The remarkable Francine Klagsbrun brings us this definitive biography of Israel’s first female Prime Minister, Golda Meir, entitled, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. Ms. Klagsbrun was the editor of the best-selling Free to Be . . . You and Me and is a regular columnist for The Jewish Week, a contributing editor to Lilithand on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsweek and Ms. Magazine.
The Philadelphia book opening for activist Mark Segal’s new work And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality was adroitly staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall where Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blared their Comcast grievances beside the program entrance, as both a Comcast and union leader arrived in the author’s honor. Activists, politicians, business and labor leaders, and many Philadelphia area recipients of his lifetime of social justice advocacy mixed in intensive networking and sharing of his often daring exploits throughout the party-like atmosphere and formal proceedings. Regardless of your politics there is an immense amount to be learned about methods of effective activism for every and any cause in And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Mark Segal’s fascinating and instructive, story-filled autobiography that brings forth a good deal of often suppressed GBLT movement history of which many are likely unaware.
And Then I Danced is a flowing read across decades of incidents and strategies leading to today’s remarkable degree of GBLTQ inclusion as equal human beings the mitzvah of kavod habriyut—honor for all that lives. At the podium Mark Segal offers the same bold, celebration of life and liberty as in his writing. The room at the book opening was filled with a rare kind of pure loving appreciation, including that from residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments, the first federally-funded LGBT-friendly residence in the nation, which is located in downtown Philadelphia. Mark Segal takes “Yes we can!” to the level of “Yes we did!”
Mark himself had many tales to tell that he delivered with passion, power and gratitude from the dais. His connection to Jewish values of liberty and justice for all shone through steadily and he did not spare the Yiddishisms in his talk. At points his writing reveals the Jewish appreciation of the importance of making common cause with those who are oppressed. He explains:
…my favorite headline came from the Times Leader: “Shapp Aide Tells Berger to Reconsider Homos Ban.”…After one long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this on, and he told me, “Mark, I’m in the closet as well.” When I looked at him strangely, he laughed and followed up with, “My real name is Shapiro, I had to change it to Shapp to enter politics. So I understand discrimination.”
In June of 1975, Milton Shapp became first governor in the nation to have his state officially proclaim Gay Pride Month.
A rare charisma that arrives sans unhealthy narcissism shines from Mark Segal along with his capacity for the mitzvah of hakarat hatov — seeing the good done by those with whom he developed effective collaborations and naming it. Book clubs will love his presentations.
What Makes This Man Possible?
How does a person come to be so aware, and capable of a life of dedicated caring activism? The only Jewish family in the Wilson Park projects, born to immigrant parents, Mark Segal recalls:
Our new neighbors were hardly welcoming. I still remember the first few days of kindergarten when Irish and Italian kids would say to me “You killed our Christ,” or the one that always stumped me, “you’re a devil with horns.” Somehow I had become a deformed six-year-old murderer. For a while I’d subconsciously touch the top of my head, waiting for the horns to grow, and I wondered, how could I possibly comb my hair with horns?
One time my mother went to my grade school to defend me because the teachers had demanded that I sing “Onward Christian Solders.” In those days there was still prayer in public schools, and they had us sing Christian songs…, so I knew discrimination from a very young age… My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.
Segal also writes of his anguish over his parents’ shame and pain at being unable to give him things, the toys a child would want. Poverty shrieks through his guilt when he shares how his mother cried when a rare, hard-earned gift to him falls through a hole in his bag and is lost. Many will rethink parenting of all possible kinds of children after reading this autobiography.
Mark Segal’s parents’ acceptance of their son as gay seems almost miraculous, for its time. His cousin Norman’s experience was…more normative:
I didn’t want to kiss the girls. I’d look at the guys in my class and feel far more attracted to them. There was no doubt in my mind about this, but I didn’t know the word for who I was or what I was feeling. I knew, however, that I was okay with it. Now, I wasn’t going to tell anybody, not in the 1960’s…
When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, my cousin Norman was sixteen. His father discovered that he was gay, gave him a major beating, and threw him out of the house. Cousin Norman was the family member whom nobody mentioned. One day, I was in the backseat of my parents’ Studebaker while they were discussing him and I somehow picked upon the fact that he was a guy who liked guys — a fegeleh … I knew that whatever it all meant, I too was a fegeleh … As a teenager, I read in TV Guide one afternoon that on his PBS talk show, David Susskind was going to interview “real live homosexuals.” A new word different from fegeleh, somehow I knew it also referred to me. I just knew it …
Awakening and the Role of Riots
The movement for GBLT equality has historical flashpoints, as with all revolutions. The legendary Stonewall Riots were at a New York City bar and Mark Segal was there:
For me it started out as a frightening event … I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked-a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured they could do whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply to harass the fags that night …
… As the riot was happening all around me, the idea of a circus came to mind, and then it hit me: we can shout who we are and not be ashamed, we can demand respect. It was at that point that Marty Robinson’s words hit a chord. We are fighting for our rights just as women, African Americans, and others had done throughout history.
