M.A., California School of Professional Psychology
M.A., Georgetown University
B.A., Marlboro College
My latest book, The Nazi Seance (visit www.naziseance.com)—a biography of Erik Jan Hanussen, "Hitler's Jewish clairvoyant"—is my third book about controversial and unsavory characters. Others with this theme include The Rabbi and The Hit Man , the true story of a New Jersey rabbi who was given life imprisonment for hiring two hit men to kill his wife; and Prophet of Rage , the first and still—more than a decade after it appeared—the only biography of the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan.
All these books have received their share of praise: Of The Nazi Seance, historian Roger Morehouse said, "An astonishing story, brilliantly told," and acclaimed nonfiction author Ron Rosenbaum observed, "Hanussen (and his relation to Hitler) is one of the strangest enigmas of the pre-war era. Arthur Magida has done a great service in illuminating the figure of mystery ... "
Prophet of Rage was commended for being "a key biography of perhaps the most flamboyant African American leader of our time" and offering a "perceptive, balanced, and vividly evocative ... " narrative, and The Rabbi and The Hit Man was saluted for its compelling, "measured," "stately" tone and "dense, yet tight pacing ... that reads like a top-notch crime novel."
While this has been reassuring and often flattering, I’m still trying to sort out why I’m drawn toward such nasty characters. Perhaps I’m living vicariously through them, a possibility which says little about me. Or maybe I hope that readers (and myself) can learn about our shortcomings as a species through them, a possibility that then elevates these misanthropes and scoundrels into cautionary tales for the rest of us.
Most likely, both these factors are at play: the vicarious appeal because I’ve long been fascinated with the margins of culture and society, and the moral lessons because religion and the difficulties and rigors of “right living” have always intrigued me, an instinct that led to two of my other books: Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage and How To Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies . For me, religion and faith are not sterile, staid, fixed or formulaic; they are part of a wrestling to find our place, not just in the world, but in ourselves. It’s a searching that we never complete, that we can’t complete: every moment is a journey; every word—indeed, every syllable and every letter that we write—is also part of that journey, a journey without end.
Writing forces me to confront my world and with myself. The writing I now do—longer-form nonfiction and essays—better reflects my mood and my interests than the journalism I practiced earlier in my career: objective news stories for newspapers in Pennsylvania, environmental reporting for National Journal in Washington and slightly more personal features, columns and op-eds as senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. I've also been a contributing correspondent to PBS's Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and freelance contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times, The Houston Chronicle, The (Baltimore) Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Conde Nast Traveler, The Jerusalem Report, and The Boston Globe, Geo, Islands and Historic Preservation magazines.
By sinking at length into characters and personalities, into specific locales and eras, into certain modes of thinking (or not-thinking), truths emerge or evasions from truths emerge or the coiled desperation of a life emerges: sometimes sad, sometimes tragic, but wholly human. In fact, it’s this troubled human-ness at the core of my work—a homicidal rabbi in New Jersey, an angry black man in Chicago, an ambitious clairvoyant in the early years of the Nazi regime—that illuminates the chaos at the center of life, a chaos that we ignore at our peril. Most of my hundreds of thousands of words that have been published are efforts to make sense of our world. I can’t say I’m any closer to that. But the adventure has been a hoot, and the words and the form they’ve taken have been a solace and a compass toward something approaching sanity.