Book Chat: The Archive Thief

By Hannah Lee

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department, where the guest was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-minded rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.  

Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back– some two or three in a day— to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.  He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College.  He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.

When Dr. Leff,  Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis.  However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives.  Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named. 

Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship.  Indeed, one librarian when asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they– the European institutions— can better pay for all the years of care and storage!  Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews.  So, do you think the end justifies the means?


On the Ladder of Success

By Hannah Lee

Not shy about generating controversy after she initiated the Chinese Tiger Mom storm, Amy Chua is back and she’s taking on other cultural groups.

The post-World War II generations have enjoyed a life in this country that has been robust economically, militarily, and culturally in its influence around the world.  As a Chinese immigrant to the United States and now a member of the Jewish faith, I’ve been an eyewitness to two cultural groups that been ascendant in their prominence.  Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School and a married couple, have written The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.  Most of the successful groups are immigrants who defy the new myth that mobility no longer exists.  The authors bring their thesis to bear on how America will fare in the 21st century.

The authors coined the term “The Triple Package” to cover the three traits that they posit are essential for group success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.  I am familiar with the Jewish concept of being “the Chosen People” (chosen for the challenge of a Biblically-scripted life) and the Chinese view of the world from its central place as The Middle Kingdom (better translated as Center of the World or Center of Civilization).  It was fascinating to learn that all other groups that have thrived in this country, including the Mormons, Cubans, and Nigerians, have their own stories of exceptionalism.  The shock of becoming an alien where no one acknowledges their heritage can focus their energy into proving themselves special and noteworthy.

The second trait essential to success is a sense of insecurity.  Immigrants who have been uprooted from their lands have this in spades.  Fear of survival pushes them to forge new paths to success.  The interesting aspect of Jewish insecurity is that this has persisted as Jews have prospered in this country.  The history of persecution has a strong hold on the Jewish psyche and the impetus for acquiring an education that cannot be taken away from a person, who may have to flee to a new home.

The third essential trait for success is impulse control.  Asian immigrants foster a discipline for hard work, in part because they do not subscribe to the concept of being gifted.  A person achieves success through diligence, not talent or high intelligence.  One Chinese woman is quoted in the book speaking about watching her father and brothers starve to death in Cambodia, so that the sacrifices for a good education are easy by comparison.

A chapter in the book looks at groups that do not have the Triple Package for various reasons.  An interesting psychological explanation was provided by a new finding of the famous marshmallow  study that Walter Mischel conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s wherein children who waited to eat a marshmallow were rewarded with a second one.  In 2012, researchers expanded upon the test wherein some of the children first had an encounter showing the adults to be unreliable, such as a promise of art supplies not being realized.  After this kind of encounter, the children all “failed” the marshmallow test, in that they gobbled up the first marshmallow instead of waiting for two.  They were responding rationally to the fact that the adults who had promised a second treat had proven to be untrustworthy.  Chua and Rubenfeld wrote, “If people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded— if they don’t think that people like them can really make it— they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.”  I have no prescription for counteracting parental or communal cynicism.

When the authors turn to an analysis of the United States, we read about a “chosen-people narrative rivaling the Old Testament”, an insecurity fostered by the European nations, and a Puritan work ethic.  (I found it interesting reading of the tension between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.)  Zooming through time, the authors then address the contemporary ills of American society where self-esteem has become the communal goal and self-gratification our mark.  Affluence has eroded our need for restraint.  What remains is the notion of American exceptionalism, that we’re still the greatest nation on earth.

The crux of Chua and Rubenfeld’s thesis is impulse control and this is accessible to all, regardless of family or cultural background.  Even talent and inspiration need to be bolstered with much hard work.  Whatever your definition of success, I find it noteworthy that the discipline acquired in one realm translates well into the rest of one’s life, whether it is through classical music training, Talmud study, or Mormons serving a religious mission in a country where one is not fluent.

The authors make the case for American superiority based on tolerance, opportunity, and equality.  We’re still the only nation that has a generous immigration policy.   I think this welcome is returned a hundredfold with the tremendous achievements of these earnest strivers.   I cannot endorse inculcating a superiority complex or an insecurity neurosis— neither do the authors–  but I can heartily approve of working hard towards our goals.