Segal also cites San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Dewey’s sit-in n Philadelphia in 1965:
Drag queens and street kids who played a huge role in both events never documented those riots; thus they have been widely eliminated by the white upper middle class, many of whom were ashamed of those elements of our community. But Stonewall, Compton, and Dewey’s all have one thing in common: drag queens and street kids. For some historians, drag queens are not the ideal representatives of the LGBT community. Oppression within oppression was and is still of concern.
Once activated, Segal brought his intelligence and creativity to the journey toward equal rights. These came to be called “Zaps.” These often meant somewhat risky strategic actions, such as in service of exposure of media prejudice. He once went after CBS’ secure studio by means of asking a student training in the Radio, Film, and Television department at Temple to obtain the program’s Temple University stationary. Posing as students it only took two weeks to secure an invitation to view a broadcast firsthand, December 11, 1973:
Their usual pattern called for CBS to later rebroadcast the six pm show to the remainder of the country or, if breaking news warranted, they would broadcast it live again. At about fourteen minutes into the program, as Walter Cronkite was reporting to the American public about security procedures for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, I knew this was the moment, and for the first time while doing a zap my heart started beating very fast. I wasn’t scared but somehow I knew that after this event things would change forever. I rushed onto the set, holding up my sign and yelling the message printed on it, “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” The CBS Evening News broke down right in front of Walter. I stepped between him and the camera shutting him out of the picture to show only that sign. As millions watched, I sat on his desk and held the sign right into the camera lens so that everyone could clearly see the words. Gays Protest CBS Prejudice …
… “Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “Why did you do that?”
“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. If I can prove, it would you do something to change it?” …
“Yes,” Cronkite said, “I wrote this show.”
Philadelphians will find many political surprises in And Then I Danced. For example, support for GBLT rights sometimes came from both sides of the aisle:
Arlen [Spector] was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay rights bill that was before city council. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So we had to be a little creative. One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffeemakers and dozens of donuts to Arlen’s office. His staff thought that he had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it. At the same time, in the City Hall courtyard, and in the corridors of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor gay rights legislation in city council. Please join him at ten a.m. in his office, Room 666 (that really was his office number.)
At ten a.m. we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of news people arrived at his office, we walked in and there was Arlen’s staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in the office that their boss was hosting, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office. At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and donuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren’t sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door opened, and there he was all smiles…
Now, here’s what most people never knew: in Arlen’s Republican years in the US Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote yes on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage.
Addressing The Biblically Ignorant
Reading the Torah in service of GBLT rights takes new eyes. Mark Segal gives an example of how to do so:
“Says Leviticus,” she bellowed, “Man who lays with man is an abomination!” She was just going on and on until Phil interrupted her and asked if she’d like to hear my response.
“Madam, from what you say it seems you don’t respect religion,” was my reply.
She said, “I’m a true Christian.”
I stare her down. “A true Christian respects the rights of other religions. My religion accepts who I am. Are you inferring that Judaism is a false religion? If you’d like to talk religion we can do so, but I’ll also quote other parts of the Bible you seem to have forgotten.”
She exploded and just started tossing out various biblical verses at me.
“You don’t know your Bible well,” I said. That sentence would become a trademark comment from me in religious discussions. I continued, “you use your Bible like you were ordering from a restaurant menu. I call that Bible a la carte. You choose what parts of the Bible you wish to obey and what others to ignore.”
Then I looked her over and explained that all she was wearing that made her an abomination according to that same Leviticus chapter, which condemns wearing clothing of two different fabrics. Polyester-cotton blend, anyone? I followed that up by asking the audience a quick succession of questions about shellfish, metals, pigskin, and all the rest, then asked, “Do all of you obey your husbands? While I know none of you would commit adultery, I’m sure you’re aware that in cases of adultery your husband has the right to kill you. So, if I’m going to hell, you’re all joining me. As the Good Book says, he who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Is there anyone in this audience who has not sinned?”
