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

Food Chat: Just a Pinch

By Hannah Lee

When you might think of Jewish cooking in America, you might conjure the iconic Ashkenazic staples of gefilte fish and noodle kugel, but the earliest Jewish cooking in the Americas was Sephardic, said Emily August, Public Programs Manager, in her role as moderator for a program, “Just a Pinch: A Brief and Unofficial History of Jewish Cooking in America,” held on the 24th at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Jews immigrating from Brazil brought their taste for almond pudding and fish fried in oil, which became a favorite food of our third president Thomas Jefferson, citing Ronit Treatman’s article in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Drawing upon the food-themed artifacts from its museum collections, she proceeded to delight and enlighten the audience with the assistance of the dramatic reading talents of four people: Francine Berk, currently playing the role of Bubbie in The Stoop on Orchard Street; B.D. Boudreaux, director of and playing Old Man in The Stoop on Orchard Street; Siobhan Reardon, the President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; and restauranteur Audrey Claire Taichman, owner of Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill. Multilingual volunteers from the audience also participated in descriptive narration.

In 1889, Bloch Publishing Company, the oldest Jewish publishing firm in the United States, issued Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the Household. It encouraged accommodation to American life with recipes for Easter, oysters, and treyfe (sic).

In 1901, The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man’s Heart was published by the Milwaukee Settlement House and it became an important staple of the American kitchen for more than 50 years. In an interview before his death in 1985, the noted gourmet and author, James Beard, known as “The Father of American Gastronomy,” called this cookbook his personal favorite.  This cookbook was to serve as a guidebook for the new immigrants, to help them learn about middle-class American culture.

In 1914, the Hebrew Publishing Company issued the first Yiddish cookbook and it encouraged readers to adopt modern ways of cooking, moving from gefilte fish to American cuisine. It was printed with recipe instruction in both English and Yiddish, to avoid the language gap, so that the immigrant and first-generation members could cook together.

World War I brought the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act, to ensure an adequate supply of essential supplies to our soldiers and allies in Europe. The U.S. government printed and distributed pamphlets in diverse languages — such as Italian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish — to guide homemakers on healthy and delicious substitutions for wheat, meat, fats, and sugar. Among the tips were: one meatless meal a week and no second helpings. Herbert Hoover, then head of the Food Administration, set the moral tone with his slogan, “Food will win the war.  Don’t waste it.”

The Catskills grew in prominence as a vacation spot for middle class Jews, after the Grossinger family purchased its 100-acre estate in Ferndale, New York. Several postcards from these resorts and summer camp were read aloud by audience members: they all highlighted the food, whether delicious, as from the former, and terrible, as from the latter.

Another major culinary milestone was the introduction of Crisco in 1911. Proctor & Gamble made a special effort to target the Jewish homemaker, touting its product as pareve, light, sweet-tasting, and shelf-stable. In 1933, they distributed the 77-page pamphlet, Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife, printed in Yiddish and English.  The product, ranging from a 1-lb to 9-lb cans, displayed a blue-and-white label.

As an antidote to the growing secularism of American Jews, the The Jewish Home Beautiful, published in 1941, was an attempt to preserve Jewish ritual with Jewish tableaux (pictures of set tables). As an example of its attention to minute detail, the book recommends for Shavuot: serve two blintzes dusted with 10 lines of cinnamon, to represent the Ten Commandments.

In 1955, Gertrude Berg published The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook, written in the voice of her television persona. Its marketing success was a testament of the purchasing power of the Jewish viewer.

The next major culinary milestone was the formation of Hebrew National and its campaign to promote its frankfurters with the pamphlet 31 Ways to Make Hot Meals Out of Hot Dogs issued in 1955. Soon, its success lead other manufacturers to also appeal to the Jewish market. Planters issued Manna About Town in 1965 to promote its peanut oil. In it, “heirloom recipes…[are] lovingly laced with legend and lore.” Manischewitz introduced a Passover menu planner cookbook in 1963 (and its Passover Hagadah has become a fixture on the Jewish table). The editors knew their stuff and listed as the first ingredient for breakfast, prune juice.

Finally, Bon Appetit magazine featured the resurgence of the Jewish deli in its recent September issue. Its Editor-in-Chief, Adam Rapoport, in an interview in Haaretz, gave a fitting conclusion to this program: “If you find a good recipe, hold onto it, but share it with a friend.”

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2630/food-chat-just-a-pinch

Seeking an Inner Freedom

By Hannah Lee

On Shabbat, my Rabbi challenged our kehillah (congregation) to do more to observe Independence Day than march in a parade.  I love the Fourth of July, my second favorite American holiday after Thanksgiving.  My family invites our friends and neighbors to watch the neighborhood parade that passes in front of our home with us, but how else to celebrate?  Well, before writing this piece, I wrote a letter of thanks to President Obama and inserted it into the mailbox set up at the special exhibit on To Bigotry No Sanction, now at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

The most thrilling part of the exhibit was seeing that the famous phrase, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” was first coined by a Jew — Moses Seixas, in a letter on behalf of the Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, also known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.  (The Hebrew name sounds like a contemporary merge.)

George Washington, newly appointed as the first Chief Magistrate (the title was later changed to President) of the United States of America, echoed back the phrase in his reply, but with a more elegant turn from “to bigotry give no sanction.”  Seeing the original letters side by side as well as other letters that had been penned to Washington made me cognizant of how elegant and scholarly were Washington’s letters.  His reply to Seixas’s letter, which was full of blessings and also freely quoted from the Bible, was the most eloquent letter on display.

On Sunday, Professor Jacob Needleman was interviewed on NPR, and he spoke of our Founding Fathers who had a deeper, fuller meaning for “the pursuit of happiness,” than merely shopping to stimulate the economy.  Professor Needleman said that happiness meant to them a life of virtue.  My Rabbi would concur and say that true happiness means living in accordance with God’s will.  Then, Professor Needleman spoke about an “inner freedom,” one that allows us to maintain strength against popular but misguided ideas and trends, including shop-till-you-drop consumerism.  May we all find an inner freedom of integrity for ourselves and our family.  Happy Independence Day!

The To Bigotry No Sanction, exhibit will be on view at the National Museum of American Jewish History until September 30.  The museum, located at 101 South Independence Mall East, is closed on most Mondays.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2299/seeking-an-inner-freedom

Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

By Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  ”Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States.  Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2241/talkback-on-slaying-the-dragon