Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Okay, time to get excited people. We're only two months away from the pub date of Sami Rohr Prize Winner Austin Ratner's new novel In the Land of the Living. You'll hear a lot more about this title (and Austin!) over the next few months...Austin Ratner on the Visiting Scribe and on excavating moral psychology
View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.
I always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, An angel on Earth, never another like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don't speak.
What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I'm told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him—the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness—to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life.
Because of his capacity, I think about the expansiveness of Judaism, about hands that pray over candles in the most traditional and unconventional of places. Blessings fill a home as prayers are sung, wherever that home may be, however it is made, regardless of its trappings or its architecture or its abundance or its lack. Whether those who pray are down on their luck, or up on it, whether they are the bestowers or receivers of gifts.
When visiting book groups, I am often asked about this unconventional Jewish family in my newest novel, a single mother and her two daughters who are homeless in Southern California, who find solace in the reflection of the female face of God, the Shekhina—perhaps an uncommon path. They wander through the desert, their enchanted landscape rife with Jewish ritual and magical realism. When I began the story, I wanted to know these wanderers, these complex and compelling souls I imagined my grandfather would have embraced. As I wrote I thought about the confluence of tradition and spirituality, of the way ancestry is passed down through both stories and inherited memory, of lives pieced together like a quilt, with colors of raw survival and mistakes and compassion and personal mythology. I wanted to write a book about a Jewish family navigating life on the fringes of contemporary society. Mostly I wanted to write about people stepping out from behind their circumstances and claiming their voices.
Perhaps Irv was the man he was because of of our Hungarian-Russian ancestry, comprised of many wanderers. There are familiar stories of pogroms. Of the Holocaust where countless relatives were lost. Of immigration. Of homelessness and of splendor. My own journey took me from Boston to Jerusalem, through the Mea Shearim, and into the lives of the kibbutzim. Climbing mountains near the Dead Sea and plunging hands into the mud below, clearing vines in a vineyard at dawn as if trying to unmask a collective Jewish unconscious are experiences I will treasure. I think about those who wander mostly inside their hearts and minds, too, about the warmth of my brilliant and curious grandmother’s kitchen, about her insights, and how her Yiddish still resonates within me like music. I think often about lively discussions where elbows bear down on worn tablecloths, where explorers and healers and naysayers and matriarchs refine and redefine how Jewish people live. Today, as I raise my own family I find solace in a prayer group of expansive thinkers. I think about the divinity that ignites in the space of creating, when a sense of rightness directs conversation, when moral compasses find their true North in integrity and forgiveness. My grandfather lived the way Jewish people live, and so did all the wanderers he knew. This knowledge, his legacy, is why I begin with him.Visit Ilie's official website here.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
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One of the things that I find most compelling about Judaism is the idea of b’shert. It fills me with joy when someone says our meeting was b'shert, our friendship is meant to be, when a new connection seems predestined. From the time I was a child, raised slightly less traditionally than my Conservative grandparents, this paradoxical sense of destiny, elusive yet certain, made of equal parts fate and faith, resonated with me.
Perhaps it's the ethereal aspect of b’shert, the assertion that some things are meant to be while others are not meant to be, which skeptics undoubtedly dismiss as merely a lens through which to impose order on chaos. And yet, the promises of b'shert are vast. Those who were lucky enough to find their b'shert, well, it seemed somehow the divine favored them. They'd passed the test, were deemed worthy, and had been chosen.
No matter what else happened, they could claim this: they found theirs in this lifetime.
How many b’sherts did you deserve? And when would you run out of chances? What happened if you never found your b'shert?
My siblings and I were raised on the idea of b’shert, on its promise, told we would find ours—that it had been written. We honed our independence, but hoped to find our b'shert, too, just like the women in my novel, The Salt God’s Daughter do. My main character, Ruthie, yearns for true love, the sort that transcends time, space, and the barriers of her wild oceanic wilderness. But perhaps no one longs for it more than her mother, Diana, whose search for her own b’shert is all-consuming, and comes at great cost to her family.
The truth is that in books, as in life, some find their b'shert; others don’t. It seems there is little rhyme or reason as to why some search a lifetime to no avail. And others not only find it once, but twice, like my own grandmother, who was as deserving as anyone, and found it first as a young woman, and again, as a young widow. Two b’sherts in one lifetime, both mensches. Somehow her daughters never found theirs.