As total silence fell over the room, I directed my next comment back to the lady with the Bible. “Oh, and one more thing, remember the Ten Commandments? Gluttony? How many of you are joining me in hell now?” No LGBT person had ever challenged an entire TV audience in that manner before. This kept the Bible-toting crowd focused on issues like discrimination, hate crimes, and entrapment.
Yes You Can
And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality came out in October of 2015. A second run of 10,000 has already been announced. The sheer number of political strategy memories can expand readers’ skills and savvy. Mark Segal’s sharing reveals realities and opportunities taken that have long needed better documentation. With inspired reader encouragement this valuable guidebook can enter not only homes, but also enter university and religious settings and serve to teach empathy and activism for generations to come.
Note: Learn more about the evolving acceptance of homosexuality across the spectrum of Judaism: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
“Jane Austen fever” is heating up, as the Bank of England has announced plans to feature the image of the beloved female novelist on their ten-pound note. The auction of a ring with Austen provenance prompted a public outcry, and the British Minister of Culture stopped its sale to the American singer Kelly Clarkson. The movie premiere of Austenland has rolled out in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. There are no dates for Philly showings yet, but I am preparing by taking the 2007 novel off my bookshelf.
Full review after the jump.
Written by Shannon Hale, winner of a Newbery Honor medal for Princess Academy, the novel is about a single New York career woman, Jane Hayes, with an obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or specifically, Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation. When her great-aunt bequeaths her an all-expenses-paid vacation, to a resort where the regency world of 1816 rules, the heroine accepts the gift, with the hope of getting her obsession out of her system.
Pembroke Park is where cell phones are banned, and modern garb is switched for Empire-style gowns, bonnets, and garters (although mascara and modern toilets escaped the rule of authenticity). Going further than your typical costume ball and fan convention, this is a place where patrons live out their fantasies of a bygone world of servants, carriages and horses, and games of whist. The added bonus of a romance — under strict regency guidelines on modest behavior — detracted from the innocence of the fantasy play. The predicament for the heroine is assessing what is real and what is acting.
What was difficult for me was the concept of patrons paying for romance, which falls just within the legal boundary. What about the players who embody the regency characters they meet? This is no mere acting gig, because they spend days and nights with their roles.
Humorously drawn are the cast of characters, including the proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook, who grills her patrons on the proper regency rules of conduct; the charming Amelia Heartwright, who returns for a repeat vacation; and the farcical Miss Charming, embodying the tone-deaf patron, who sprinkles her language with the anachronistic “what, what” and “jolly good.” The male players include Colonel Andrews, with “a decent set of shoulders;” the disapproving Mr. Nobley; and the gardener Martin, with a taste for American basketball, although it is off-limits and out-of-time.
The $4 million film was produced by Stephanie Meyers, who channeled her earnings from her successful Twilight series of book and film. In a highly unusual move, the advance screenings are shown to women only, following the Sundance Film Festival, where women viewers praised the movie, and men trashed it.
While I am waiting for the movie to arrive in my neighborhood, I can review my copies of An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. I would learn much, without any complicated plotting.
I’ve finished All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith and I’m in love! This memoir details the author’s sabbatical from teaching English literature. Giving herself a final creative project as assigned to her students, Smith traveled to six countries in Latin America and led reading groups on Jane Austen’s novels.
I learned that Chilean Spanish is the hardest accent to master and Buenos Aires is the best city for booklovers. Smith’s difficulty in adjusting to the different accents in the six countries reminded me that my elder daughter had great language pedagogy in high school, where each teacher had an accent from a different part of the Spanish-speaking Americas. When the author first referred to herself as estadounidense, I thought she was mocking herself, but this is now the way to say you’re from the United States. In high school, I’d learned to identify myself as, americana or de Estado Unidos, but a politically neutral phrase has evolved in the 34 years since I’ve studied the language.
More after the jump.
Last year, my book group read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz and we were disappointed. (No, we’re not members of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America, and we do read other authors.) That book offered hardly any new insight for us and we disliked how the author disparaged his family and friends in print, although we noticed that he’d waited until his father had passed away.
In Smith’s memoir, she traveled to six Latin-American countries — Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina — where by intent or by happenstance, she found readers to discuss Austen’s novels. What is marvelous to me is that people from humble backgrounds had just as much insight into Austen’s motivations and her characters as those of the literati. What was delightful to Smith was finding that readers in Latin America had just as much a visceral response to Austen’s writing as her students in California. Austen does translate well into Spanish-speaking America!
