In Praise of Historicals

By Hannah Lee

Much of what I know about the world comes from reading historical novels. Beyond the wars and the political intrigues, these books bring to life the daily struggles of their characters. The best ones portray memorable characters, but this article is about their ability to shed light on little-known aspects of history.

One such book is the new Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, in which the emancipated black workers of a Southern sugar plantation await the arrival of Chinese farm workers. The able-bodied have left for a new life in the North, so the only ones left are the elderly, the fearful, and the orphaned 10-year-old Sugar, who hates her given name. The Chinese men are young and strong, but the major difference is that they chose to come, to escape famine back home.

The fictive angle is the rapprochement initiated by Sugar between the blacks and the Chinese, creating a community of neighbors who shared their skills in healing and cooking. They swapped stories of Br’er Rabbit, and of the 12 animals named by the Jade Emperor to the Chinese zodiac. This is a finely written book, with realistically drawn characters.

The book taught me a new aspect of Chinese history. What was extra special was that the author learned about it from a scholarly book written by a Jew, Lucy M. Cohen, titled Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without History. (That closed the cultural triangle for me.)

Another fascinating book is The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden by Robert J. Avrech, who is better known for his screenplays for the films “Body Double,” “A Stranger Among Us,” and the Emmy award-winning young adult film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” The book has a cast of familiar real characters, such as the Apache chiefs, Geronimo and Victorio, and the outlaw Doc Holliday, but it also introduced me to Lozen, Victorio’s younger sister who was respected as a fighter, medicine woman, and midwife. She sat on war councils, and chose not to marry, which was unusual for an Apache maiden.

The hero of the book is Ariel, who is about to mark his Bar Mitzvah, as his family is making their way across the United States after fleeing from one of the pogroms that terrorized the Jews of Russia. Ariel and his family are fictive, but they represent the thousands of Jews who sought freedom in the western expansion of the United States. Especially pleasurable for me were the gems of wisdom from the Talmud and Torah, that Ariel had learned from his father, who had semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the great Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik, also known as the Brisker Rav.

Just as the present day Dalai Lama learned from the Jewish exodus and diaspora, Lozen learned from Ariel that it is difficult for a tribe of people to survive without a written language:

The elders of our tribe realized that unless our laws were written down, there was the danger that the ways of our people would be forgotten. They understood that for a small tribe to survive among larger and more powerful tribes, the Jews had to build a fence — an invisible fence — around the tribe. This fence was made of words and ideas.

Finally, it was a rare delight to read about a family who observes traditional Jewish rituals even in the difficult terrain of frontier life. As a Hollywood professional, Avrech has written a gripping tale, with cliffhangers that lure the reader to continue. Sadly, the book is dedicated to the memory of his son, Ariel Chaim.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3485/in-praise-of-historicals

 

 

Race and Children’s Literature

By Hannah Lee

Do you remember the joy of finding a book that reflected your life, your family? As an immigrant living on the Lower East Side, I learned about American ways through the Girl Scout manual, and was puzzled by the young adult stories of Beverly Cleary, who wrote about teenage boys who played football, and girls who rallied them with cheers in formation. By the time I became a mother, books about Asian-American families had become available, and I still happily collect them.

Back in the mid-20th century, book publishers were not interested in reaching a wider audience beyond the mainstream culture. Ezra Jack Keats was a pioneer, who convinced Viking Press to allow depiction of a black boy, Peter, in his 1962 book, The Snowy Day. He also broke new literary ground in portraying an urban setting and using collage to illustrate his text. The book won the 1963 Caldecott Award for “most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Born in 1916 to Polish Jewish immigrants, Keats grew up poor in East New York, Brooklyn. His father discouraged his interest in writing, while simultaneously supporting his talent with tubes of paint. Keats changed his name from Jack Ezra Katz in 1947 in reaction to the anti-semitism in the country

The reaction to The Snowy Day ranged from outrage that Keats was not himself black to gratitude for expanding the racial profile of the book world. The poet and leader of the “Harlem Renaissance,” Langston Hughes, praised it as “a perfectly charming little book.” The writer Sherman Alexie read it as a child on an Indian reservation in the 1970s and reminisced:

It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character — a character who resembled me physically and spiritually in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation.

This summer we are treated with overlapping exhibits in our city’s institutions, with The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats at the National Museum of American Jewish History, a retrospective collection of the work of Jerry Pinkney at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a companion exhibit on Pinkney’s body of work at the Free Library on Vine Street.

A native son of Germantown born in 1939, Pinkney struggled with dyslexia, but he soared through his talent in drawing. Whereas Keats’ black characters could have been anybody, Pinkey’s artwork explicitly incorporates African-American motifs. He won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his illustration of The Lion & the Mouse, a version of Aesop’s fable that he also wrote. He also has five Caldecott Honors, among other awards. One of my favorite of his works is of Goin’ Someplace Special, written by Patricia McKissack. Set in the late 1950s in Nashville, it is about a time and place where the library was one of the few places that disregarded the segregationist Jim Crow laws and treated blacks with respect.