My grandparents were the only two people I knew who were a living testimony of b'shert, so when I'd visit as a teenager, I was an investigator of b'shert. I studied their relationship so as to recognize b'shert if it found me. I noted how their hands touched as they passed each other in the hallway. Watched how they discussed dinner during breakfast. Watched how he massaged her arthritic hands after Hadassah meetings, how she championed his work at B'nai B'rith, how they adored and argued and how they curled up at night while she knit afghans for the grandchildren while watching Wheel of Fortune. Watched how my grandfather carried his b’shert to the silvery-blue recliner after she became ill. Watched him shake his head with amusement and relief during our visits when my grandmother and I would sit close on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, and we'd converse in a made up language only the two of us understood—a blend of Yiddish and gibberish, which made her laugh until tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks and her joy seemed powerful enough to heal her. And that last time, before she died, how my grandfather put on her favorite record and danced in the living room to entertain her, and she, too weak to move, beamed with pure love.
Second chances are always a theme in my writing. I’m fascinated by restoration, by lives redeemed after losses or mistakes, and by rebirth. In The Salt God’s Daughter I wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Green, whose marriage was b’shert. I wrote of Mrs. Green losing him after decades. About shiva, and the strangers who showed up to tell their untold stories of him. Of how a new circle of soulmates appeared after b’shert had disappeared, but hope did not.
All things have a beginning, a middle and an ending, even those things that seem predestined. And yet, what blossoms in the absence of what's meant to be offers rich territory for exploration, and remains as beautiful and wondrous.
Visit Ilie's official website here.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
A most unusual love story unravels when the objects in a young man's pockets come to life.
Written and Directed by Goran Dukic, based on the short story by Etgar Keret.
Perspectives on the Hebraic Book: The Myron M. Weinstein Memorial Lectures at the Library of Congress
In my blog posts this week I have written about the Kodachrome slides that Bill Manbo took while imprisoned with his family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. Today I return to the question with which I began: was Heart Mountain an American “concentration camp?”
Controversy over the use of the term "concentration camp" erupted in the late 1990s when an exhibition about the camps for Japanese Americans was slated to open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York. The exhibition, created by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, was entitled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience.” Some American Jewish groups, most prominently the American Jewish Committee, objected to the title. They argued that using the term “concentration camp” to describe places like Heart Mountain diminished the suffering of those (mostly Jews) who lived and died in the Nazi camps in Europe. Eventually a compromise was negotiated: the exhibition would retain its title but feature an explanatory panel disclaiming any attempt to compare the American camps to those in Europe.
This did not end the matter. Over the following years, activists in the Japanese American community and some scholars continued to encourage all who speak and write about the imprisonment of Japanese American to use the term “concentration camp.” Their position continued to attract support until finally the national Japanese American Citizens League adopted a resolution endorsing it as a preferred term.
I won’t use the term in my own writing and speaking about the American camps, except in situations where I have (and wish to spend) lots of time explaining exactly why I’m using it.
The best argument for the term is that it’s historically authentic. Lots of people called the camps for Japanese Americans “concentration camps” at the time. Take a quick look at these little clips from stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from 1942:
Another argument for the term – one that I’ve never found terribly persuasive – is the dictionary. Advocates for the term maintain that the dictionary definition of “concentration camp” unambiguously fits places like Heart Mountain. I suppose it depends a little on your choice in dictionary. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1993), a “concentration camp” is “a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or foreign nationals) are detained or confined and sometimes subjected to physical and mental abuse and indignity.” That’s certainly in the ballpark, but what if you prefer to look at the Oxford Dictionary of English (3d ed. 2010)? There you find the following definition:
“a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution. The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe 1933–45, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.”
The second sentence of this definition captures why a dictionary can’t solve our problem: however accurate the first sentence is in describing the American camps, the second sentence rings true about conventional usage. You say “concentration camp” to most people and what they hear is “Auschwitz.”
I believe that many of the advocates for the term “concentration camp” understand this connotation – and that it’s this very link that makes the term attractive. Rightly trying to correct the misperception that the American camps were justified and life in them pleasant, they want a word that will jolt people. I once attended a talk where a leading Japanese American advocate for the term “concentration camp” urged the audience to adopt the term because it would “get people in the gut.” Exactly. But the major reason why the term “gets people in the gut” is Auschwitz.
One other common argument in favor of the term “concentration camp” maintains that the error is in using that term not for Heart Mountain but for Auschwitz. The German camps, this argument goes, were in actuality “death camps,” not concentration camps. (Koji Steven makes this argument here, for example.)
In the name of trying to correct historical error, this position makes big errors of its own. The Germans devised and ran many different kinds of imprisonment camps in Europe for Jews and others. I mentioned four camps in my first post back on Monday: Westerbork, Flossenbürg, Buchenwald, and Sobibor. Each of these differed from the others. Very few people died at Westerbork, and killing was not its specific purpose. More and more died at each of the other listed camps in order, and virtually every person taken to Sobibor perished. But from this list, only Sobibor was a “death camp” – a camp built for the purpose of killing people. To insist that Heart Mountain was a “concentration camp” while the German camps were “death camps” is to collapse all of the horrific complexity of German wartime incarceration into a simple and mistaken idea. It misses the point that Buchenwald, which my grandfather survived, was importantly different from Sobibor, which his brother did not.