The Latin-American readers all connected to the “believable happiness” of Austen’s protagonists, where they “all find love, but it’s embedded in situations we can identify with: money woes; frustrating relatives; unavoidable personality clashes.” Smith recorded arguments in Spanish over the characters, including the loud one by the Chilean readers over the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, because it was the most implausible liaison of the Austen heroines.
Smith discovered to her dismay how often and quickly she made assumptions about the people she encountered in each country — and she met her own Señor Darcy. If every one of us can learn to withhold judgment of others, then it would be a worthy journey of the soul.
Travel as transformation is depicted in The Tao of Travel, edited by Paul Theroux, in which Mark Twain is quoted thus:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life? The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place. The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
More after the jump.
In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.
A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame — was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.
A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism. Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness. When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.
There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation. Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug. This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.
Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate. However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less! The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities. In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.
Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome. Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.” When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time. Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.
Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally. So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth. Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.” “Some are, but not all are so.” Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.
Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here? Hatred can happen anywhere. Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members. The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.
The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice. However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.
Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser– re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate. He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.
Are we in a post-racial world? Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States. Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature. However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.
It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.” She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities. We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”
Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence? Where were the police, the FBI? Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way. Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.
How strong is the KKK nowadays? Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.” One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.
Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention. The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily. Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions. Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.
Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17 at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street. Limited seating is available. For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.
During this graduation season, you might need some guidance in selecting suitable gifts. In the past, I’ve bestowed books of graduation speeches, which fascinate me, and I’ve given Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College (which delighted the recipient because her mother did, indeed, have a naked roommate). Now, I write to tout the whimsy and insight of Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life, edited by Smith Magazine in partnership with Reboot, a non-profit with a mission of triggering discussions about Jewish identity, community, and meaning.
Now known as “flash fiction,” the six-word story derives its literary genesis from lore that Ernest Hemingway won a bet with the challenge to write a novel in just six words with the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A reviewer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called this style an American haiku. Smith Magazine has trademarked its Six-Word Memoirs series; this newest addition is a much quicker read than a graduation speech!
More after the jump.
Here are my six personal favorites from the book:
Less oy. More joy. Learn. Celebrate
— Deborah Lipstadt
Be a mensch; pass it on.
— Marsha Stein
World is narrow bridge, be brave!
— Marci Bellows
I was in need. Heard: Hineini.
— Elissa Froman
Israel means “to wrestle.” Explains everything.
— Tiffany Shlain
Like Zusya, trying to be me.
— Rabbi Steven Rubenstein
Publisher’s note: Hillel and Shammai were both asked by a gentile to explain the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai dismissed the man for expecting to be able to summarize Jewish thought so briefly, but Hillel the Elder rose to the challenge and said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” (Shabbos 31a) Accordingly, the expression expression al regel achat (on one foot) has entered modern Hebrew as an expression of extreme brevity showing that the six-word memoir is not as new a concept as one might have thought. In fact, in Hebrew, Hillel’s summary of the Torah is just five words:
דעלך סני – לחברך לא תעביד
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
By Hannah Lee
Childhood memories strongly color our image of a place. My husband, Eyal, fondly remembers petting the cats under his Saba Israel’s house in Tel Aviv. Meir Shalev’s family memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir tells us about his birth and childhood into a pioneering family in Nahalal, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley, in northern Israel. Founded in 1921, it was the first moshav ovdim, a workers’ cooperative settlement. When Shalev’s larger-than-life, cantankerous Grandma Tonia was interviewed for national television and asked what is the difference between a moshav and a kibbutz, she unhesitatingly replied, “We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy. A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim. Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz.”
More after the jump.
Originally titled in Hebrew, Ha’Davar Haya Kakha (“This is How It Was”), Shalev’s memoir is a fascinating collection of stories his family tells about each other, complete with the appropriate accents and accentuations. Foremost in the stories is his Grandma Tonia, who left the Ukraine at age 18 to become the wife of her widowed brother-in-law, Aharon Ben-Barak, and mother to his two young sons. The family’s stories are a personal window into Palestine’s re-settlement by Jews and Israel’s early years of statehood. Nahalal in 1923 boasted of “huts and cowsheds, and people received a little sugar and oil on credit from what was known as ‘the warehouse.’ In summer there was nowhere to hide from the blazing sun and in winter there was mud up to the knees.”
