The ProsenPeople

Asher Lev as a Model for Rembrandt

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nina Siegal wrote about being Jewish in Amsterdam. Her newest novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

After reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.

At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.

Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.

After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.

Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.

Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross... A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.

But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.

That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. She got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her and her work here.

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On Writing Jewish Books For Children

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Leslie A. Kimmelman

“Why do you write so many Jewish books for kids?” I’m asked frequently.

The truth is, writing Jewish books for kids was never my intention. Judaism is an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until some time after I’d finished my first picture book in the late 1980s and couldn’t find a good Hanukkah book for my then-preschool-aged daughter, that I even considered it. I’d been looking for something simple—not the story of the holiday, but rather, what she’d experience during the holiday: the lighting of the candles, the tasting of the latkes, the spinning of the dreidels. And please, some colorful pictures to go with. The Jewish books I remembered from my childhood were disappointingly didactic, with way too much text and way too little color—drab cousins to the vibrant stories and lavish illustrations of the Christmas titles (think The Night Before Christmas or The Gift of the Magi). They were more about the responsibility of being Jewish than about the fun and warmth of being part of a wider religious community. I can’t say I was enticed.

So I wrote my own, very basic, manuscript. It eventually became Ha­nukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights. Because I was a children’s book editor then in a large publishing house, I went first to my own colleagues. It’s hard to believe today, but there was a lot of discussion about whether there’d be enough people interested in a Hanukkah title from a trade (rather than a specialty Jewish) publisher. My response, only partly tongue-in-cheek, was something along the lines of, We may be small in number, but we’re all readers, and we all celebrate Hanukkah! After the title went on to good sales in hardcover, paperback, and board book editions, my editor asked me to do something similar for Passover, then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then a book for all the holidays together. And I was off...

The world of Jewish children’s books has, happily, grown exponen­tially; there are a dizzying number of great choices now, from just about every publisher and about every conceivable topic—fiction and nonfic­tion, funny and serious, thoughtful and inspiring, contemporary and old-fashioned, and most of the time, gorgeously illustrated. It’s hearten­ing to see a growing library of high-quality titles that introduce Jewish children to the core beliefs and values of their religion and connect them to their roots. Books in which they can see themselves reflected. It is no less important that children of other faiths have access to these books. Living in New York City, it’s easy to forget how many people there are with little or no exposure to the Jewish religion. (I remember how shocked I was to learn from my first college roommate that she’d never met anyone Jewish before; later in my freshman year, the college food service considerately—and naively—ordered beautiful braided challahs “all the way from New York City” to help celebrate Passover.)

I’ve been asked if it’s limiting to write Jewish books. Judaism has an ancient history and fascinating culture to research, colorful traditions to explore, a rich religion to delve into, and a wonderfully unique sense of humor to make use of. I keep a list of colorful Yiddish proverbs above my desk, in case one should spark an idea—sayings like Truth never dies, but lives a wretched life and If God were living on Earth, people would break his windows. How can writing about Judaism be limiting?!

Many people involved in children’s books will tell you that, in general, while girls will read books with boys as the main character, the reverse isn’t typically true. Boys mostly want to read only about boys. In the same vein, could it be true that Jewish children will read books with non-Jewish main characters, but not the other way around? Jewish children are used to reading about their favorite characters irrespective of religion, and they don’t bat an eyelash. I’m not sure if the reverse is always true. I believe that the more children’s books are available with explicitly Jewish characters, whether or not they have explicitly Jewish stories, the closer we will get. It feels good to be a small part of creating this library.

Leslie A. Kimmelman has been a children’s book editor for more than twenty-five years, and currently works at Sesame Workshop. She is also the author of many picture books for children, including many with Jew­ish themes, such as The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah and The Shabbat Puppy. She and her family live near New York City.

Book Cover of the Week: The Baroness

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

Hannah Rothschild's 2012 book The Baroness is an expose of her great-aunt Nica, the "rebellious Rothschild," a woman who lived out her years hovering on the edge of society. The book cover illustration capturing Nica's particular je ne sais quoi is by San Francisco based artist couple Vivenne Flesher and Ward Shumaker.

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Downton Abbey Made Me Do It

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Permalink

This week, JBC Network author Wendy Wax, the author of While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, blogs for The Postscript on the inspiration for writing her newest book The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

If you're an Anglophile who loves Downton Abbey and wants to read more about the lives of British Jews, see our reading list on the British Jewish Experience.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of television programs in my day, but Downton Abbey is the first one that inspired me to write a novel.

