The ProsenPeople

Why it Matters that Marshall was Never Nominated for the Supreme Court

Friday, March 01, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, M. M. Silver wrote about the riches in Louis Marshall's archive and explored why it took so long for someone to write a full-length biography of this important figure in American Jewish history. He has been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
 

The main challenge I faced when preparing a biography of Louis Marshall stemmed from the gap between the perceptual confidence that characterizes American Jewish life in the 21st century and the tensions and insecurities of Jewish life in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. The trick, I believed, was to create an intelligible dialogue between these differing modes of thought and feeling. To recreate historical events uncritically, exactly as Marshall and his peers saw them, would draw contemporary readers into a morass of inhibition about being "too Jewish" that is foreign to them, whereas to overlook realities and attitudes that were indisputably part of Marshall's American Jewish milieu would be condescending and, worse, injurious to empirical rules of historical scholarship.

American Jewish history is happily devoid of the angst that characterizes Jewish life on other continents and in other contexts. It is perfectly reasonable for contemporary readers to assess critically the self-defense labors of previous generations of American Jews, and conclude, in some instances, that past Jewish leaderships were overly defensive and inhibited, even in ways that could be paranoiac or self-defeating.

Yet this critical license to look at the past heroes of American Jewish life as high-strung, occasionally histrionic, figures can be taken much too far; and to my mind, at least, much of the finest recently published scholarship on American Jewish life in periods and context applicable to Marshall's life, such as the Roaring Twenties, is flawed to some extent by researchers' anachronistic projection of Jewish life in America in the late 20th century or early 21st century onto the American Jewish past. Scholars who focus on how Jews came to feel "at home" in America in a period like the 1920s tend to under-emphasize the extent to which anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the minds and real life circumstances of both well-established Jews, and struggling immigrant Jews.

Writing draft chapters of the biography, I recalled how the great English historian E.P. Thompson, whom I idolized in my college years, warned about how the "enormous condescension of posterity" can lead historians toward breathtakingly incorrect conclusions about the life choices reached by the heroes of the past. Along these lines, I ruminated about how anachronistic soft-pedaling of anti-Semitism as a real force to be reckoned with on the landscape of early 20th century America could produce blind spots in a biographer's evaluation of Marshall's life course.

A revealing case in point is the story of why Louis Marshall never won a Supreme Court appointment. In view of Marshall's stellar accomplishments as an attorney, which were lauded by legal luminaries such as Benjamin Cardozo, and the fact that Marshall himself lobbied in at least two instances for an appointment and had powerful allies such as Jacob Schiff on his side, scholars have long pondered about the non-attainment of this goal. Misinterpreting a cryptic remark attributed to William Howard Taft, the President who did not appoint him to the Supreme Court bench, generations of scholars concluded that the story's gist has to do with political partisanship (the Republican Taft's remark about Marshall's non-appointment referred to the latter's law partner, Samuel Untermyer, an outspoken Democrat), or other relatively innocuous topics.

Though I stumbled onto the answer to the riddle of the non-appointment early in my research, I originally planned to relegate the subject to an extended footnote, largely because of the discomfit inherent in correcting my teachers' teachers in the role of an impish smart aleck. Everything that had ever been written on this topic was dead wrong, but ultimately the point is moot because Taft nominated the eminently qualified Charles Evans Hughes, and any conclusion as to whether he "almost" or "might have" tapped Marshall for the job would be predicated speculatively on the President's state of mind.

As chapter fragments began (much to my surprise) to consolidate as the draft of a full biography, it became obvious that the subject could not be kicked downstairs into a footnote. In spring 1910 Marshall badly wanted to became a Supreme Court Justice, and the disappoint which this frustrated ambition engendered clearly had biographical consequences that couldn't be ignored.

