Thursday, October 20, 2011

Recommended Reading V: Favorite Fiction

I’ve saved fiction for last, a few have been mentioned elsewhere in this series of entries so let me address those that haven't been mentioned previously.

For the Jewish experience in France, there is Sarah’s Key, a book that was recently released as a movie.  It details the gathering of the Jews at the Vel d’Hiv, prior to their deportation.  The story is told through the eyes of a ten year old girl as well as a modern day journalist.    In a prior incarnation the Vel d’Hiv served as the arena for bicycle races, a location that is fondly remembered by Hemingway for the races that he attended there.  I am struck by how such different associations can be attached to the same location at different points in time.  The book was not one of my favorites, but it did illuminate the French history of the Holocaust.  My visits to Paris will never be quite the same.

Also capturing the French experience, although not specifically Jewish, are the two books listed by Irene Nemirovsky.  Although raised as a Catholic, but born as a Russian Jew, the author died in a concentration camp.  A well-known author in her day, in Suite Francaise she writes of the Parisians fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans.   Years later her daughter goes through her papers and discovers this last novel which was ultimately published sixty years after her death.   Fire in the Blood was discovered soon after.

 I just finished the book Smuggled by Christina Shea which relates the story of a Hungarian Jew hidden as a child in Romania by her non-Jewish father’s sister.  The story follows her life after the war under Communist control and is an interesting view of life under Soviet constraints as well as after the fall of Soviet control.

Rashi’s Daughters is a series of books by Maggie Anton and tell the story of the daughters of the famous Talmudic scholar.  I found these quite fascinating from a historical standpoint as they highlight the life of women within the Ashkenazic Jewish culture and present it from a female perspective.   Rashi’s daughters were very unusual in that they studied the Talmud with their father who had no sons.  The Talmud and Talmudic arguments are interwoven into the text.  The stories take place in eleventh century France and the professional roles of Jews as Talmudic scholars and traders are well represented.  The author’s extensive historical research as well as many years of Talmud study enrich these stories.

On the theme of Yiddish there are two books I would recommend in addition to the non-fiction Outwitting History of which I previously wrote.  A few years ago I wrote about my discovery of Dara Horn’s writing.  My favorite book of hers is The World to Come which melds a true story of a heist of a Chagall painting with Yiddish literature and Jewish mysticism. Horn artfully weaves characters from modern day New Jersey with Russian Yiddish writers during the time of Stalin. It has a very magical quality and draws heavily on Yiddish literature. The author won the National Jewish Book Award for her first book and has a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature from Harvard.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau is a well written and fascinating book about a Yiddish poet and his life in Russia and as an immigrant in the US. The poet has written his life story, but his book is in Yiddish so he connects with a young man to help him translate it.  The young man is Catholic, as is the author, and like the author worked as a Yiddish archivist.  I was very intrigued by the author’s background as his prior book Vows is a memoir of growing up as the son of a former priest and nun.  The book felt very authentic in the manner in which it addressed Yiddish themes and I would highly recommend it.

In my opinion Geraldine Brooks has never written a book that didn’t warrant five stars. People of the Book is no exception.  Here she traces the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah through centuries of history and the people who preserved it.  A rare book expert is her modern day character who works to restore the Haggadah and learn its secrets.   This is both a historical novel and a modern day love story.

Finally on my list is the book Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  In this book the main character is doing a series of oral histories with both German and Jewish survivors.  The author did Shoah interviews for the Shoah Foundation so writes from her experience.  This current story is interwoven with her mother’s secret love affair with a Jew and her subsequent coercive relationship with a high ranking Nazi.  I’ve heard Blum speak and found her a very engaging speaker as well as a talented author.

With this post, I’ve concluded my discussion of the books that are listed on this blog, but hopefully not my discovery of new books of similar genre.  I welcome any recommendations from readers of books that I may have missed.

Stay tuned for posts on artwork from the Jewish Identity & Legacy project.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Search of Community

When I began to explore family history it had some unexpected consequences.  I began to develop a Jewish community.   As a non-religious Jew I had often developed friendships with others of Jewish heritage just because we shared a similar energy, but being Jewish was incidental to our friendship.  Suddenly my exploration of my own family history connected me with a genealogy community sharing an interest in Jewish heritage.  A number of my new friends have done adult Bat Mitzvahs as part of their exploration, moving from a cultural interest towards a religious one, but most importantly seeking out a broader Jewish community.   While I don’t see a Bat Mitzvah in my future, I did decide to explore a new direction during the High Holidays.

