The ProsenPeople

Sarah's Key, Mary's Secrets, and Truth That's Stranger Than Fiction

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lois Leveen wrote about what makes a book Jewish. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But it can be hard to tell.

I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. Bowser's bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel' d'Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.

Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.

What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn't be believed. It's that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser's life that I couldn't possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser's achievements and to guide readers' understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.

Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I've taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn't mean everything in the book was true.



As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser's life story was Bowser herself. "The Black Slave in the Confederate White House," an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn't surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.

Like many published authors, I didn't choose my book's final title. But I've come to relish the irony it implies. While "Sarah's Key" suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, "The Secrets of Mary Bowser" entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.

Book Cover of the Week: Your Voice in My Head

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Emma Forrest's memoir, Your Voice in My Head, will be available in paperback on July 10th from Other Press:

Bonus: More gorgeous versions of Your Voice in My Head:

       

Chaim Sheba: Identifying Founder Effects for Jewish Genetic Diseases

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | Permalink
In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.

Chaim Sheba, a surgeon general of the Israeli army and later the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, was also a colorful, pioneering Israeli geneticist. Early in his career, Sheba stumbled into human genetics in the process of preparing to practice medicine in his adopted country. Born in Austria, he left for Palestine with a “still wet” medical school diploma from the University of Vienna expecting to “dry the uninhabited swamps.” Drying the swamps was a way to eliminate malaria, a disease common not only in Palestine, but throughout the coastal Mediterranean basin. While on the boat to Palestine, Sheba read a book about tropical diseases and learned that one of the major complications of malaria was blackwater fever. Typically, the “black water” urine of individuals with red blood cells disrupted by malarial parasites contained the dark-colored breakdown products of the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin.

When Sheba arrived in Palestine, he learned about an unexpected springtime occurrence of blackwater fever caused by eating fava beans, a popular Mediterranean delicacy. Favism had been known in ancient Greek times with Pythagoras, Diogenes and Plutarch all warning about the dangers of eating fava beans. Eating the beans or even smelling the pollen caused a sudden illness of abdominal pains and vomiting, followed by pallor, jaundice and brown-colored urine – all resulting from the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. During the 1930s, all of the patients that Sheba observed with favism were Jewish males of Iraqi, Yemenite or Kurdish origin. During World War II, while serving as a surgeon in the British Army, Sheba observed men who experienced severe breakdown of red blood cells resulting from ingestion of the newly developed antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs. These reactions occurred primarily among Iraqi, Turkish, Greek, Yemenite and Kurdish Jewish soldiers, and were also common among non-Jewish Greek and Cypriot soldiers, and Italian prisoners of war. To Sheba, it was striking that Ashkenazi Jews did not share these sensitivities that were prevalent among their co-religionists.

The reason for this difference between the Ashkenazi and other Jews became apparent after the war — an inability to repair damage to red blood cells that resulted from exposure to agents that were non-toxic to the majority of the population. This inability occurred in individuals who are deficient for the enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). As its name would suggest, G6PD normally breaks down the sugar, glucose, and, in the process, generates an antioxidant that repairs red blood cells. Although G6PD is produced and used by all of the cells of the body, only red blood cells are sensitive to the effects of oxidizing agents. The enzyme is encoded by a gene on the X chromosome and men who carry a mutant gene on their single X chromosome are susceptible to these exposures. Women who have two copies of the X chromosome are relatively resistant to this condition when one of their X chromosomes carries a mutant G6PD gene.

Over time, Sheba recognized that other genetic diseases (Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, familial Mediterranean fever) were found almost exclusively within certain Jewish groups, reflecting the unique history of those groups. He assumed that these diseases were caused by transmission of a mutant gene that occurred sometime in the distant past, and then transmitted by a group of “founders” who migrated to that site of the Jewish Diaspora. This phenomenon has come to be known as a “founder effect.” Sheba was fond of using Biblical genealogies and spoke of conditions being transmitted by the descendents of the sons of Noah or other, later Biblical characters. Thus, Sheba established the notion that these diseases serve as genetic markers for the populations in which they occurred. Although not all of the members of the population carried these mutant genes, enough do to recognize a shared genetic legacy.

Dr. Harry Ostrer is the author of Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. He is a medical geneticist who investigates the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. He is also known for his study, writings, and lectures about the origins of the Jewish people. He is a professor of Pathology and Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Director of Genetic and Genomic Testing at Montefiore Medical Center.

Funny, You Don't Book Jewish

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 | Permalink

Lois Leveen's newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There's a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?

Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I've joked that I don't need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.

Jen's novel reminds us that "Jewish" is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn't Jewish?

Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary's mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary's future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother's insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia's Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war's devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus' plan. Not a very Jewish story.

Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.

There's no doubt I'm a Jew. I've got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I've even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as "the Shmethicist," an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I'm a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?

Maybe it's a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary's mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary's trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary's relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual's responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluctant Jonah. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.

When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn't mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.

Sara Levine's Lovely Card

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 | Permalink

Network author Sara Levine (Treasure Island!!!) sent this lovely card to JBCer Joyce Lit and all we have to say is:  

Joseph Jacobs: Fighting Anti-Semitism, Genetically

Monday, June 25, 2012 | Permalink

In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian-English polymath Joseph Jacobs laid the framework for modern scholarship about all things Jewish, including Jewish population genetics. Born in Sydney, Australia, Jacobs went to England in 1872, intent on studying law at Cambridge University. Instead, he became interested in literature and anthropology, as well as mathematics, history and philosophy.