I won’t say I was living in a cave at the time, but I did somehow miss season one and only tuned in after some prodding from a friend. I was hooked immediately and was in the middle of a weekend long Downton Abbey marathon, when I started imagining how cool it would be if I could find a way to use my new addiction to bring together my own cast of characters.

As I pondered the possibilities, I realized that while I wanted Downton Abbey to be at the heart of the story, I didn’t want the story to be about the program. I wanted it to be about my characters.

What evolved is While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, a story about three strangers and the British concierge of their Atlanta high-rise, who meet and bond through weekly Downton Abbey viewing parties. All are at crossroads in their lives and none anticipate the unexpected friendships that form between them. Serious fans of the show will notice that some of the characters are inspired by those living at Downton Abbey both upstairs and down; Samantha Davis, like Lady Mary is financially responsible for her younger siblings and marries Atlanta ‘Royalty’ (old money) to take care of them. Edward Parker, the building’s British concierge is a modern take on butler Carson except he has a degree from Cornell and George Clooney looks. (A writer has to have her fun!)

Together Samantha Davis, Claire Walker, Brooke Mackenzie and Edward Parker watch seasons one and two unfold. While we see bits and pieces of the episodes, the focus is on them, their growth, and their developing friendship. There are no spoilers for fellow latecomers and no need for anyone to feel left out if they haven’t watched Downton Abbey. In fact, some readers have told me the book spurred them to watch the show.

As I wrote what Newsday later dubbed ‘possibly the first novel written about fans of the show,’ my Downton Abbey addiction intensified. I don’t leave my house on Sunday nights when it airs and I can—and have—spent long hours happily discussing the lavish costumes and settings as well as the twists and turns of the series’ storylines. I blew my household Kleenex budget halfway through season three. And when my husband found me crying in a darkened room after one particular death bed departure, I had to reassure him that I didn’t want a divorce and I was fairly certain that I didn’t need antidepressants.

The truth is, I’m hanging on by a slim thread until season five airs in the states in January. Every day I have to fight the urge to read Downton gossip and I can only hope I’ll have the strength to duck spoilers when the new season airs in the U.K. months before we see it. I console myself with the thought that my novel can provide a temporary ‘fix’ for others experiencing this kind of withdrawal.

I’m always excited when a book club adopts While We Were Watching Downton Abbey and love hearing about groups that discuss my book and dish about my favourite series, sometimes while dressed in Downton-era clothing, sipping Downton style tea or cocktails, and snacking on British delicacies. I’m also thrilled that my publisher has selected While We Were Watching Downton Abbey for their Read Pink campaign this fall and that they’re offering a complimentary copy to JBC book clubs that would like to consider it*.

I’m happy to have had this chance to be in touch with you all. I hope you’ll stop by my site authorwendywax.com to read reviews and excerpts of my novels or, if you’d like me to join your discussion by phone or via Skype. You know, whatever I can do to help other Downton addicts hang on until the new season begins.

*Book giveaway closes on Friday, June 27 at noon ET.

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On Being Jewish in Amsterdam

Monday, June 23, 2014 | Permalink

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. Her most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Recently, a journalist who was interviewing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jewish New Yorker living in Amsterdam. She put it this way: “Is it okay for you there?” As it happens, the interviewer was a Dutch Jewish woman who had moved to New York, where, she confessed to me, she felt a lot more “at home.” “It’s hard to be Jewish in Amsterdam,” she said.

It was interesting to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch people I’ve met here are always saying what an open, tolerant, international city Amsterdam is, and how Jews have always been so welcome here. But the truth is, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve felt “at home” as a Jewish person in Amsterdam, though I have been living here for the last eight years and in many other ways I do feel at home.

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. I rented my first apartment in the part of the city where Rembrandt used to live, which is known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish quarter. The Rembrandt House Museum, in Rembrandt’s former home, is on the Jodenbreestraat, or Jewish Broadway.

Ever since the sixteenth century this quarter of the city, outside of the Centrum, had been a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution first from Portugal and Spain, and later from Central and Eastern Europe. For a long time, scholars used to insist that Rembrandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neighborhood and painted portraits of a famous Amsterdam rabbi and several Old Testament scenes here, but more recently that history has been called into question.