Moreover, to remove from the tale of Marshall's life the character responsible for making his Supreme Court bid a non-starter, Hearst newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, probably the most influential journalist of the era, would have excised from the biography one of its most compelling and dramatically poignant ironies. As it turns out, the same person responsible for the most crushing disappointment in Marshall's professional career, was later a decisive collaborator in the most inspiring accomplishment of Marshall's work as a Jewish advocate (Henry Ford conditioned the release of his apology to the Jews on Brisbane's involvement, and Brisbane cooperated fully with Marshall in this triumphant moment).

The issue, I realized, had been incorrectly formulated, largely because of anachronistic wishful thinking about American sociopolitical realities a century ago. The way the question has to be posed is not "why did Marshall lose his Supreme Court bid," but rather "why was such a nomination a non-starter"? Were we to ignore how saturated by Jew hatred Marshall's circumstances became once his desire for a place on the bench became public knowledge, we would be in danger of misunderstanding how he calibrated levels of assertiveness in subsequent Jewish defense efforts against Ford, the KKK and others anti-Semites. In fact, we might overlook the roots of his motivation as a Jewish leader in America were we not to see what he saw when he pursued his highest career ambition, and feel what he felt when he saw that desire derided savagely in mass media attacks that were rife with anti-Semitic innuendo about greedy corporate lawyers being unworthy of the highest bench in the land. Louis Marshall's law firm, wrote Arthur Brisbane in a syndicated column that opposed and ridiculed his bid for the Supreme Court, is founded on the "contention that the poor have no rights when their presence interferes with the delicate sensibilities of the rich." One need not fret about Marshall's quashed ambition, the Hearst papers exulted in upper case glee, because his firm "WILL PROBABLY HAVE PLENTY OF IMPORTANT LUCRATIVE WORK ON ITS HANDS FOR MANY YEARS TO COME!"

So, what did Louis Marshall see when he threw his hat in the ring for the Supreme Court bench? What was President Taft really talking about when he asked Jacob Schiff sarcastically "would you name Sam Untermyer's partner to the Supreme Court?" Well that's a story about resort cottages, tuberculosis treatment, Macy's department store, Lakewood New Jersey and many things I never imagined needing to write about when I began this biography project, and ended up detailing to avoid a free fall into the abyss of enormous condescension evoked by E.P. Thompson's stricture.

Join M. M. Silver for the Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography book launch on March 12th at Congregation Emanu-El in NYC. More information about this event can be found here

Book Cover of the Week: What We Talk About When We Talk About...

Friday, March 01, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The paperback edition of Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories will be published on March 5th by Knopf:

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

New Reviews

Friday, March 01, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:



 

2013 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Congratulations to Shalom Auslander, who was just named the 2013 winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize for his first novel Hope: A Tragedy

 “Shalom Auslander has done the unthinkable – he's smashed the biggest Jewish icon and made comedy from the ashes of our past,” says Rachel Lasserson, Editor of the Jewish Quarterly. 

 Read more about the prize here and find the complete shortlist below:



 

New Children's Reviews

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of children's reviews found in the Spring 2013 issue of Jewish Book World here.



 

Transforming the Magical

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Baruch and Judy Sterman wrote about their obsession with blue. They have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We were sitting in an upscale café in Northern Tel Aviv waiting to meet with Knesset member Yitzchak “Bougie” Herzog. As number two in the Israeli Labor party, he was in the middle of campaigning for the upcoming elections, and we were grateful to have a few minutes of his time. The purpose of our meeting was to present him with a copy of our book, The Rarest Blue, and to thank him for the information he had provided while we were preparing it. The dedication that we had inscribed in the book included our desire “to express our inestimable appreciation for the work of your namesake, your grandfather the great Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, whose contributions to the study of tekhelet were unparalleled.”

Tekhelet, the precious blue that, in accordance with the biblical commandment, colored one string of the tzitzit worn by Jews in ancient times, was the subject of our book and also the theme of Rabbi Herzog’s doctoral dissertation for the University of London almost a century ago. His thesis investigated all aspects of the topic in an attempt to determine why the technology of manufacturing the dye had disappeared from the world, when exactly it had been lost, and what was the mysterious source of the valuable dye. His doctorate was the beginning of a life-long passion whose ultimate goal – the restoration of the forgotten biblical commandment – would not be realized until after Rabbi Herzog’s death.