Books may not lead social movements, but they have lasting impacts in supporting individuals who live outside the mainstream. You are no longer fringe when there are books that reflect your life.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3427/race-and-childrens-literature

Book Chat: Get Real, Get Married

By Hannah Lee

Aleeza Ben Shalom has always happily served as a networker or a “connector,” bringing together people whether it was about housing, cars or furniture. Her successful connections, made through her Shabbat hospitality at her family’s table and her volunteer work for the SawYouAtSinai dating website, have led her to launch her business, “Marriage Minded Mentor,” in February 2012. To date, she has brought 14 clients to the wedding chuppah and another eight are engaged.

Her 132-page book, Get Real Get Married, hit the stores on Tuesday. With clients from the observant community, her shortest match took four months from introduction to marriage (Those two really knew what they wanted!), while the longest match took about nine months. Her clients in the general public need more time.

Raised Conservative and formerly known as Lisa Caplan, Ben Shalom studied Jewish studies, children’s literature, and environmental studies at the University of Pittsburgh. While attending a retreat with IsraLight, a kiruv (outreach) organization founded by Rabbi David Aaron, she found both meaning and purpose in a life structured by Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Overnight, she began to observe Shabbat, swapped out her trendy wardrobe for modest clothing covering her collarbones, shoulders and elbows, and already a vegan, she started keeping kosher.

Also attending the same retreat was Gershom Ben Shalom, although they were both dating other people. They dated for three weeks, got engaged, and were wed in four months. This is not what she recommends for anyone else, but as her mother noted to her, “You’re not flaky, but this [rapid transformation] is flaky.” Her parents nonetheless supported her decision and they are delighted in their four grandchildren (and another on the way). The Ben-Shaloms have been married for 10 years.

Ben Shalom says a matchmaker has to work in three levels: in fact, in act, and intact. The first goal is the one that’s most familiar to us, but a successful matchmaker has to also walk the client through the process — “in act,” as well as support the client through the inevitable ups and downs of relationships — “intact,” to keep them together. Even after the wedding, she fields calls from former clients asking if some particular issue or conflict is typical to other marriages. She is even planning a sequel to be titled “Stay Real, Stay Married,” for a society where 50% of marriages end in divorce, as do 20% of Orthodox Jewish commitments.

Recently, Ben Shalom spoke at a non-Jewish event attended by women aged 18-65, and she saw that her message, that you have to be marriage-minded to get married and stay married, resonated with the audience. She realized that her message is universal: that marriage is a lifelong process of growth and connection.

She offers her clients a pithy lesson of one, five, and ten. One: you have to pick one goal to focus on. If marriage is your goal, then choose no more than five mentors to assist you. Who qualifies as a mentor? Ben Shalom advises to choose someone who has been married for more than five years and who has shown wisdom and a history of good decisions. Then, choose ten or fewer people to date until you pick your spouse. This directs dating in a healthier way, so that one thinks carefully about whether a person is worthy of dating for marriage.

Older singles can be particularly fragile, but they usually hide their vulnerability: They present themselves as accomplished, financially stable, and able to live independently. How do we, who are not matchmakers, help these people?  ”Engage in open dialogue,” counsels Ben Shalom, “and ask what does the person need at that moment.” Check back each time, because the emotional terrain is very volatile and someone who’s ready to meet people one month may be exhausted emotionally the next one, so that person may wish to simply join your family for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal, with no expectations for a shidduch.

Successful clients are stable: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some clients have met with Ben Shalom’s refusal to arrange meetings during a period of transition. She also readily refers clients to other professionals for therapy, diet counseling, or personal organization (clutter management).

What does she think of speed dating (a phenomenon that’s not so popular in the Philadelphia area, where singles have the opportunity to sit and engage with each other individually in a focused, limited time — usually several minutes)? This may work for some people, but Ben Shalom finds it emotionally challenging, and it is not amongst her top techniques. She is more a proponent of “inspect what you expect,” and her clients do not go on blind dates without evaluating the particulars of a prospective date.

The dating scene in Philadelphia is unlike those of New York and Los Angeles, where there are so many singles, that they don’t feel the need to get married. “They are practicing to be single,” said Ben Shalom, “not practicing to get married.” Moreover, people tend to leave New York once they do get married for more affordable communities, in order to be able to raise children.

Are the rabbis doing enough for singles? The times are changing fast, so while individual rabbis may be helpful, they are not unified in their efforts. In earlier times, all Jews in any particular area knew each other, and so it was easier to facilitate with matches. In our times, Ben Shalom advocates the use of a “dating resume,” or dating profile. In addition to personal statistics and biographical data, she asks her clients to reflect on who they are and what they are looking for.