This is the neighborhood where Baruch Spinoza lived and worked. There are five synagogues in that neighborhood on a single block, including the awe-inspiring seventeenth-century Portuguese Synagogue, and four other synagogues that now comprise the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, a temple to a tragic history.

Amsterdam was indeed once known as city that was welcoming to Jews, who were granted citizenship as early as 1616; for years the city was known as “Mokum” the Hebrew word for “place.” And of course everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a German Jew whose family moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuccessfully, of course.

Some people still call it Mokum, and the Dutch national soccer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as “the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands perished in WWII, the highest percentage loss of a national population in all of Europe, according to the Columbia Guide to the Holocaust.

The Jewish community, such as it is, is now centered in the southern part of the city, and walking through Rembrandt’s old neighborhood feels like walking through a ghost town, with many of the Jewish buildings denuded of their former cultural purpose, or turned to memorials. Lots of the buildings in the district are new, too, and that’s because after the Jewish families were rounded up here, their homes were looted and ransacked to the extent that even the lumber was stripped from their walls and floors by desperate Amsterdammers during the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strangely, the experience of living and working in that neighborhood made me feel more Jewish than I had ever felt growing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jewish communities, surrounded by Jews. I have always called myself a “secular, cultural Jew,” who feels connected to Jewish life, but doesn’t practice any form of observance. I have no Dutch ancestry, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the family was from Hungary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s relatives in Hungary died in Auschwitz; my grandfather survived three concentration camps, and was liberated from Mauthausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well.

Surrounded by a completely destroyed Jewish community, I started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jewish community holding services in the beautiful local temples, there were historical artifacts documenting those disappeared customs and people. Where there used to be a lively Jewish theater, filled with actors, musicians and laughter, there is now an empty shell of a building filled with a memorial wall and a single burning flame.

Over time, being in the Jodenbuurt engendered in me a deep sense of longing for a community I never knew. It made me long, too, for the community of easy Jewishness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still people simply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s question, I had to confess that somehow being here in Amsterdam helped me connect with some part of the reality of being a Jewish person. Not to connect to the culture that I had come to know as Jewish culture, but to come into contact with the element of our history that is absence, disappearance, and devastation. That is still very real here in Amsterdam, as it is in other parts of Europe, too, even if there are few people who want to talk about it anymore today.

None of that made it into the Rembrandt novel, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m beginning to embark on now.

Nina Siegal got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her here.

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A Legacy of Fear

Friday, June 20, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher wrote about a travel story in the bible that goes terribly wrong and shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was biking recently in the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains in southern California, and I found myself far more uncomfortable on the descent than I was on the way up. I realized that I’m used to making extra effort. It’s the easy things that scare me.

It’s no accident I’m a writer. Or Jewish.

My great-grandmother Sophie fled the Cossacks as a teenager, and that’s pretty much all I or anyone in my family knows about her. I remember asking where she came from, and the answer was uniformly, “She had a hard life.” I remember asking if she had brothers or sisters, and the answer was the same, “She had a hard life.”

I should note that it was said with pride. My great-grandmother struggled, and through her struggle she survived. Fleeing the Cossacks was both a cross to bear and a badge of honor.

Now I don’t want to generalize, but I think that Jews sometimes have a hard time getting over adverse events. I mean it’s been three thousand years and we’re still trying to get closure about being slaves in Egypt.

The thing about fleeing Cossacks or Nazis, or ancient Egyptians for that matter, is that you never entirely stop fleeing. I believe it can become part of your identity—and part of your legacy. And it can become what you pass down to your children, like candlesticks and kiddush cups.

I was raised to believe Cossacks could appear at any moment. But there aren’t a lot of Cossacks in suburban Michigan. So my family worried instead about things like salmonella, Radon gas, and poorly wrapped Halloween candy.

Fear was considered a virtue. Fear makes you careful. Fear keeps you safe. And safety was the number one concern. As it probably has been for millennia.

My book The Scenic Route is about someone who places safety above all other concerns. The protagonist is a Detroit doctor determined to make safe and prudent choices in life. But in a world where hospitals—and even cities—can go bankrupt, is there such a thing as a safe choice?

It seems doubtful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee health and happiness. Continuous vigilance can be exhausting. The moral of The Scenic Route is that life is what happens on the way to where you’re going, and I firmly believe that. Yet I continue to put in extra effort fighting uphill battles in everything from my writing to my exercise regimen. I guess I’m scared not to.