Ethnic Irony

By Hannah Lee

In our relatively enlightened times, it is the heedless individual who utters a blatant pejorative term, be it a racial, sexist, or any other challenging aspect of life.  We have sensitized ears and it is unseemly to appear prejudiced.  There is even an attempt to erase past grievances in the misguided campaign to replace the word, “nigger,” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although the climax of the story would be lost on the reader when the character of the black man, Jim, realizes that he’s been free all along.  Good teaching requires putting history and culture into context with all its flawed and malignant chronicles.

There is a companion shadow world of indirect slurs, in which terms are coined with the negative traits attributed to a particular ethnic group.  Amongst linguists, this usage is called “ironyms,” a compound word representing “lexicalized irony.”  Researching this sordid aspect of language development, I came across the fairly unfamiliar terms of Dutch courage (bravado under intoxication), Welsh rabbit (a cheese dish made without meat), and Irish twins (siblings born within the same year).   The more familiar ones in contemporary usage are notably all about monetary use: to gyp (cheat) someone, to welsh (renege) on a bet, and to jew someone down (bargain hard).  The terms incorporating Chinese— Chinese ace, Chinese anthem, Chinese cigarette, Chinese fire drill, Chinese handball, Chinese landing, Chinese puzzle, and Chinese whispers— all connote items or events that are confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand, according to the British usage of the adjective during World War I.

I have long known that Chinese checkers were not really Chinese, but I have since learned that it is a game developed in Germany, whose original name referred to its star-shaped game board.  When the Pressman company introduced it in the United States in 1928, they initially called it Hop-Ching checkers, later settling on Chinese checkers, presumably to refer to the erratic hopping allowed of the gaming pieces.  Other usages of ethnic terminology are maybe less benign, but you could be sure no Frenchman would call his fried potatoes, French fries, (derived from the presumed custom of poor French-speaking Belgians who served fried potatoes instead of fried fish when the rivers were frozen) nor would a Dane refer to the breakfast pastry as a Danish (in actuality, of Austrian origin).

As an immigrant to the United States, I did not encounter Chinese auctions until I came into the Orthodox Jewish community.  It seems to be a popular low-cost fundraiser amongst churches and synagogues.  Not Chinese and not even an auction, it is a lottery in which the bidder purchases tickets for specific prizes within different categories.  It has become my campaign to lobby against its usage, but by the time I hear of such events, the organizers have already spent money on the publicity and are loathe to change the wording.  It’s inconceivable to me that any organization would allow itself to be perceived as prejudiced these days.  Prejudice when it becomes commonplace is even more insidious, because well-meaning people become complicit.


Profile: Leket Israel

Just in time for the holiday of Shavuot with its agrarian setting and the message of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), I got to hear a presentation by Paul Leiba, the new Director of Development for Leket Israel.

Founded eight years ago by Joseph Gitler, Leket Israel combined two formerly small food-rescue organizations into an enterprise that now serves 55,000 clients daily.  Fully supported by private donations, it employs 80 people, operates nine trucks that do food runs by day from corporate kitchens, and deploys thousands of volunteers for the nightly runs for pick-up from catering halls and restaurants.  Their field-rescue missions help farmers by harvesting produce from the fields that the farmers cannot sell because the items do not conform to consumer expectations for color and size.  Because volunteers tire easily in the field, Leket Israel also employs 22 full-time pickers who are mostly Israeli Arab women.  Leket may well be the only graduation.  By dint of unusual circumstances as well as personal choice, my daughter left for college by herself with only two bags and she has never asked us to drive her to or back from Chicago.  She will be moving to her new apartment without our assistance.  Her father has given her money for her living expenses, but we have friends who told their children that they are on their own after college (or they could move back home).  I’m glad our daughter is motivated to being independent.

Babies thrive best when they have a safe and stable environment with nurturing caregivers.  We endow our children with the resources of our families.  They proceed to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms, drawing upon the family capital but also drawing on their own strengths and talents.

Immigrants are motivated for success by choosing to leave their families, their people, their land.  You could say that they are pre-selected for success.  However, as my Rabbi has noted, even individual hard work needs the benefit of siyatah d’shmayah (Heavenly assistance).  So, I am relieved to conclude thus: my refugees do need help while they are learning the language and mores of our culture (and more than the 180 days that HIAS is contracted to provide).  The Social Worker had cautioned me about not beguiling them with American generosity; however, she’s met refugees who came off the plane with so few possessions that they filled only two rice sacks!  So, I’ll try hard not to pamper them needlessly.  They will land on their feet and succeed, and I serve as their Advocate, the “angel” (if I could be so bold to say so) who could give them some assistance along the way.