As our exploration into the Rabbi’s life and work progressed, our admiration for him grew. He was a unique sort of genius: a brilliant Talmudist, he also was thoroughly versed in diverse fields from history to law to chemistry, and was fluent in 12 languages. But Herzog was no scholar in a cloistered library. He was a man of action who felt a burning responsibility for his people. Chief Rabbi, first of Ireland (1919-1936), then of Palestine, and eventually of the State of Israel (a position he held until his death in 1959), his tenure was one that coincided with the most devastating horrors for the Jewish people as well as their greatest moments of triumph.

Rabbi Herzog’s scholarly work radically transformed the traditional Jewish perception of tekhelet. Before him, many if not most religious Jews believed that the hillazon, the sea animal that, according to the Talmud, produced the precious dye, was some kind of magical, mythical creature akin to the shamir – the legendary worm capable of boring through any material and used to hew the stone for the altar in the Temple, or the Leviathan on which it is said the righteous will feast in the World to Come. Tekhelet, most Jews thought, would be restored only when the third temple descended from Heaven, since both belonged to that miraculous realm. But Rabbi Herzog argued that tekhelet was a natural phenomenon and that the hillazon was a physical albeit elusive sea snail that could be rediscovered through intense scientific, historical, and archeological research. And that is exactly what happened. Because of Rabbi Herzog’s paradigm shift, today hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world wear the tekhelet that had been lost for 1,300 years.

The ability to innovate that Rabbi Herzog displayed in his doctorate became a hallmark characteristic of his work throughout his life. His most significant achievements had to do with the application of Jewish law in ingenious and often daring ways in order to achieve a harmony within the complex interplay of values confronting the modern, democratic, religious state of Israel – an entity that had never been conceived of before.

Rabbi Herzog stands as a role model for all, challenging us not only to study as much as we can, not only to take action to realize our dreams, but to stretch the very boundaries of our imagination and create completely novel ways of thinking, and to transform the magical into the practical.

Baruch and Judy Sterman's The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered is now available. Read more about the book here.

One of These Authors Will Win $100,000

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 | Permalink
Read more about the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature finalists here. Read more about the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature here.


 

Can Israel Help American Jews Recall Their Own Forgotten Heroes?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, M. M. Silver wrote about the riches in Louis Marshall's archive. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
 

Now that my previous blog established to everyone's complete satisfaction that Louis Marshall ought to be considered a paramount figure in the history of America's Jewish community, and, in fact, that his personal archive contains papers of import comparable to Newton's apple-stained original draft of the law of universal gravitation, it behooves me to wrestle with a question that arose a few times during the drafting of my biography of Marshall. Here it is: given that Louis Marshall was the man who successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford's apology for the Dearborn Independent's scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign, who drafted the terms for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, who argued before the Supreme Court more times than any attorney in his era, who was a founder of many of American Jewry's premier organizations and institutions, and who became (in his final crusade) a progenitor of American Jewry's special relationship with Israel, why did it take over eighty years for some schlemozzle to publish a full-length biography of him?

Formulated in that way, this question is a bit misleading and self-serving. Two or three books about Marshall were published in years after his death. Morton Rosenstock's Louis Marshall: Defender of Jewish Rights is the best known. Biographical in structure though not comprehensive in intent, they are very informative and useful volumes.

Also, Marshall's preeminent position in early 20th century American Jewish organized affairs is at least implicitly recognized by the quality of scholars who wrote noticeably extensive articles about important facets of his life, such as his campaign with the American Jewish Committee to "abrogate" America's commercial treaty with Russia, due to Tsarist discrimination, or his part in the dispute about the formation of the American Jewish Congress, or his relations with the Forward newspaper and its socialist editor, Abraham Cahan. All readers of seminal works in Modern Jewish History will recognize the names of these scholars (Naomi Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, Lucy Dawidowicz) whose intensive probing of key episodes in Marshall's life is suggestive of its magnetic significance.