Devan Sipher graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. Read more about him and his work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 20, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Writing About The Holocaust

Thursday, June 19, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Margareta Ackerman wrote about trying to reconcile her granfather's happy personality with the horrors he suffered during the Holocaust. Her recently published book, Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Child, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

It was a day like any other. I was absorbed in the details of my life, answering an overflowing stack of emails and worrying about trivial things, when the phone rang.

“We’re done translating Grandpa’s notes,” said my dad. “Would you, by some chance, be willing to go over them and turn them into a book?”

“Of course!” I replied right away. It sounded like no more than a thorough editing job. It struck me that my dad was surprised by my quick reply.

He sent the notes over. Grandpa Srulik spent a couple of months writing about his life. Then, my brother and father translated his notes from Russian to English.

I printed the translation and read over the notes in minutes; ten pages to summarize the life of a man who had had suffered enough heartache to fill a thousand lifetimes. As I read, I recalled him speaking about his life. I could see his muscles tense at some particularly difficult parts of his story. Reading other sections, I could hear him let out a hearty laugh as he tried to lighten the load on both the listener and himself by finding bits of humor in his infinitely painful life.

Yet, without knowing my grandpa, or at least having heard his story firsthand, these notes were not enough; without him to personally bring them to life, the words lay flat on the page. I couldn’t leave it at that. That’s when I understood what I had signed up for, and why my dad was so surprised by my quick reply. Yet, I was certainly not about to change my mind. This may take a while, maybe as long as three months, but I am going to do it, I thought.

I spent many hours talking with Grandpa, trying to get as much information as possible. This was no easy task. Grandpa didn’t like talking about his past. More often than not, he would simply reply, “I already wrote about that, go look at my notes.” I had to keep the conversations brief, and omit some questions altogether, so as not to upset him. Through these unofficial interviews, I learned much more about my grandpa’s life than I thought there was to know.

Grandpa’s original notes had only a few sentences devoted to his life before the war. I felt that this wasn’t enough. I spent many months working on the early part of his memoir, familiarizing the reader with his warm, loving family of origin, and showing what was normal for him before the Nazi occupation.

The following section, detailing Srulik’s initial escape from the Nazis, was more difficult to write. It was hard to identify with horrors of such proportion. But after many conversations with Grandpa, I was finally content with that part of the book.

Then, it was time to write about the worst of it: the Nazi ghetto. I spent hours staring at an empty screen, not able to type as much as a single word. After many failed attempts to continue writing, I was close to giving up altogether. Did I bite off more than I could chew? Who am I to write about a tragedy this large? I hadn’t wrote a word in three months.

Guilt kept eating away at me. Unsure how to proceed, I decided to turn to others’ memoirs. There I was, reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s heartfelt comic about his dad’s experience in the Holocaust, and in its pages I saw the same fears that I was dealing with. “Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz,” writes Spiegelman, “I can’t visualize it clearly, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like.”

Realizing that I was not the only one struggling to relay to the reader such horrific events gave me strength to carry on. I buckled down and wrote a paragraph. By the time that paragraph was over, so was my ability to continue writing for the evening. I wrote the third part of the book literally one paragraph a day.

I then quickly put together the fourth, and final, part of the book, about Grandpa’s final escape and his two years hiding in the forests. The writing was done. I couldn’t believe it.

By the time the book was written, edited, illustrated, and published, three and half years had passed. This project called on all of my critical, creative, and emotional capacities, and became one of the most important and personally significant projects I’d ever done.

Writing about the Holocaust is hard. Forget writing - even reading about it is hard. Although I wrote my Grandpa’s memoir, and read every word in it countless times, some parts still bring me to tears. Even today, there are sections that I prefer to skip when I leaf through the book.

Yet, despite how difficult it is, it is crucial that we record this dark chapter in our history. We, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, have a big responsibility before us. It is our duty to pass on the stories of our loves ones. It might be hard to appreciate the importance of our work today - but too soon, the written word will be the only thing left to transmit their memories, and protect the integrity of this dark part in our history.

Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher, author and granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and has won numerous awards for her research. Dr. Ackerman is the author of over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. She is joining the faculty of Florida State University this year.

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Reading Freedom Summer

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Books on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer are classified under African American history and civil rights. But the project was rife with Jewish participation.

Organizations from the civil rights movement including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) led the voter registration and education campaign. We mark the 50th anniversary this summer. The actual event went well beyond the best-known names—New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman with Mississippian James Chaney. They were the civil rights workers who went missing in the first days of the project and who later were found brutally murdered by local law enforcement connected to the local Klan.