A crucial advice by Ben Shalom is not to look for what the mentors want instead of what you want, because that could lead to shaky relationships. As for highly-specific documented demands such as the dress size of the kallah (or mother-in-law!) or the color of the tablecloths, Ben Shalom asks, “are their head and heart in line? The color of the tablecloth may be a surrogate for family minhagim (customs), but is the person marriage-minded? Can he or she stay married?”

Ben Shalom hosts a weekly radio show at Jewish Talk Radio, and blogs at the Marriage Minded Mentor website.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3273/book-chat-get-real-get-married

Book Chat: Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace

By Hannah Lee

Judging from the titles in the general and academic press, you would surmise that American Jewish women were not active in the biggest social movements of the 20th century. And you would be wrong. The paucity of scholarship in this area led Melissa Klapper, a historian at Rowan University, to a six-year odyssey that culminated with her latest book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 which highlights the role of American Jewish women in three social movements for suffrage, birth control, and peace.

The women’s rights movement was launched at a convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. It was held in a church, and no Jewish women were in attendance. (There were only about 50,000 Jews — 0.22% of the total population — in the United States at the time.) In fact, there had been tremendous anti-Semitism in the early years of the movement. After Colorado gave women the vote in 1893, women became newly energized. Then, the American Jewish community itself expanded, with immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe that were already politicized with experience in the labor Bund political party, Zionism, or social reform.

The National Council of Jewish Women never did take an official stance on women’s suffrage, but most of its members were in support. One prominent Jewish activist was Maud Nathan, who leveraged her fluency in French and German to serve as translator in international conferences. She helped spread the movement by writing articles and the lecture circuit, with 10-12 engagements a week. However, her sister, Annie Nathan Meyer, was a vocal anti-suffragist, which may be surprising considering that she founded Barnard College.

The successes of suffrage depended in part on votes of Jewish men, but anti-Semitism re-surfaced with the defeats in referenda in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts in 1915. Jews realized that they couldn’t change the movement. Jewish women also lobbied for increased power in the Jewish community and synagogues. After 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s vote was ratified, synagogues across the spectrum opened their boards to women.

With the achievement of the women’s vote, some women were looking for another social cause. They found it in the nascent birth-control movement. Margaret Sanger, a Catholic whose first husband was a Jew, opened the first birth-control clinic in 1916 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which had a huge immigrant population of Italians and Eastern Europeans. These women did not care about religious prohibitions; they wanted control over the size of their families. The reality of childbirth in the early 20th century was grim: 20% of the children died before the age of five, and 1% of live births caused a maternal death.

The women lined up for blocks near Sanger’s clinic, waiting with their baby carriages. Before the clinic was closed — after ten days — because of federal laws on “obscenity”, the women left with contraceptives and knowledge to pass onto their sisters and neighbors.

Sanger had left for the Netherlands, where birth control was legal, and the next clinic would not appear in the United States until 1923. Jewish women were early adopters across the classes; their birthrate dropped by 2.8 children per woman in 30 years. Jewish women were also distributers of birth control as clinic staff and physicians. Dr. Klapper attributed this to the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as well as to the prevailing anti-Semitism, when qualified Jews often found it hard to obtain employment. Jewish women were also activists across the class lines and at all levels of involvement.

All major rabbinical groups discussed birth control. The first and most influential opinion published was issued by the Reform movement: Rabbi Jacob Lauterbach, who’d studied in a traditional yeshiva in Berlin, whose scholarship on this subject — and allowance for contraceptives — was so rigorous that his opinion was accepted by the Conservative movement. Dr. Klapper showed Lauterbach’s writing to Orthodox rabbis during her research, and they confirmed to its validity. The Orthodox Union was pressured by the Catholic Church to condemn contraception, but it allowed congregants to consult their local rabbis. Before the 1930s, all press writings about contraceptives were in code, referring to “family well-being” or using words for the materials used in birth control.

The third social movement covered in the book was the peace movement, which initiated in the 19th century but did not grow strong until after World War I. As in any war, the first world war was devastating for Jewish communities. The international Jewish network that developed for the peace movement was later the model for the women’s peace movement. Jewish women were not naïve believers; they tried to arbitrate conflicts and worked for arms reduction. The League of Nations, which we now regard as a failed effort, was somewhat successful in the 1920s and 30s, particularly the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, with over 100 countries signed on to renounce the use of war and called for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The rise of Nazism in the 1930s posed a dilemma for the Jewish pacifists. How would the women respond? Some decided to fight the evil of Nazism, but some resolved to continue peace negotiations. In 1933, pacifists were amongst the first people rounded up by the Nazis in Germany. By the time World War II broke out, most Jewish groups had changed their position to against pacifism. Some women still couldn’t support the war efforts, such as volunteering for the Red Cross, and one woman, Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, moved to the Dominican Republic to help the Jewish refugees arriving to rural Sosúa.

The prevailing view of women’s activism is that it was dormant from 1920 to 1960. Dr. Klapper has shown with her meticulous scholarship that it was not so.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3227/book-chat-ballots-babies-and-banners-of-peace