Just as surely, the lack of a systematic biography about Louis Marshall has long been regarded a curious anomaly; and from time to time, most recently in a special spring 2008 edition of the American Jewish History journal, scholars and students have publicly scratched their heads in puzzlement about this lacuna.

One possible explanation of this anomaly hinges on political correctness. No doubt, some historians chose not to grapple seriously with Marshall because of specific political and ideological choices he made. Scholars and students who confronted Marshall's legacy tended to be influenced by Zionist perspectives whenever they thought about early 20th century Jewish issues, and by liberal Democratic party perspectives whenever they addressed American social and political issues in years leading up to the Great Depression, and thereafter. At points in the 1920s, Marshall quarreled bitterly with the Zionists, and he was a lifelong Republican whose papers are studded with archly conservative pronouncements on various socio-political issues.

However, this "political incorrectness" account of the neglect of Marshall's legacy only goes so far. During Marshall's lifetime, perspicacious observers understood that infused within the unseemly contentiousness of his own "non-Zionist" group's disputes with the Zionists from the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, there was a powerful cooperative spirit of Jewish solidarity; and Marshall's major contribution to the formation of the Jewish Agency, the key political instrument of the Jewish state in the making, was deeply appreciated after his death, as illustrated by the telling remark in Chaim Weizmann's autobiography attesting that Louis Marshall was "much nearer to Jews and Judaism…than Louis Brandeis, an ardent Zionist, ever was."

Similarly, even a cursory examination of the record of Marshall's activities during the last, crucial phase of his life establishes that while he remained nominally affiliated with Republican conservatism in the 1920s, his monumental labors for African Americans, open immigration, environmental protection, Haitian independence and many other causes left an undeniably liberal, sometimes even radical, stamp on his life record. Just as the Zionist champion Chaim Weizmann lavishly eulogized the non-Zionist Marshall, paragon figures of American liberalism (such as NAACP directors) paid tribute to his contributions. In short, Louis Marshall was not really neglected by scholars because he was politically incorrect.

For several decades, I believe, Louis Marshall was effectively written out of history not because of anything he ever said or did, but because a "consensus" methodology, important in many sub-disciplines of historical study though the 1950s, took an especially firm grip on Jewish History in the period after the Holocaust, and Israel's formation. The abiding topic of concern in Marshall's life was anathema to this consensus methodology.

Louis Marshall's career can be thought of as a search for creative accommodation between the opposing status concerns and sociopolitical outlooks of his own "Uptown" group of affluent Jews of central European origin, and the "Downtown" masses of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

A generation after Marshall's death, in the period when historians first had the retrospective margin of distance needed to assess his accomplishments, this topic of Uptown-Downtown creative tensions was taboo. In 1950s America, second and third generation Jews were happy to leave all that Russians versus Germans stuff behind them. And scholars after the Holocaust were understandably drawn to images of Jewish revival and unity – the boisterously contentious Uptown-Downtown vortex into which Marshall was drawn as a creative mediator was not, for them, a compelling choice of subjects.

Israel's situation in its first years surely contributed to this methodological recoil from discussion of relations between "east" and "west" Jewish sub-groups. Through the 1950s, at least up to the Wadi Salib riots in a low income, immigrant Haifa neighborhood, discussion of the bewilderingly complex "east-west" ethnicities gathered in the new state of Israel's ma'abarot tent towns was aggressively stigmatized. In Israel, "consensus" methodology promoting unity and downplaying sub-group ethnicity was considered a strategic necessity in an ongoing primordial conflict with Arab forces.

This consensus methodology was predicated on melting pot, homogenized visions of reality that will have increasingly little appeal as Jewish Studies proceed in a multi-cultural era. I wrote a big book about Louis Marshall under the influence and inspiration of a multi-cultural era that looks out to patterns of ever-renewing conflict and reconciliation between demographic sub-groups not as a topic to be dismissed or obscured, but rather as the essence of national experience.