A number of books recount the complex organization that went into the massive voter registration drives and educational efforts that set up Freedom Schools in the state with the reputation for being the most racist and brutal. There were an estimated 650 volunteers, mostly Northerners, mostly white, and mostly students.

Reading these stories links the Jewish American narrative to the African American efforts to stamp out discrimination. Many of these long unsung heroes for democracy and diversity were inspired by the injustice of the Holocaust. The civil rights workers and the summer volunteers challenged the roadblocks set up by the state of Mississippi to keep Blacks from voting, getting a decent education, and holding elected offices.

Freedom Summer by academic Doug McAdam (Oxford University Press, 1988) traces the chronology of events with voices from the Freedom Summer volunteers themselves. McAdam conducted numerous additional surveys and interviews with volunteers. He traced the origins of the project from the search for volunteers, the unique and jarring training, through the immediate impact of Freedom Summer. He delves into the lessons of Mississippi with the participants, finding out how the volunteers and society were impacted through the 1970s.

Back in 1964, organizers used a WATS line in the Magnolia State to document the violence and organize movements.

They logged:

4 project workers killed
4 persons critically wounded
80 workers beaten
1000 arrests
37 churches bombed or burned
30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned

An epic read, McAdam’s photographic inserts documenting the events include images of sweaty young women teaching Mississippians in rudimentary Freedom Schools and young male college students organizing voter registration drives. I was riveted by the photograph of the young, whippet-thin widow Rita Schwerner, who told the second group of Freedom Summer participants training in Ohio that her husband’s disappearance only made it more important that the project go forward.

Bruce Watson’s 2010 book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking) is a powerful narrative. Watson links Freedom Summer’s impact to the twenty-first century and the election of the first black president. It is rooted in the African-American victims and heroes including Freedom Summer organizer Bob Moses.

Watson is direct about the controversial nature of Freedom Summer. He wrote that SNCC “had braved Mississippi when no one else would. They still bore the scars—bloody welts, broken bones, bullet wounds you could put your finger in. And now a bunch of white college kids with names like Pam and Geoff were being invited to Mississippi to gather headlines and plaudits for bravery.”

Their names also included: Jacob Blum, Paul Cowen, Bob Feinglass, Barney Frank, Adam Klein, Ruth Koenig, Rita Koplowitz, Robert Mandel, Sara Lieber, Betty Levy, Mark Levy, Michael Lipsky, Judy Michelowsky, Ira Landess, Mendy Samstein, Nancy Samstein, Peter Rabinowitz, Gretchen Schwartz, and Ellen Siegel.

Watson’s descriptive writing captures the often pampered participants’ youthful idealism, their elation connecting with black Mississippians, especially the intellectual hunger and the palpable fear. Watson’s research on the Schwerners and Andrew Goodman and his family paints a picture of their passion for civil rights.

In the center photo-spread of a volunteer bathing next to a hand pump, a student engaging in door-to-door voter registration, and an idealistic teacher with her students’ work is an image of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld beaten and bloody on a voter registration foray in Hattiesburg.

Letters from Mississippi by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, published by McGraw Hill in 1965, is full of the raw emotion and feelings the participants expressed to their parents and friends as the events were unfolding. You can feel the exhilaration, fear, heat, and mosquitos. The book has a quilt-like quality utilizing the actual words of the volunteers. “Batesville welcomed us trium­phantly—at least Black Batesville did….. Sometimes when we pass by, the children cheer.”

The book follows the characters fighting their battles with violent rednecks, the heat, and poverty. There are also victories. One Freedom School teacher wrote: “The atmosphere in class is unbelievable….They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted and happy.”

Readers may come away deflated, like the participants themselves as they left the Magnolia State. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was not seated on the floor of the Democratic National Convention and racism did not disappear after 1964.

These books are a window into the strength of inter-racial coalitions of the early-1960s and the idealists who participated.

If you're interested in finding out more about the Freedom Summer, check out the events and locations for the traveling exhibit "A Freedom Summer Exhibit for Students from the Wisconsin Historical Society," here.

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.

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The Path of a Wandering Jew

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I never intended to write novels.

I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.

After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.

So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.

Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)

In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.

Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.

The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.

The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.

The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.

Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.

Devan Sipher graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. Read more about him and his work here.

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