A new friend had shared with me her enthusiasm about her Jewish humanist community.  I decided to attend their High Holiday services as part of my exploration of Jewish identity.  As someone who has not attended a temple or synagogue regularly for many years, it was an interesting experience.  To my surprise, I found that I liked the sense of community and the thoughtful commentary by members.  I especially liked the involvement of young children.  Much of my adult life was lived without family around me and I used to think of religious bodies as focused on families rather than people like me.  Now I find I rather like the involvement of children as it speaks to legacy, passing traditions on to a new generation.  I also loved the music, singing familiar songs, but frequently with a twist in the words to accommodate a humanist orientation.  The cello and violin performances were a joy that alone would have made attending worthwhile.

Now humanist services are not quite what I’m accustomed to from my Reform Jewish upbringing.  God isn’t really a part of them.  Instead they focus on the human spirit and the recognition of the joys and challenges we face in being human.  At the same time, humanism isn’t so different from my early religious exposure.   I remember my rabbi leading a discussion in my confirmation class about whether God existed and if so in what form.  I rather liked that.  I like when everything is up for debate.  One of the reasons I identify with Judaism, at least the Reform variety, is it has no dogma.  The mere fact that we could have that debate sold me on the religion which is in large part a religion of debaters.  Jews challenge, they test, they question.  That may have begun as part of the religious culture, but it is also very much a part of Jewish identity, even without the religious underpinnings.

I believe religion is how we explain the unknown and I'm willing to live with the fact that I don't know.    And even as I say that, I also figure I can anthropomorphize God with the best of them and my version has a sense of humor, is often bemused by me, accepting of my foibles and gives me the benefit of the doubt, something we all could benefit from doing with those around us.  Perhaps the humanist version would say that represents me being kind to myself.

I noted that many couples in inter-faith marriages attended the services.  Not surprisingly couples who come together around shared values, despite different religious traditions, are likely to seek a community that  accommodates those values.

I find it a bit amusing that Jews have a humanistic group that isn’t God-centered.  I suppose it’s the Unitarian version with heritage.  Long ago in my prior marriage we were exploring different religious options and my then-husband was very interested in the Unitarians.  We went to a gathering and I came away thinking, nice community, not at odds with my beliefs and values, and yet I hesitated.  In trying to explain that hesitation I recall saying it seemed a bit bland to me.  I had a rich heritage that I didn’t want to give up. 

I haven’t yet come to a conclusion on whether a humanist gathering is the right one for me.  I liked many things about it, but part of me really missed the traditional Kaddish.  I’ve recited it at many grave sites in Eastern Europe where a humanist version just wouldn’t have felt right.  Part of honoring the ancestors is to do it in a way that would have felt familiar to them.

And yet… Jewish humanism has its place for those of us who value our culture, but are not religiously bound.   Even as a non-religious Jew, Jewish identity is intertwined with the person I am.  It relates to my social and political values, to my need to question and find my own path, and to the value I place on intellect, education and achievement.   Those are qualities that I value in myself and in others and any gathering that fosters those qualities is one to be celebrated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Making Knishes

It has been a while since I wrote about the artwork I’ve been doing for the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project, but I have been hard at work.  Several paintings are in various stages of completion.  As you will recall I had been working on a series of paintings based on the oral histories from Sholom Home, a Jewish elder facility. Interviewees represent Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors who came here after the war and those who grew up in early Jewish immigrant communities.

One of our interviews was with a woman who lived on the Iron Range, an area in Northern Minnesota where small Jewish communities have largely disappeared.  She had fond memories of Virginia, Minnesota which today has a population of around 9,000. 

I really liked living (there). We had a Hadassah, we had every organization the Jewish people have in the cities on a smaller scale and we made different affairs to raise money.  It was wonderful living there.

The synagogue has been turned into a community center as only two Jews remain.  Because the Jewish population was small there was much more interaction with their neighbors and she fondly remembers sharing traditions with her non-Jewish neighbors.