The transition from homogeneous to heterogeneous modes of perceiving Jewish experience has been absolutely remarkable in Israel, during the three decades of my life in the country. When I arrived in Israel, as a wide-eyed American college graduate, Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations were regarded as close to the worst thing that could be discussed in public (a "conspiracy of silence" stifled the topic, claims the Israeli scholar Yehuda Shenhav), whereas today a critical mass of people in the country relate to the issue candidly, in full recognition of its salience, and with a sense that this story of sub-groups relationship might not be unfolding toward a Hollywood-style happy ending, but is nonetheless mainly positive in character, or at least not a topic to be swept under the rug.

Compared to the Israeli situation, contemporary American Jews might have a much less tangibly immediate connection to east-west sub-group dynamics. That is to say, the love-hate creative tension in relations between yahudim and Yiddin, between the Uptown Germans and the Downtown Russians, was part of their grandparents' reality, not theirs. Nonetheless, present and future generations of Jews in America are, and will be, conditioned by multi-cultural modes of perception. When they look back to their community's past, they will not peer through the monochromatic prism of consensus methodology. Instead, they are, or will be, keenly interested in the diversity of past Jewish life. For them, as for their Israeli counterparts, the sort of east-west mediation to which Marshall's life became dedicated will not appear as a problem to be ignored, but rather as the essence of ethnic or national experience.

In the months when I was preparing a biography Louis Marshall, my colleagues in friends in Israel sometimes asked me incredulously why someone who was trained to do Jewish History research in Israel, and who teaches in Israel, would devote so much time to an American Jewish figure. The problem with that question is not really that it draws upon stereotypical perceptions of American Jewish life (though it certainly does that): it is also based on a stereotypical and self-defeating premise that lessons about Jewish life in Israel are to be learned and shared exclusively among Israelis.

Writing this biography, I wondered sometimes how Louis Marshall, who was not a Zionist but who was deeply curious about what the culture of a Jewish state might be like, might have responded to the final, "Israeli," conclusion I drew about the project. More than anywhere else in modern times, the imperative of mediating creatively between the competing, though not antithetical, outlooks of Jewish sub-groups – that is, the abiding mission of Marshall's life – is elucidated by life in the Jewish state in the 21st century. So I'll end this blog by wondering aloud whether the idea of a full length biography of Louis Marshall coming out of Israel ought to be seen as a contradiction to the logic of his life as a premier American Jew. However vainglorious it might sound, I took pride in thinking of this project as consummation of that logic.

Join M. M. Silver for the Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography book launch on March 12th at Congregation Emanu-El in NYC. More information about this event can be found here

Sifriyat Pijama Grows Up

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 | Permalink

by Galina Vromen

When you see a newborn and then watch her four years later, climbing to the top of the jungle gym, you can’t believe it’s the same child. That’s the feeling that overcomes me when I look at Sifriyat Pijama, the Israeli sister program of the PJ Library.

Sifriyat Pijama, which monthly gives away illustrated Hebrew picture-books in pre-schools, started as a pilot four years ago in Israel with 3,000 children. This school year, it has grown to 194,000 children, about 80% of Hebrew-speaking children in the state system. The books, which deal with Jewish values and Jewish/Israeli heritage, arrive by courier each month to the preschool. The teacher reads the month’s selection to the children and often does an activity as well. Then each child receives his or her own copy to take home to enjoy with family and add to the home library—a total of twenty-four books over a child’s three-year preschool career. Boosted by funding from the Ministry of Education, Sifriyat Pijama, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, is giving away more than 1.5 million books a year, making it the largest purchaser of children’s books in Israel after the country’s biggest book store chain, Steimatzky.

But like that four-year old child, it is not just a matter of physical growth. Sifriyat Pijama has matured into a program that is daring to climb to new heights, helping to create a genre of picture books new to the Israeli market. Working with publishers, Sifriyat Pijama is producing books which deal with Jewish heritage in a way that will engage both secular and religious Israeli Jews. This year, out of the sixteen titles Sifriyat Pijama is distributing (eight for 3-4 year olds, eight for 5-6 year olds), seven are newly created for the program. All together since Sifri­yat Pijama came to Israel, it has created a total of fifteen new books.