Grandpa Aharon had the soul of a writer and poet, but Grandma Tonia proved her strength and resilience in taming the land and wrangling from it a farm. The most vivid stories are told of her fight with the pervasive mud, dust, dung, and dirt. With a trusty rag always on duty on her left shoulder, she bullied her family and the very air around her into compliance. The American vacuum cleaner (pronounced svieeperrr with a Russian rrr) of the book’s title is the unsolicited gift from her “double-traitor”– a non-Zionist and a non-Socialist– brother-in-law, Yeshayahu, who’d made his fortune in Los Angeles, the land of capitalism, individualism, hedonism, and frivolity. A land where the image of a woman, “her lips bright with red lipstick, a red polka-dot dress snug on her hips, an ample bosom, meaty buttocks” was used as advertisement. The final indictment of the American character was that “Her nails were painted with red nail polish. It was clear to one and all: she has her hands manicured!” No self-respecting Israeli pioneer– and founding member of a nation– would be so frivolous. As for her new svieeperr, Grandma Tonia was appalled to learn that it collected dust, so it was rendered dirty, and required cleaning of its all its internal parts. Complying with her request, her brother Yitzhak dissembled the machine, but a breeze blew the small collection of dirt all over her house. Thus, her baleful decision was to quarantine the traitorous appliance in a forbidden, locked bathroom, never to be used again.
Painted nails become another leit-motif in Shalev’s memoir, when he shows up to Nahalal for the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization operated in Palestine during the British Mandate, with his toe nails painted a shiny red. His young nieces had polished his nails while he was asleep, it was too hot for any footwear other than sandals, and he had no time to remove the coloration. His nieces challenged him, “You’re afraid! You’re afraid of what they’ll say about you in the village.” They were right. “Anyone familiar with members of the old-time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field. All the more so in places where pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s.” Shalev gave his speech, is slapped on the back, and crushed by bold handshakes, but he does not escape scrutiny. “Not noticed? It’s all anyone’s been talking about. But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised… What do you want from the guy? He got it from Tonia. She was crazy in just the same way. That’s the way it is in their family.” However, Grandma Tonia was not crazy, not frivolous, not prone to painting her nails. She was “distinctive. She was what we call ‘a character.’ She was not an easy person, and that’s putting it mildly.”
Shalev’s father , Yitzhak, was already a noted poet, writer, and teacher, but his reputation was sealed in the moshav as one who could plant only ten cucumbers in two hours, from his initial days courting his wife, Batya. A Jerusalemite, his politics were to the right of that of the moshavniks, but the people of Nahalal accepted him as a poet and a teacher of Bible, who taught his son Meir a real love for Tanach. Batya, in turn, proudly instructed their son, to declare of himself, “I am the son of farmers from Nahalal!”
During summer visits to his family’s farm, the teen Meir learned to pull his weight on the farm: milking (by hand and by machine); the feeding of newborn calves; cleaning the cowshed; harvesting and gathering; milking semen from male turkeys and inseminating the females… and “also the skill that turns any old farmer’s son into a person of merit– driving a wagon with a plowshare in reverse, and more than that, backing up a wagon that has a plowshaft.”
My mother-in-law, Dr. Aviva Barzel, a retired professor of Hebrew literature, remarks that Shalev’s memoir was written with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye, detailing the family’s idiosyncrasies with a lot of love. Drawing upon both his literary and pioneering heritages, Shalev has written a worthy homage to the land of his fathers — mothers and Grandmas! — and it’s a fitting read for the 64th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.
By Hannah Lee
It’s about time that an economist weighs in on the foodie scene and the locavore movement. Despite the negative advance press about Tyler Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, I kept an open mind. I was rewarded by a delightful read and I learned lots of fascinating strategies for finding good, affordable food, especially when one is away from home.
More after the jump.
A professor at George Mason University, Cowen is a foodie who keeps his passion in check with a studied knowledge of market forces. Since food is a product of economic supply and demand, his three principles to guide him in his food choices are to “figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”
It was on a trip to Nicaragua, a place not known to offer good food, that Cowen first developed his tactics for finding decent meals. Upon arriving in the country past lunchtime, he engaged a “relatively old” taxi driver — chosen for safety (he’s survived his own driving?), good local stories, and information — and offered him both lunch and payment to find “something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan.” So, where would the driver take him, but the best that he would himself want to eat and on his client’s expense? The lunch of quesillos cost him $12, including the bonus payment. (He knew to be wary of agua corriente (running water), so he ordered bottled drinks and he was amazed to learn that his leftover drinks were poured into plastic bags, placed on ice, and held for re-sale.) The only bad meal he had was seafood, but that led to another tip, “when donkey carts are common and women carry baskets on their heads, eat your fish right by the ocean or lake,” because the transportation is slow and refrigeration is rudimentary.