I never once met a person that I thought was anti-Semitic.  My friends in Virginia were some Gentiles and they had us for Christmas and I had them for Yom Kippur, I did.  They learned how to make knishes.  I taught them how to make knishes. I used to make bagels.  We were the best of friends.

 Minneapolis was known as a hotbed of anti-Semitism at that time, but she does not remember encountering it in her small town where the religious communities were well integrated.

I had little in the way of direct imagery from which to work so in this case I had to decide how to portray the intersection of cultures.  I decided to build on the idea of making knishes. 

To that end I viewed videos of women making knishes and decided to build an image of women’s hands in action, one of those gatherings of women engaged in a common activity that bridges differences.  Behind them is a Christmas tree to represent the sharing of cultures.  The painting is titled Making Knishes.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Question of Identity

Have you ever noticed that when you are tuned into something, you spot it everywhere? Perhaps you had a particular type of dog once upon a time and now you are always on the lookout for that breed.  Since the loss of a wire-haired terrier, I’ve been known to follow after people walking white dogs with jaunty tails just to pet the pup.  I’ve spotted wire-haired terriers all over the world.

As I’ve become interested in the question of identity it seems to pop up everywhere and there I am following behind.  I started this exploration with the oral history project Jewish Identity and Legacy, but am finding that many of the same issues cut across racial identity, gender identity and many other identities.  This week I attended a talk by Michelle Norris of NPR who has written a book called the Grace of Silence.  Originally this was to be a book focused on the emerging discussion about race after the Obama election.  Instead it took her into long buried family secrets and questions of identity and legacy.

I quickly read the book prior to her talk and would highly recommend it.   She talks about her family’s focus on outdoing the neighbors to counter black stereotypes, from keeping the nicest yard to being the first to get the snow shoveled.  I loved the impudence of her mother in the stories about neighbors selling their homes after they moved in.  When the real estate agent showed up with potential buyers she would send her children out to play, emphasizing the presence of a black family next-door.  She then delves into what wasn’t spoken about.  Her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer, her grandmother’s work as a traveling Aunt Jemima and the unease with burdening the next generation with this history.

At the talk she asked the question, how often do you think about your race?  Many non-whites at the event replied, “Every day”.  One woman said she didn’t think about it when she lived in New York, but upon moving to Minnesota she was far more conscious of it because there was less diversity.

I turned that question around a bit in my mind and thought, “How often do I think of religious or ethnic identity?”   When I was growing up, I thought about it with every well-meaning teacher who asked me to talk about Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday that has the distinction of falling close to Christmas.  I thought about it when we sang Christmas carols at school and I would go silent on the words “Christ” or “Jesus”.   As the only Jewish kid in my grade school classes, I felt painfully conscious of differences, but I participated in the culture that surrounded me. I helped my friends decorate their Christmas trees and paint their Easter eggs.  I even looked into the sky for Santa on Christmas, a little Jewish kid believing in a myth that wasn’t even mine.  And I vividly remember when my parents tried to end the one effort they made to allow us to share in the celebrations around us.  When my siblings and I were young our house was the only one on the block that wasn’t lit up on Christmas.  No tree graced our living room, but my parents broke down on one small thing.  They allowed us a stocking that they filled with stocking stuffers.  One day they guiltily decided they had to end this ritual, but how to do so?  They finally settled on a myth to counter the myth, a hair of the dog that bit us.  They announced that they were going to call Santa and tell him we were Jewish and he didn’t need to stop at our house when he made his rounds.  I still recall them on the phone as we screamed, “Noooooooooo!  Don’t tell him!!!”  So what did I learn from that?  If you tell people you are Jewish, you won’t get the goodies.

Growing up Jewish in a Midwestern town reinforced a sense of otherness even as it allowed me to develop a chameleon-like veneer that allowed me to fit in.  I still remember when I began to do work in New York.  I felt as if I expanded into myself, the kid raised by two Jews from Brooklyn, who had to fight for air time in family discussions came into her own.  No more reining myself in to keep from interrupting or finishing people’s sentences lest they take offense.  In New York that seemed to be just a conversational style, one I was very familiar with.  Discussions were infused with a familiar energy, one that I grew up with in my home, but squelched in public.