It was not what we set out to do. But there was no choice, given the difficulty in Israel’s religiously divisive society of finding books that suited Sifriyat Pijama’s agenda of promoting common Jewish values and heritage. In Israel, children from the religious sector tend to read Bible and Talmudic legends, and do-good stories, with illustrations depicting kipa-headed boys and modestly dressed girls. Meanwhile, secular children are growing up largely on books devoid of any mention of Jewish topics—books which observant families worry depict behavior inconsistent with their way of life. We were desperate for books that would appeal to both populations and address aspects of Jewish values and heritage on which there is broad agreement.

Furthermore, some topics are under-represented in both the religious and the secular market: aliyah and olim, biographies for young children on Zionist figures, Jewish folktales, particularly from the Sephardic tradition. For example, we found there was no Israeli version in print of that classical folktale about the poor man whose rabbi tells him to add his goat, chickens and cow to his crowded house—so when he takes them out the house is roomy. There are at least five versions of this story on the American market. We could have translated one of those books, but it seemed a pity that this very Jewish story should not have an indigenous Israeli version. Responding to our urging, leading Israeli publisher Am Oved recruited one of Israel’s premier satirists, Ephraim Sidon, and teamed him up with prominent illustrator Danny Kerman to produce a rhymed version of the story, which Sifriyat Pijama will distribute this year.

Sifriyat Pijama requires that any book it creates with a publisher be available in a commercial version as well. This is to assure the books will have a shelf-life beyond their distribution through Sifriyat Pijama, which changes its book selection from year to year to avoid having children receive copies of the same book more than once in the course of their three years in the program. Publishers have been pleasantly surprised to discover that Jewish stories, when illustrated to appeal to modern audiences, do well in stores. And it is making them open up to publish­ing more such books.

We were delighted when a publisher approached us with a manu­script of an enchanting Ethiopian folktale, about an old man who tries to get rid of his tattered shoes from the old country, only to have everyone try to return them to him. What child (and parent) will not be able to relate to how difficult it can be to shed old things—or outdated versions of ourselves? The manuscript had been sitting around for years before our hue and cry for folk tales, and for stories that address aliyah were heard. The result, Mr. Menaseh’s Old Shoes (English title: An Old Pair of Shoes), is itself an aliyah tale—the folktale was told to veteran Israeli author Ronit Chacham by an Ethiopian immigrant years ago, and the book is illustrated by Russian immigrant Masha Manapov.

Sifriyat Pijama is also giving new life to traditional Talmudic tales—either by the re-issue and/or re-illustration of out of print books, or by the publication of new ones. This year, Kinneret-Zmora Bitan- Dvir has teamed up with prize-winning Israeli children’s author Shoham Smith to issue a new picture book based on the Talmudic tale about Rabbi Akiva learning late in life to read Other renditions of Talmudic tales by Israel Prize winning author Dvora Omer —about the renowned patience of Rabbi Hillel and the visit by a Roman emperor to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, as well as a traditional story about the choice of where to build the Holy Templehave been resurrected from her earlier anthologies and illustrated to reach a new generation.

No less important has been the effort to stress common Israeli culture around popular Israeli songs that have become classics. Sifriyat Pijama urged the production of a book, Good People, based on the song by the late Naomi Shemer (best known in America for Jerusalem of Gold), and Who Loves Shabbat, with lyrics by late songwriter Ehud Manor. Both were Israel Prize winners whose songs are popular among a wide swathe of the Israeli public.

We have also caused the “cross-over” of some religious authors rarely read by the secular public. We did this by re-illustrating stories whose religious look limited their appeal to secular audiences. The stories—Yael’s Independence Day by Rivka Elitzur and The Land of Preschool Children by Emuna Alon—boosted with charming new illustrations, received high ratings in secular preschools from teachers in the program.

