and toes. The children would stick twigs into the head and then blow air into the space when they pulled the twigs out, giving life to the creature—or Holyman—as my father called it. Then the children would reveal to the Holyman the terrible situation that they were in, and how the Holyman should seek revenge on those who’d harmed them. The stories always took place on a cold windy night filled with danger in the fields, woods, and alleys. The children would be pursued by pirates and wizards, then would be assaulted with words, and attacked with weapons. They’d be forced to admit crimes that they hadn’t committed, sins they weren’t guilty of, and made to believe that they’d never see their parents again or witness the sun to rise that very day.

Then–the Holyman to the rescue!

The creature who couldn’t talk, but who could see and hear, would materialize from the shadows and instantly spring into action, absorb taunts and insults, fend off musket balls, knives, and lances, retrieve those strapped to the rack, tied to the stake, shackled by chains attached to horses, or hoist up those who had their heads forced under water, in which case he’d breathe life back into the child, knowing that the very air that he blew would empty his own lungs, and cause his own death. In the end, he’d always die, without a sigh or trace of any emotion, and simply melt back into the earth to be recalled again, on another Friday night. Then we’d go to bed, to dream of the Holyman who’d always be there for us when we’d need him most.

The first time I decided to write and illustrate a story was after one of these Friday nights, when I did my best to recreate the evening in what would now be called the style of a graphic novel, but back then was simply referred to as a comic or funny book. I’d sketch a cell, in which I tried to capture both the imagination of what my father had been describing as well as the scene itself, with my sisters in rapt attention, or huddled under a blanket, or drinking some lemon-flavored water with a burék, a pastry filled with cheese and eggplant, a favorite late-night snack. By the time I was sixteen, I had a large notebook filled with these pages, so it was natural that I’d call upon this ability to compose and draw as part of the college application.

On the day I left Arroyo Grande for the UT, Navajo Joe handed me a going away gift. More colorful than what I had seen than anything that he’d displayed at The Trading Post, it was an intricately woven shawl with a large opening, through which I poked my head, spread my arms wide and pirouetted around so that everyone else could see the appreciation I felt and the honor I acknowledged. He motioned for me to accompany him and we walked down to the water’s edge.

We could see unusually far up and downstream, past a sharp bend in the shoreline, cinched at the tip by a large rock promontory jutting out into the river like an exclamation point, as if to indicate the presence of the Navajo village directly up the hill to the west.

He pointed to a ring of large stones that appeared to be a map of the constellations we’d see in the wintertime. He didn’t say anything, just moved his head slowly around the stones, nodding, encouraging me to do the same, silently leading me to take it in, to understand the simplicity of the representation. I can’t say I understood what it all meant at the time, but later, on a return trip, it served as a beacon to two bedraggled, wearied young men who were just learning about the circle of life.

At the bottom of the hill, the land leveled out as if in a gesture to enable the Rio Grande to change course without offering resistance, a symbiosis of land and water that reflected the ageless history of time. I stood there, mute, absorbing the sights and smells, a minute that was both singular and intimate. A few minutes later, it was time to say goodbye. I hugged him, making sure I didn’t catch either his long black hair that was twisted into a braid that went half-way down his back, or the pendant that he wore around his neck—a five pointed metallic object in the shape of a star—that could cause you to blink if it caught the sun just so.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

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

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

“…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

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

“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

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

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

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