Cowen challenges the snobbery of food writers, commentators, and foodies and their mistaken adherence to three rules: the best food is expensive; large agribusiness is bad; and consumers are not a trusted source of innovation. Despite being a foodie and an environmentalist, I was impressed by the data he uses to support his debunking of these guidelines. His chapter on the agricultural revolution convinced me that technological progress and agricultural commercialization have brought major and lasting improvements to much of the world. (I was reminded that the first agricultural revolution was when the Aztecs learned to release the goodness of corn with the addition of mineral lime.) Finally, his chapter on a greener planet may irk those who’ve made a conscious decision to leave a smaller carbon footprint. Cowen writes that shopping locally may not be the best choice because transportation costs are only 11% of the total energy cost of food. My take-home lesson was that foods delivered by cargo ship have the lowest environmental impact (as “floating things are much easier to move”) while air freight has the highest. Another lesson for readers is to reduce our meat intake. A Carnegie Mellon study has found that cutting back on red meat one day a week does more for the environment than eating all locally sources foods for all of our meals.
In a chapter on why American food got so bad, he implicated the Prohibition, children, and television. Furthermore, during World War II, Americans actually ate more meat, but it was of poor quality, including canned meat (Spam, with its high fat and salt content). Europe, which suffered actual food shortages, did not turn to convenience food (they had no factories to produce them), so what food they had tasted better. The only bright spot in our history was the arrival of immigrants who vastly improved and diversified our food culture.
The chapter on the American supermarket and Cowen’s month-long experiment to shop only in an Asian market dovetailed with my experience shopping in such markets where the selection of greens is varied and cheap (offered as loss leaders to bring in the customers), the seafood is fresh and smelly which disgusts Americans, and the staff is neither friendly nor fluent in English. His advice to not block our creativity is to eschew the convenience of the conventional supermarket.
The book has chapters on barbecue, the ultimate “slow food”; why hospitals, cinemas, and city centers have such bad food, and how to find the best meals cheaply. The chapter on Asian food is a contrast to standard travel guides, in that Cowen does not list best restaurants, but how to find the best food. The five countries that he deems as having the worst Chinese food are: Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Chile (for different reasons). Our family’s worst meal in a Chinese establishment occurred in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, where the Chinese folk are descendants of immigrants of the 19th century, thus out of touch with their cultural touchstones. He details the traits of the different Asian cuisines and how they fare in America. The chapter ends with his prescription for how to get a decent Chinese meal at any place.
Here’s a recommendation from Cowen that you would never find in a guidebook:
“In a lot of restaurants, it is a propitious omen if the diners are screaming at each other and appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds. It’s a sign they are regular customers and that they feel at home in the restaurant. It’s a sign they go there a lot. Few people show up at a strange restaurant and behave that way, but they might do so in a place where they know the proprietor and staff. A lot of Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons — don’t ask me if it’s fighting. I have no idea– but it is a sign I want to be there too.”
Cowen does not know that three Chinese speaking together do sound like they’re screaming.
The chapter on Mexican food is a case study for the impact of law and wealth on the quality and variety of food. Cowen compared the sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which were one until after the Mexican-American War of 1848, for their respective meat, cheese (made by Mennonites in Mexico!), lard, tortilla, and tomatoes. Hands down, the Mexican food is tastier, but the American food is more varied, consistent, and fresh. He noted that Mexicans regard vegetarians as odd or absurd. Dietary restriction, other than for Lent, is a notion not well appreciated.
The best chapter for world travelers is the one on how to find great food anywhere and how and why the food in countries are different. In France (and only in France), Cowen recommends using a Michelin guidebook to identify the cheapest restaurants, i.e., no stars and one or two forks. Two-forked places are “comfortable,” but the starred places are awarded for culinary innovation and the chef’s prestige. He writes, “I don’t need the extra innovation and probably I am trying to avoid the innovation. I seek the perfect pot-au-feu.” He further describes the best methods for finding good food in Tokyo, Singapore, India, London, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Istanbul. I’ll try to apply his strategies on our summer vacation in Scotland.