When I think of identity, I think of otherness.  Being different, being excluded, reining myself in lest I transgress on the norms of those around me.  It has less to do with religion, but far more to do with being different. When my friends visited family they went to the family farm, I went to Brooklyn.  My experience was different and different not only from my Christian Midwestern neighbors, but different from many Jewish communities.  I was a small-town Midwestern Jew and didn’t have the cultural affect that made many East Coast Jews more visible.  I wasn’t sure what my community was as it was an amalgamation of many and not clearly any one.  Perhaps that is why identity is a topic that interests me.

When I contrast my experience with that of race, I realize it has a different dimension than that of those who wear their otherness on their skin.  I don’t wear my ethnicity openly and given my Midwestern roots, I don’t display it in my manner.  In some ways that may make it more complex as I can choose when to introduce my different background, or conversely not to do so.  My name is a Jewish one and I have always been glad I kept it upon marriage as I’ve come to embrace my otherness.  My name is the tip off that my background may be different, not quite the same as many of the people around me.    For other Jews it is the tip off that we share a common heritage and creates an openness that might not exist as quickly otherwise.

Since I’ve been working with material that relates to ethnic heritage I think about it far more often.   My current bodies of work deal with the traces of the Jewish community in Lithuania and in Poland.  Some of the Lithuania work has dark stories related to the Holocaust and how it is addressed there today.  I find that when one does work related to family history, and one’s history is Jewish, the Holocaust is a topic that is hard to avoid.  When people come into my studio or to talks, I discuss the work and the journey.  There is a part of me that always feels a bit apologetic when I share the stories with Jewish content when my audience is not Jewish.  I hasten to add that I realize this is not a rational part of me.  Everyone should know about the Holocaust and my artwork and stories help to make it accessible.  It is not just a Jewish story, and yet….there is that irrational hesitance.   I am often surprised that interest in this story is by no means exclusive to those of Jewish ancestry so this hesitance is more about me, me declaring my Jewish ethnicity, me declaring my differences very vocally.  Perhaps it is about the chameleon Midwestern me who got used to flying below the radar, who feels some discomfort at being public about my differences.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Recommended Reading IV: Memoirs and History

We have but a few non-fiction books remaining on the list, two memoirs and one history.   Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky details the creation of the Yiddish Book Center. Outwitting History tells of the early days when Lansky, then a graduate student, set out on a mission to save Yiddish books about to go to the dumpster.  He loaded his truck with books that few could actually read, believing there was a larger purpose in their preservation. The immigrants who called him would often feed him and tell him stories of their early life which adds considerably to the flavor of this book.  Today the Yiddish Book Center has over one million Yiddish books, has helped establish Yiddish collections at many libraries and makes them available to the public digitally.

The other memoir on the list is The Jew Store by Stella Suberman which seems like an odd name for a book, but in fact was what stores run by Jews in the South were often called.  I read this after I had read the Help and it provided yet another view of the South, the experience of being the only Jewish family in town forced to confront the racism towards the black population while trying to become part of the community in which you live.  Suberman’s father, a Russian Jewish immigrant established a store in a small town in Tennessee.  In 1920 they were the first Jewish family the town had encountered and over time came to think of it as home.  After eleven years they returned to New York largely out of concern that there was no Jewish community within which their children could marry.

I am currently reading a book that was recommended by one of the lecturers at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference.  Titled the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland by Simon Markovich Dubnow, it is a three volume work translated from Russian.  I dove into volume two which covers the 1800s, the period in which I was particularly interested.  This is supposed to be the definitive work on this topic and it is an eye-opening and interesting read, not at all hampered by the shift from another language and time.  As I was listening to the lecture, I went in on my netbook to the library and ordered it so it would be waiting on my return.  The second volume of the book was available, published in 1918, it details a period in time without the prescience of events yet to come.  The library book smelled musty and came with a library card detailing the first check out in 1926.  This must be what people who abhor electronic readers refer to when they say they like the smell and feel of a book.  Nonetheless I was thinking there were passages I’d like to mark and it dawned on me that Amazon might just have the book available electronically, something that hadn’t originally occurred to me because of the age of the book.  Much to my delight, not only was it available, but it was free.  If you prefer to get all of the volumes in hard copy you can get the three volume bound set through Avotaynu.  I highly recommend this book for any family historian exploring Jewish ancestry as it creates the historical context within which our families lived.