Upon graduating in 1876, he went to London to become a writer. While there, his professional development was transformed by two books. The first was George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. Following publication, Eliot was derided by the English critics for turning an English gentleman into a Jew. She knew of the risk that she ran writing this novel, because she told Harriet Beecher Stowe that she wanted, “to rouse the imagination of [English] men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow men who differ from them in customs and beliefs.” Daniel’s self-discovery was life-changing not only for the character in the novel, but also for Jacobs. He wrote, “It is difficult for those who have not lived through it to understand the influence that George Elliot had upon those of us who came to our intellectual majority in the Seventies. George Elliot’s novels were regarded by us not so much as novels, but rather as applications of Darwinism to life and art.”

The second transformative book was Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius, a treatise in which the formulator of the concept of Nature versus Nurture observed that superior intelligence tended to be transmitted within families. Francis Galton, himself a famous polymath, was Charles Darwin’s cousin and Joseph Jacobs’ Darwinian mentor. Galton taught Jacobs that all human attributes could be measured – heads, heights, intelligence. Following this lead, Jacobs assessed Jewish accomplishment and wrote Jewish Genius. He applied Galton’s methods to measuring Jews and wrote Jewish Statistics: Social, Vital and Anthropometric. Jacobs concluded that the low historical rates of intermarriage and proselytism and the physical resemblance among Jews favored the idea of a Jewish race. In his article in the Jewish Encyclopedia on ‘Anthropology’, he wrote, “The remarkable unity of resemblance among Jews, even in different climes, seems to imply a common descent.” When Mendel’s laws were rediscovered in 1901, Jacobs suggested that there was a genetic basis to Jewishness.

In 1906, Jacobs came to New York to edit the Jewish Encyclopedia, the major source of Jewish information at the turn of the last century. Jacobs felt that a study of Jewish history, when combined with an analysis of Jewish racial characteristics, would provide a powerful arsenal in the battle against anti-Semitism. He regarded it as his duty to fight anti-Semites of his day by pointing out Jewish contributions to civilization.

Dr. Harry Ostrer is the author of Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. He is a medical geneticist who investigates the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. He is also known for his study, writings, and lectures about the origins of the Jewish people. He is a professor of Pathology and Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Director of Genetic and Genomic Testing at Montefiore Medical Center.

JBC Bookshelf: Fairy Tales, Noir, Translations, Cooking

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In case you haven't been following us on Twitter (or FB), we posted the 2012 National Jewish Book Award guidelines earlier this week. They can be found here. This year's deadline is October 5th. Any questions? Let us know.

And, here's a date you can look forward to sooner: June 27th. If you haven't already RSVPed to our event with Rich Cohen and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, you better click here right away.

Over the last several weeks, JBCers have not only been soaking up (lots of) sun, but also this year's crop of Network books (full listing will be made public in August). We're reading furiously to decide who will blog, who will be reviewed, and who will find themselves as a book cover of the week. But, even while we're enjoying our summer reads, we can't help but look around the corner to fall, a season which brings Jewish book fairs, and plenty of other reasons to curl up with a book (think: fall day in the park). Need more convincing? We have six good reasons right here:

Canvas, Benjamin Stein; Brian Zumhagen, trans. (September 2012, Open Letter Books)
Read more about this title over at the Three Perecent blog (includes a video)

Cooking from the Heart, Gaye Weeden and Hayley Smorgon (September 2012, Hardie Grant Books)
Find sample recipes here

Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself, Theodore Ross (September 2012, Hudson Street Press)
Read an excerpt from the book here and stay tuned for guest blog posts from Theodore for the Visiting Scribe the week of September 24th

Block 11, Piero degli Antoni (October 2012, St. Martin's Press)
High-concept noir set in Auschwitz dealing with secrecy and betrayal, guilt and forgiveness, and selfishness and sacrifice

Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook, Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, illus. (October 2012, Interlink Publishing)
Whet your appetite this summer with Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters

Kin, Dror Burstein; Dalya Bilu, trans. (November 2012, Dalkey Archive Press)
Check out other titles from Dalkey Archive Press's Hebrew Literature series here


New Reviews

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:




 

Sleeping on Felix Frankfurter’s Couch

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Henkin talked about how he came to write his latest novel, his  father and grandfather, and explored the question: "Are you a Jewish writer?". He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.

There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.

As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.

What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son—my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.

By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.

Joshua Henkin's new novel, The World Without You, is now available. He is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

Book Cover of the Week: Looking For Me

Thursday, June 21, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Betsy R. Rosenthal's newest book, Looking For Me...In This Great Big Family, was published in April:

One of 12 siblings growing up in depression-era Baltimore, Edith isn't quite sure of who she is. Between working at her father’s diner, taking care of her younger siblings, and living in the shadow of her more mature sisters, Edith feels lost in a sea of siblings. When a kind teacher encourages Edith to be a teacher herself one day, Edith sees prospects for a future all her own. Full of joy, pain, humor, and sadness, this novel in verse is a wonderful look at the life of Edith Paul, the author's mother, and is an enduring portrait (complete with family photos and an author's note at the end) of one family's pursuit of the American dream. Reading level: Age 9 and up.