Lastly, and most importantly: all four of the German camps I listed (and all of the others I didn’t) were points on an importantly different spectrum from the American camps run by the War Relocation Authority. The German facilities – regardless of whether they functioned chiefly as transit camps or forced labor camps or death camps – were in service of a system of (at very best) disregard for the simple humanity and survival of those who passed through them that never entered the American experience.
The question that I am exploring in this series of blog posts is what a “concentration camp” looks like. In the first post, I noted that there has been tension between some American Jews and some Japanese Americans over the use of the term “concentration camp” for the prison camps that held Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. In the second post, I tried to describe a bit of what was unique about the American camps — the ways in which they arose from some of the same kinds of causes as the German camps while being administered by a government agency with a very different set of views from the SS. Tomorrow, in my last post, I’ll say a few words about how I’ve resolved the dilemma about using the term “concentration camp” in my writing about the American camps.
Today, I’d like to say a little bit about Bill Manbo, the photographer who took the Kodachrome slides featured in Colors of Confinement, and his family. It’s often rightly said that the number “six million” is an abstraction and that the truth of the Holocaust can only really be appreciated in the context of a real human life. The same is true of the 120,000 people the US government exiled and imprisoned.
That's a photo of Bill Manbo. He was born in Riverside, California, to Japanese immigrant parents in 1908. He and his parents moved to Hollywood before Bill went to junior high school. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1929 and went off to study auto mechanics at the Frank Wiggins Trade School. That’s where he met Mary Itaya, four years his junior, who had grown up on a farm in Norwalk, California. Her parents, Junzo and Riyo Itaya, were Japanese immigrants and successful farmers of truck vegetables; they had a particularly successful and valuable crop in rhubarb. Mary was at Frank Wiggins to become a seamstress.
Bill and Mary married soon after graduating from trade school. Bill opened up a garage in Hollywood and Mary took in sewing and did some costume design for Los Angeles theater companies. In 1940, Mary gave birth to a son, whom they named Bill, like his father. They called him “Billy.”
Billy was not quite two years old on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. A few months later, the FBI arrested Billy’s grandfather Junzo Itaya (Mary’s father) as a potential saboteur because he had done some accounting work in the late 1930s for his neighborhood Japanese after-school program. This meant that Junzo was gone, locked up in a Justice Department detention camp, when the rest of the family was rounded up and forced to live in a horse stable at the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the end of April of 1942. The day before leaving, the family signed an agreement with their white landlord that required him to preserve and market their rhubarb crop for as long as the family was gone.
In September of 1942, the family was put on a train for the long trip to Heart Mountain in northwest Wyoming.
There they moved into small barrack rooms equipped with cot frames and thin mattresses, army blankets, a light bulb, a bucket and pail, and a coal-burning stove. All living was communal — communal mess halls where family structures disintegrated and communal latrines where privacy was nonexistent. Winter temperatures often did not rise above the single digits. In the spring of 1943, they were made to submit to loyalty investigations. Bill and Mary passed the test, though not without difficulty, because they were angry about what the government had done to their lives and the life of their little Billy and did not conceal their anger from the investigators.
Starting in 1943, the WRA urged those designated “loyal” to leave camp for jobs in the country’s interior. A slow process of separation and dispersal began for the Manbo and Itaya families. Mary Manbo’s two siblings left camp in 1943. Bill Manbo left Mary and Billy behind for a factory job in Cleveland in mid-1944. Later in 1944, Junzo Itaya (Mary’s father) left camp temporarily to investigate a possible farming job in New Jersey, leaving behind only his wife Riyo and Mary and little Billy. When he returned to Heart Mountain ten days later, pleased by what he'd found in New Jersey, he found Riyo in the camp hospital. She had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Her illness would keep the couple confined in the camp until it closed in November of 1945.
Junzo and Riyo then faced returning to California with nothing: all they had back on the coast was their rhubarb plants and some outbuildings they’d left behind in their landlord’s care. But even that turned out to be mistaken. Their landlord had plowed the plants under shortly after they left in 1942, and the outbuildings were long gone. It was a complete loss. They would have to start their lives again from scratch.
Images from COLORS OF CONFINEMENT: RARE KODACHROME PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION IN WORLD WAR II edited by Eric L. Muller. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs by Bill Manbo copyright © 2012 by Takao Bill Manbo. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu