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Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Erica S. Perl

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Erica S. Perl's All Three Stooges, winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children's Literature, is about a boy, Noah, just trying to get through seventh grade and his bar mitzvah year. Then his best friend's dad commits suicide. Here's what the Children's Literature panel judges had to say: "Believable, empathetic characters deliver grief, humor, and friendship in a moving plot immersed in positive Judaism.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Sydney Taylor, Judy Blume, and E. L. Konigsburg.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

E. L. Konigsburg’s Jenifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Donna Gephart, Judith Viorst, Elana K. Arnold, Laurel Snyder, Emily Jenkins, and I am probably forgetting SEVERAL. Oops, did I only mention women? Alan Silberberg.

What are you reading right now?

I am reading Elissa Brent Weissman’s The Length of a String. Next up is Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral and Brandy Colbert’s Little and Lion. The last two books I finished were Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep (a National Jewish Book Award finalist) and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X—I loved both!

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

I started taking improv because I like performing. It turns out that the goal of improv is not pleasing your audience but having a successful connection with your scene partners. I find this to be a good reminder to be your honest self and write from your heart.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that readers will come away with an awareness of the healing power of empathy and an appreciation of the gift of laughter.

On Golems and Empathy: An Interview with Jonathan Auxier

Monday, February 11, 2019 | Permalink

I recently had the opportunity to ask Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, some questions about his acclaimed novel. Sweep—a finalist for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and winner of the 2019 Sydney Taylor Gold Award in the Older Readers category—has impressed both readers and critics with its compelling characters and exciting narrative, as well as its sophisticated integration of history and fiction. Auxier has made a significant new literary contribution to the Jewish myth of the golem, a supernatural being invested with the hopes and fears of oppressed people.

Emily Schneider: You mention your visit to Prague at the age of nineteen, and how much the city seemed imbued with the myth of the golem, Rabbi Loew’s sixteenth-century monstrous creature sent to rescue the Jewish people from danger. At the time, you weren’t familiar with this mysterious figure in Jewish folklore, but you became fascinated by it. Why you do you think you maintained this fascination over the years, and eventually pursued it as an author?

Jonathan Auxier: It’s hard to say why certain ideas lodge into the heart of a writer. I think many traditional monsters lack complexity that feels true to the way the world works. That’s not the case with the golem of Prague. His entire genesis is rooted in the (ugly) way the world works. And even when Rabbi Loew uses magic to save his community, the outcome is not unambiguously happy: the golem himself, for all his enchanted might, cannot escape the pain of what it means to live in this world.

Another reason the golem stuck with me for all those years was that it still felt like unexplored territory. The golem is a creature of folklore, rather than literature. He has not been confined to a single definitive text (contrast this with Frankenstein’s monster or Count Dracula or Mr. Hyde—all of whom are inextricably linked to their authors). The golem of Prague is certainly the most famous golem, but he is not the only golem. Virtually every golem I’ve ever encountered is slightly different than those that have come before. There’s a freedom to this, as it lets a writer build a story around a specific character rather than a canonical narrative. Also, they’re fun to draw!

ES: One of the most rewarding qualities of your book is its simultaneous sophistication and accessibility. Young readers will become wrapped up in the excitement of the story, but there are so many intricate historical and literary ingredients that bring it to life. The past of children’s literature is very much alive in your book! Can you tell us about the literary influences on Sweep?

JA: The chief non-golem literary influence is definitely Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Some say this was the first “modern” children’s book. It’s a strange, very dated novel, but the beginning is gripping: it details the horrible life of a “climbing boy”—one of countless children working as chimney sweeps in the nineteenth century. Once I read Water Babies, I was hooked. The more I researched climbing boys, the more I knew I wanted to write a story set in that world.

The one problem is that the history of climbing boys is unimaginably bleak. There were research days I was so emotionally destroyed that I didn’t think I could go on. And so I began looking for stories that might teach me how to find hope in hopeless situations. I ended up coming back to two favorites: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. I think those stories, each in their own way, showed me a path through the impossibly bleak world of chimney sweeps.

ES: Your young heroine, Nan Sparrow, is vulnerable and strong. As parents, we know that our children all begin life in need of our protection. You have written about how becoming a parent of three children, one with special needs, had a definite impact on your vision of Nan. Can you explain this connection between your life and your work?

JA: Just to be clear, my youngest daughter’s disability only relates to this question insofar as she came with attendant health problems (chiefly, a congenital heart defect called AVSD); facing the possibility that she might not survive forced me to reckon with what it means to care for someone who I might not be able to protect from harm. That experience was a heightened version of what any parent experiences with any child. Being a parent changes you. All of this to say that having daughters was less about informing Nan’s characterization and more about deepening my understanding of the Sweep—the whole story stems from what he can and cannot do to protect Nan from harm.

ES:Another quality that stands out in Sweep is empathy: for children, for laborers, for women, for Jews. If you will excuse the chutzpah of this question, how did you develop and convey such a great sense of empathy for the Jewish people (which is central to the novel, in the myth of the golem and in the character of Esther Bloom)?

JA: I’m glad to hear that empathy came through, because it’s certainly there—the warm reception of Sweep in the Jewish community has meant so, so much to me. In practical terms, I worked with a number of outside readers and had a lot of conversations about the Jewish experience, which is a big part of it. And before that came years of research: as with many of the uglier aspects of human history, the only way to deny it is to ignore it. It’s impossible to read about marginalized groups in Victorian London and not be horrified—and it’s impossible not to read current headlines and see that these issues are with us still. I think it was Neil Gaiman who referred to books as “little empathy machines.” I came to care about these other identities and concerns by reading books. It is my deepest hope that Sweep has that effect on some future reader.

ES: In the historical note included at the end of the book, you remind readers that child labor is still, tragically, a reality today. How did you achieve a balance in Sweep between telling the stories of unique individuals, and bringing in social issues which are important to you?

JA: This is a place where Nan’s journey mirrors my own. I’m not an activist at heart—I’m a homebody who just wants to be left in peace. At the beginning of the book, Nan is very similar: she wants to keep her head down, do her job, and survive. Characters repeatedly try to form relationships that she rejects. It isn’t until she’s saddled with an infant golem that she has no choice but to open herself up to relationship. And once that happens, it’s a slippery slope! Once you start caring about one other person, it pushes you to care for another and another and so on until you start to care about the world. At some point while writing Sweep I understood that Nan’s journey was one of isolation to social consciousness—of connecting herself to her larger community in service of justice. Over the ten years it took to write this book, I underwent a similar change . . . I’m still not sure if Nan led me there or vice-versa!

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She has published on children's literature, feminism, and politics in Tablet, The Foward, Jewcy, and Family Reading at the Hornbook. She blogs about children's books at https://imaginaryelevators.blog/.

This interview was coordinated in collaboration with the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries. Check out all of the interviews with Sydney Taylor Award winners being published this week.

New Reviews February 11, 2019

Monday, February 11, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Bram Presser

Thursday, February 07, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt  is the winner of the 2018 Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. The Debut Fiction panel judges write: The Book of Dirt is “the mystery of Jakub Rand, the chronicler of Jewish books for the Nazis’ planned Museum of the Extinct Race. It is the story of Frantiska Roubickova, who watches her mischlinge (mixed) daughters taken away by the Nazis, and who persevered in providing for them under impossible conditions. And it is the story of two courageous sisters who embraced life in the face of intolerable challenges . . . Presser succeeds in giving us a first novel that goes well beyond what is expected from a debut. The Book of Dirt firmly establishes Presser as an author to watch.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Bruno Schulz, Oliver Sacks, Aharon Appelfeld. Though I’d prefer they were alive at dinner.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks. A dark, surreal delight. Can I also put in a nod to The Maimed by Hermann Ungar? Kafka’s contemporary, woefully underappreciated.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Shalom Auslander, Cynthia Ozick, Arnold Zable, Ben Marcus, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, David Grossman, Rutu Modan, Orly Castel-Bloom. I could go on forever.

What are you reading right now?

Godsend by John Wray, My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and The Emigrants by WG Sebald.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Chance encounters. Nightmares. Caffeine. And punk rock.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that through my family’s story, readers of The Book of Dirt go away thinking differently about how we might carry the torch of Holocaust remembrance, the sort of stories we can tell and the way in which we tell them. Moreover, I hope it challenges readers to ask how well they really know the people they love and then to go and talk with them, question them, truly engage before it’s too late.

Image credit: Adrian Elton Creative

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Erika Meitner

Tuesday, February 05, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Erika Meitner's Holy Moly Carry Me is the winner of the 2018 Berru Poetry Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash. As reviewer Emily Heiden writes, the book "taps into national conversations on topics including motherhood, infertility, terrorism, Judaism, school shootings, the 2016 election, and race . . . A real, honest, scared voice [pervades] the work, asking questions like: How are we so vulnerable? How do we care for each other? How can we stay safe? Meitner gives voice to the fears of the moment in this portrait of a very unsettled American time."

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

I would love to go for Sunday morning dim sum with Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Barbara Myerhoff.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

My current favorite book no one has heard of is Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), an amazing novella about crossings and translations.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

There are so many amazing younger Jewish poets writing right now: Jason Schneiderman, Rachel Zucker, Jehanne Dubrow, Rosebud Ben-Oni, sam sax, Chanda Feldman, Robin Beth Schaer, Ilya Kaminsky, Alicia Jo Rabins, Laura Eve Engel, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Matthew Lippman—I could go on and on. In terms of novelists, I am perpetually amazed by Idra Novey, Rachel Kadish, and Eduardo Halfon.

What are you reading right now?

I usually read many books at one time. Right now I'm actually reading two books—Milkman by Anna Burns (which is about Northern Ireland, where I was a Fulbright Fellow in 2015), and Laura Eve Engel's Things That Go (poems, just published this month, which are partially a retelling of the story of Lot's wife).

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

I adore visual art of all kinds—but especially photography, sculpture, and painting—and when I'm back in New York City (or any city, really) I always try to make it to museums or gallery shows for inspiration! The Hilda af Klimt show at the Guggenheim, and the David Wojnarowicz and Andy Warhol shows at the Whitney were both fabulous!

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope my book complicates narratives of Appalachia, and moves people beyond stereotypes. I also hope it challenges readers to think about the ways in which we often see people as 'other,' and to consider what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Image credit: Toya Earley

Writing the Unspeakable: Teaching Literature of the Shoah and American Slavery

Tuesday, February 05, 2019 | Permalink

By Ilana M. Blumberg

Sometimes the courses we teach choose us. In 1996, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania with the opportunity to design my own first-year writing seminar. Although I was specializing in Victorian fiction, struggling to make sense of Trollope’s church politics (what was the difference between a bishop and a deacon anyway?) and George Eliot’s apostasy, and even Dickens’s Christmas tales, I found myself proposing a seminar far from England and its many churches and articles of faith.

As if from nowhere, a syllabus materialized in which, with extreme clarity, I laid out a course of study that paired texts about American slavery with those on the Shoah, the Holocaust of European Jewry, to investigate the relations between literacy and historical trauma. I was compelled by stories of what seemed impossible to write but had to be written. I wondered how language could bring together realities that seemed impossible to solder: the before, during, and after of lives shaped or interrupted by extreme violence and then restored or newly established as “ordinary” lives of human dignity. How could the same language suffice to capture both realities? How could the same letter I represent a self who had lived a life nearly impossible to credit from the other side?

At the same time, I was fascinated then—as I remain today—by the differences between fictional and nonfictional accounts of these crises, that is, the intersections of the literary and the historical. I knew the course needed to begin with autobiography. I wanted the voices of those who had been there—those who had seen and suffered because of the accidents of their birth, and then written to testify—to survive. But I wanted fiction, too— works that said you can inhabit others’ experience. The accidents of your birth matter, but they can never be all that matters. In a world where they are all that matters, we may find ourselves witness to or engaged in racial slavery or ethnic cleansing.

The work of the course insisted that across time and space, we are all human beings. To meet each other, there is such a thing as research; there is such a thing as responsible historical imagination. Boundaries can be crossed. Sometimes they must be crossed—with care and extreme caution.

I could not have known it in 1996, but I would wind up teaching variations of that course to American college students for nearly twenty years, in three different universities. Every time I thought of setting it aside, another student would tell me that he or she had never read such things, that they had never considered a world organized by the wholesale abrogation of some people’s human rights—that all they had known came from flat textbooks or shiny museums. And then, again, I would feel I did not have the right to stop teaching it, even when I wanted to.

Looking back, it is striking to me now that this course, with its shattering content, was from start to finish a writing course. For almost twenty years, I chose to teach students the mundane freshman skills of “reading and writing” from sacred texts of suffering and survival. These were texts that attested to the power of literacy to oppose wrong; to reassert identity and sometimes community; to describe the reverberations of history in our bodies, our families, our houses of prayer, our national institutions. Painstakingly, I taught the workaday things I had been hired to teach—close reading, topic sentences, working with quotations, building a descriptive thesis—from these texts, written in fire and blood. I married form and content: I taught the power of the word through powerful words, giving our own amateur attempt to formulate ideas the charge of historical responsibility – of world-making.I believed that teaching such texts and such skills might make actors of readers. This was my unconscious answer to the role of an educator in a world visibly roiled by war, hatred, murder, and competing, perhaps irreconcilable, needs and interests. I trusted—perhaps naively—that if you read such things, you would feel you had no alternative but to take to the streets, or to the pen, or to certain kinds of work or volunteerism because the world still held no shortage of troubles: genocide; slavery; dehumanizing labor and living conditions that made education nearly unattainable; impossible, violence-inducing gaps between haves and have-nots. I believed that reading such texts would make you seek out the injustices in what the ancient rabbis called your own daled amot, that is, your own near environs.

As I taught and retaught that course on American slavery and the Shoah, students and sometimes colleagues would ask me how I understood the coupling of those two bodies of material: What did it mean to set these histories next to each other? I asked myself this question, too, and when I could not articulate a satisfying theoretical answer, I returned to my practical answer: to attend intently to the particularities of each text we studied, to elucidate differences, and to note commonalities—not to compare historical wounds.

But a new clarity arrived when my seventy-five-year-old Israeli uncle, a historian who had been hidden as a child by Poles during World War II, told me, in the heat of summer in Beer-Sheva, that he could not understand how I had paired American slavery and the Shoah. It was then that I understood for the first time that what I was teaching was my own ethical identity, my deepest commitments as a Jewish American, Gen-X adult. I was teaching my rationale for a vocation in education that had come as naturally as I had grown as a girl.

My two sets of texts constituted a coherent pair for a simple reason: both insisted, implicitly or explicitly, on the inviolable nature of every human life and the consequent obligations to a legal and social system built on justice and equality. This was the still, small voice: the calm, unwavering meeting point of Jewishness and Americanness that constituted the moral logic of my universe and my teaching. I saw my students, semester after semester, as just such human beings. Their existence was sui generis; their lives were valuable and briefly laid before me for nurturance. I saw them, especially the freshmen, as my charges.

When I ask myself where this intense consciousness of the sacred and the equal began, I think of my earliest encounters as a schoolchild studying the book of Genesis. In that book, human history—not Jewish history— begins as follows: “And God created humankind in God’s image.” Remarkably, over the course of my childhood and adolescence, the sacred nature of God’s creation of humanity seemed to lead naturally to the democratic ideals of equality and justice: if each human being is created in God’s image, then we are all of equal worth, with equal rights as a consequence. This distinctively American reading sidelined many other dimensions of the biblical worldview to teach a set of ethics that made national sense.

When religious faith settles upon central national values, it charges them with spirit. For better or for worse, children brought up on this meld of religious and national values do not experience them as a set of beliefs so much as a way of being a person in the world. To this day, it is impossible to say whether I believe in democratic values as a Jew or an American. And it was and is impossible to separate my sense of self from these values.

This excerpt from Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American is reprinted with permission from Rutgers University Press.

Texts used in the class:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
Primo Levi, "On Obscure Writing"
Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After
Cynthia Ozick, "The Shawl"
Jonathan Rosen, "The Trivialization of Tragedy"
Claude Lanzmann, sections from Shoah

Photo: The Climate Reality Project / Unsplash

Ilana M. Blumberg is a senior lecturer in English literature and director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels and the Sami Rohr Choice Award-winning memoir Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books.

An Excerpt from 'Willa & Hesper,' Amy Feltman's Debut Novel

Monday, February 04, 2019 | Permalink

A dough-faced rabbi and an eyeliner-smeared sidekick met us in the airport, holding a small green sign to demarcate their purpose. My layers bunched around my leggings. After the plane ride, I didn’t give a fuck anymore. We rerouted into a bulky gray tour bus with a long, sprawling German word emblazoned on its side. It was one-thirty in the German morning. I huddled against the window seat with the least leg room, cozy and compact, prickling with defensiveness and relief as Samantha slid past me into a row farther back. The rabbi’s sidekick, Jane, counted us off: one, two, eighteen. The bus meandered through downtown Düsseldorf, which twinkled with troubadours and drunkenness. I imagined all of our luggage colliding into each other in the amorphous darkness underneath the bus.

There was nowhere to be alone.

At the hostel, we discarded our belongings next to twin-sized beds and clustered into the “entertainment room!,” decorated with Roy Lichtenstein–like drawings of women with exaggerated pouty lips and yellow blobs of abstract sky. The chairs were metal, hued in complementary shades of watermelon and rind. I was desperately tired in a way that promised no sleep. In the seat next to mine, the girl with the L-initial necklace was trying to subtly employ her sleeve as a tissue. The TV screen shined darkly, crystalline, reflecting our airplane-stiffened bodies inching around the rabbi. He furtively licked his lips with the burgeoning of a group address.

“We have arrived,” he thundered, then cleared his throat for volume control. He told us how wonderful the trip would be; what a blessing it is for us to all be here together, studying our cultural history. In memory of our ancestors. Education, powerful, journey. Spirit. Jewish, Jewish. Stop criticizing the rabbi’s stale vocabulary, I reminded myself; this isn’t workshop. But it wasn’t just the phrasing, or the travel-funneled exhaustion—something about his delivery seemed insincere. Rehearsed. I was seeing the rabbi dismantled, in front a full-length mirror, practicing where to lay emphasis on each word, a sibilance sonata. I don’t trust you, I thought, and wanted to cry.

At graduate school, everyone I knew was an atheist. I alone was clandestine, anomalous, bound to ideas that the others considered a rite of passage to deny and weave into their narratives—at best with irony, and at worst with a brand of intellectual disdain that was predictable and monotonous but still led my stomach to windfall through my knees. Even my grandmother Joan, before she died, said that she thought all “real religious people” should be institutionalized. I did not know how to talk about God. I didn’t remember how to. Was this how to? Was believing just as much a performance as not believing?

The rabbi paused dramatically. “Now we will introduce ourselves,” he said, “and create a new community.” His wiry fingers were a cat’s cradle. “Please, go around and tell us your name, where you’re from, what you do for a living, and what compelled you to join the Jewish Young People’s Association for Remembrance and Change. Let’s begin with you,” he said, gesturing to Samantha.

“I hoped to gain greater insight about the injustice that faced my people throughout history,” Samantha reeled off in a poised, presentation-ready voice. I pushed my legs into each other until a squashed, slow pain entered my muscles. Kyle was the first person to say repression; Lauren was the first to use atrocity. No one was really listening, I consoled myself. My palms nipped with familiar clamminess. Bren made eye contact with me and held it.

“My name is Willa,” I started. “I am from New Jersey also. I study creative writing at Columbia. Um . . . why am I here, is that what’s next? My great-grandmother Cecilia died in the Holocaust.” Bren’s lips did something resembling a smile. “When I was eight . . .” I said, and then immediately regretted it because now I was going to tell this story. I couldn’t just stop. Or maybe I could make a different story. When I was eight, I decided I wanted to go to Germany and now I’m here. The end.

“When I was eight,” I said, “I had a Hebrew school teacher named Yael who got mad at me for wearing a red coat. It was winter, so a parka, I think. I really loved it. One day we were in Judaica class and she told me, if I were her daughter she would throw that coat out, and hadn’t we seen Schindler’s List? Didn’t we know what the red coat meant? And we hadn’t. She told us: that little girl died. The girl in the red coat. Yael was furious, and started talking about how irresponsible we were—our parents, that they just figured it was a history lesson but we should be talking about it, because it was going to happen again to us. Soon all of our coats would be red. She kept yelling, ‘It will happen again! It will happen again!’ And I ran straight home, you know, because it felt like the truth. Even to me, then; I was in third grade. But . . . it also felt like it had already happened to me. That I was carting around these repressed memories and it took a stranger to tell me what it was that kept me awake at night.”

I had been talking for too long and no one was looking at me besides Bren, and the rabbi.

“Shit,” Bren said finally. Someone shudderingly laughed.

Samantha eyed me. “You certainly have the capacity to bring down a room.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Thank you for sharing that powerful memory,” Rabbi boomed, glaring at Bren. “It was courageous.” His praise pulled like taffy, separating me even more determinedly from the group. “Courageous,” he repeated, and leaned forward to touch my hand. Do not recoil, I thought, and held my body still. I had cemented an identity for myself. The girl who knew death was coming.

Excerpted from WILLA & HESPER by Amy Feltman. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Feltman. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Amy Feltman graduated with an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University in 2016, and now works at Poets & Writers Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Believer logger, The Toast, The Millions, The Rumpus, Lilith Magazine, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story, "Speculoos," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and was long-listed for Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers.

New Reviews February 4, 2019

Monday, February 04, 2019 | Permalink

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The Real Gittel of "Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story"

Friday, February 01, 2019 | Permalink

By Lesléa Newman

“The world is made of stories, / Not of atoms” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote. All of us are made of stories: stories we’ve heard, stories we’ve read, stories we’ve made up, stories we’ve experienced, stories that come to us in dreams. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, there are stories and stories and stories nesting inside each of us just waiting to be born.

I don’t remember when I first heard the story of Sadie Gringrass (the real Gittel of my book, Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story). It seems that I have known this story all my life. I have certainly known Sadie’s daughter Phyllis for all my life. “Aunt Phyllis,” as I have called her for over sixty years, met my mother when they were both ten years old; they were best friends for seventy-four years, until my mother died. They had a lot in common—both were born in 1928, both grew up in Brooklyn, both were daughters of immigrants, both were Jewish, and both were beautiful. Later, they both married their high school sweethearts and became mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. But there was one important difference between them—while they both had two sons, my mother also had a daughter. And that daughter was me.

And boy, was I fussed over and adored! My hair was brushed until it shone. I was dressed in ribbons and lace. And while the boys were whisked away by their dads to play stickball in the street, I was left behind to sit in the kitchen while my mother, Aunt Phyllis, and their friends played Mah Jongg, smoked Chesterfield King cigarettes, drank instant Maxwell House Coffee, noshed on fistfuls of chocolate-covered peanuts and Raisinets, and, most importantly, talked. And I listened. Perhaps that’s when the seeds of being a writer were sown inside me. Who else was going to be the keeper of these stories?

At some point in that fifth floor apartment in Brighton Beach, I must have heard Sadie Gringrass’s story. Or perhaps I heard it when my mother and Aunt Phyllis pushed my baby carriage down the boardwalk, their high heels clicking against the wooden planks, while seagulls squawked above me and the salty ocean air tickled my nose. Or maybe it was when we stopped in at Mrs. Stahl’s on Coney Island Avenue so my mother and aunt could perch on red vinyl stools and share a kasha knish.

All I know is that somewhere along the way I learned that Aunt Phyllis’s mother had crossed an entire ocean by herself when she was a child, carrying nothing but a piece of paper with a relative’s name and address scrawled upon it. When she arrived at Ellis Island she showed the paper to an immigration officer, but she had held it so tightly during her voyage that all the ink had worn off on her hand. And then, as the story goes, her picture was put in the newspaper, her relatives recognized her, and they came to Ellis Island to claim her.

The story stayed inside me for decades, almost as though it was hibernating. And then one day, in 2015, I saw a photo in a newspaper of a small fishing boat crowded with dark-haired, dark-eyed, sea-drenched Syrian refugees who had fled their country in a search of a better life. I stared at their weary faces full of terror, sorrow, relief, and hope, and something stirred inside me. And that’s when I remembered the story of Aunt Phyllis’s mother, and knew I had to write about it.

First I went to the source and asked Aunt Phyllis what she knew about her mother’s journey. She didn’t know much more than I already knew, except that originally her mother, Sadie, was supposed to travel with an older relative who was denied permission to board the ship. So my next step was to do research: Why would an adult not be permitted to board a boat sailing from Europe to America at the turn of the twentieth century? (Trachoma, a very contagious eye infection was the most common reason.) What type of food would a passenger traveling in steerage eat? (Herring and soup.) What type of beds were provided for refugees detained on Ellis Island? (Mattresses made of straw).

Once I amassed the facts, I needed to do emotional research. In other words, I had to put myself in Sadie’s place. What would Sadie (whom I renamed Gittel) have to leave behind? Surely a best friend. Perhaps a beloved pet. And what would she bring with her? Maybe a favorite doll. And once it was clear she would be traveling alone, what would she be given to take along? At about the same time Sadie immigrated to America, my own grandmother, along with her mother, made a similar voyage, carrying nothing but a pair of Shabbos candlesticks, so I inserted those candlesticks into my story.

“To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift,” is something else that Muriel Rukeyser wrote. If Sadie Gingrass hadn’t come to America by herself in 1911, my aunt Phyllis and all her descendants would never have been born. (In fact, Sadie’s entire town, Łomża, was conquered by the German Army in 1941; local Jews were forced into a ghetto and murdered in nearby forests and death camps.) If my grandmother and her mother hadn’t immigrated to the United States, I would not be alive today. The gift of life comes with great responsibility: to bear witness and tell the stories of those who have come before us so that they will live on and not be forgotten.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books including A Letter to Harvey Milk, Nobody's Mother, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart,The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mommies.

Photo credit: Michelle Lee / Flickr

New Reviews January 28, 2019

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