Finally, we have had translated some PJ Library favorites into Hebrew: Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis (known as Grandpa’s Bakery in Hebrew) and One Little Chicken by Elka Weber. The latter, a retelling of a tale about Rabbi Hanina Ben-Dosa, underwent re-illustration for the Hebrew version so that it is set (historically accurately) in the ancient Land of Israel rather than in the rural nineteenth century setting of the English-language original. Its Israeli publisher, Yedioth Ahronot, was taken aback when the first commercial printing of 2,000 copies sold out in weeks.

Sifriyat Pijama has taken advantage of its growth to create a revital­ized treasure trove of high-quality Jewish children’s books. As we watch this precocious “child” grow up, we hope that the books we are creating today will help Israelis feel more connected to their heritage and to each other.

Galina Vromen is executive director of Sifriyat Pijama: www.pjisrael.org

A Story of Hope

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 | Permalink

by Anna Olswanger

An agent and author reflects on why she wrote her newest book

The year I became a literary agent, an independent press published my first children’s book. Now, seven years later, the same press has published my second children’s book. But this is not a column about an agent who is learning how tough it is to be an author. 

This is about something else.

As an agent, I attract a fair number of queries about Holocaust-related books because of my interest in Judaica. I rarely ask to see these manuscripts, and I’ve never taken on the authors as clients. I know I can’t sell their work. Not many editors, especially of children’s books, want to buy books about Jewish suffering. 

So why is my new book Holocaust-related?

I had originally self-published Greenhorn as a miniature book for collectors in 2006. A few months after I sent it to the publisher of my first book as a holiday gift, she called to say she wanted to publish it.

“Why?” I asked her. 

She said it was a provocative little book (this is the publisher who took the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn, so she’s no stranger to being provocative), and the book’s image of a tin box and its contents haunted her. 

That made me think about why I wanted to tell the story.

I first heard it on a tour bus in Israel in the mid-1980s. I had traveled there on a group trip with my synagogue, and as we approached Jerusalem, the rabbi told us about a little boy who had lost his parents in the Holocaust, who wouldn’t speak when he came to live at the Brooklyn yeshiva where the rabbi was in the sixth grade, and who wouldn’t let a tin box out of his sight. The story about the little boy stayed with me for years.

My rabbi, a witness to the story, was preoccupied with leading his large congregation. He wouldn’t write the story. And I had no idea where the little boy was 40 years later, so I couldn’t ask him to write the story. Was it my responsibility? How could a childless woman, born in America after the Holocaust, whose ancestors had left Eastern Europe in the 1890s, tell this story of a little boy who couldn’t let a tin box out of his sight? 

But I knew if I didn't write the story, it would be lost.

How to tell it? Interview the rabbi? Create a video? An audio?

Like many people in publishing, I wonder about the future of books. I see people walking along streets disengaged from their surroundings. They are listening to their iPods or looking at their iPhones, and they are not reading books. 

At home they have Facebook, Twitter, videos, computer games to entertain them, which means that books have to be flashy, electronic, fast to compete. 

But also like many people in publishing, I believe in silence and traditional books.

So I wrote the story about the little boy who survived the Holocaust as a book for young readers. And as I began to write the story of Greenhorn, I also began to discover what I was writing about. 

Because when I really listened to this story, I heard in it something deeper than suffering, something deeper than loss. The little boy, who wouldn’t speak when he came to America, who wouldn’t let the tin box out of his sight, made a friend. Later, he agreed to live with his friend’s family. And then he let go of his box. The little boy moved on. The story had hope.

And something happened to me in the years that I was writing and revising the story: I moved on. I went from being a woman saddened by not having her own family to being a woman immersed in the joy of children’s books as an author and literary agent—and in my middle 50s, a woman who married for the first time. I have a husband now, the start of my own family. 

So part of the story is mine now, too. The part that is hope. 

It may be tough to sell a children’s book about the Holocaust, but it’s even tougher not to have hope

And hope is what this column is about.

Anna Olswanger is the author of Greenhorn, published by NewSouth Books. She is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates. This essay originally appeared in Publishers Weekly and is reprinted with permission.