Monthly Archives: January 2013

Djewess Unchained

janice.steinbergSometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.

And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th century novels like Ivanhoe or Daniel Deronda. (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of ‘Jewess.’“) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, The Tin Horse, in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.

In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”

What linguists call “semantic reclamation” has also been happening for “Jew.” The cheeky Klezmatics put out albums titled “Rhythm and Jews” and “Jews with Horns”—and they made klezmer cool. These days we’ve got the irreverent online mags Jewniverse and Jewcy, not to mention Jewcy tee shirts.

And some young, hip Jews are trying to embrace “Jewess.” Look at the smart blogs Jewesses with Attitude and Jewess. Enter “Jewess” in Jewcy‘s search box, and you get ten pages of links. But those are niche websites, and they’re not trying to appeal to a wide audience. When I floated the working title for my book, An Intelligent Jewess, some people loved its in-your-faceness—the wonderful woman who would become my agent wrote in response to my query, “From one intelligent Jewess to another, I’d love to read your book.” Even more people, though, felt pushed away by it; non-Jews felt excluded, and it made many Jews squirm. And “Jewess” isn’t just anti-Semitic, it’s one of those sexist “ess” words like “stewardess,” a double whammy that suggests Hebraic odalisques. Nevertheless, maybe the Jewesses with Attitude are on to something, and “Jewess” will flip from pejorative to cool. I’d love to see it happen. On the other hand, are some words beyond redemption?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on January 31, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hearing the Women’s Songs—in Torah and in “The Big Sleep”

song.of.the.seaAlthough I live in California, I don’t share the New Age belief that there are no coincidences. I think many things occur by chance. And that makes me all the more delighted that my novel, The Tin Horse, is being published this week, the same week in which the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea.

Song of the Sea is the exultant outpouring by Moses and the Israelites after they’ve crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Pharaoh’s army. Poetry versus the prose of most of Torah, it dances down the page, three- and four-word phrases creating a choppy surface like ocean waves. It’s even chanted to a special tune, a sweet melody used for no other text.

What most fascinates me isn’t the song itself, though, but another song, a mere scrap of which appears in the Torah. Following the 18-verse song of Moses, Miriam picks up her timbrel, leads the women in dance, and sings her own song. But all of this happens in just two verses, and can that really be the whole story?

I’m not the only one who’s wondered. Theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow wrote in Standing Again at Sinai, “The dance at the Sea links Miriam with a foundational event of Israelite history, but she appears in the narrative with no introduction and no account of her rise to religious leadership. This surprising silence suggests that there were other Miriam traditions that were excluded from the Torah.”

Plaskow’s book—and her insistence on finding a place for women as “shapers of the holy”—helped me reconnect to Judaism after a long absence. So did composers Debbie Friedman z”l and Cantor Linda Hirschhorn with their stirring versions of Miriam’s song; and so do contemporary midrash writers who pick up on whispers of the divine feminine in Torah and imagine our foremothers’ voices.

Though the inspiration for my novel wasn’t sacred text, I too wanted to give voice to a woman standing in the shadows of another story: Raymond Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. In one scene, the detective, Philip Marlowe questions a woman working in a bookstore. From the beginning, when we see the woman reading a law book (in a novel published in 1939), she’s intriguing; she continues to intrigue as she matches wits with Marlowe. The woman, who’s unnamed, is described as having the face of “an intelligent Jewess.” That term—and her being pegged as Jewish on sight—conveyed such a profound sense of otherness and suggested to me that, despite this moment when their paths crossed, the woman lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe’s mean streets. I wanted to discover her Los Angeles. I wanted to hear her song.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on January 30, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Beauty of Broken English

tin.horse.steinbergI thought I had entered completely into the world of my novel: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a center for Jewish life. Then I started getting questions from Tony.

Tony is Tony Hudz, the charming man who directed the audiobook of The Tin Horse. And he needed to know how to pronounce every word—for instance, should Danny Berlov’s last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, “Neither;” my mental voice had always said Ber-lov. But Danny is a new immigrant when he enters the story in 1926. And Tony’s query made me realize I was hearing Danny’s last name as it would have evolved a generation later, when its Yiddish inflections had been absorbed into English.

In my novel, Yiddish phrases often make their way into English conversation. But Tony ramped up my awareness of how the whole soup of language would contain the pronunciations, stresses, and rhythms of Yiddish. And that the English heard by Elaine Greenstein, my main character, would take multiple forms: the standard American of native speakers like her father or her teachers, and the Yiddish-flavored English of her immigrant mother, grandfather, and many of the adults in her world. Broken English.

I’m aware of love that immigrants feel for their native tongue and the emotional impact of leaving it behind. A friend who emigrated from Argentina says her son is gentler when he speaks Spanish. A psychologist who grew up in Cuba tells me that immigrant clients can access the deepest childhood memories only in their mother tongue. Eva Hoffman, who left Poland as a child, titles her beautiful memoir Lost in Translation.

Broken English, however, has no such fond associations. Rather, it’s a source of shame, the American-born child cringing as Mama or Papa massacres pronunciation and syntax. But as Tony led me to think more deeply about the English in Elaine’s world, I wondered if there was also a sweetness to hearing this broken tongue, this English cracked open to reveal a Yiddish soul.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

 

Posted on January 29, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How Some Jews Live

ilie.rubyI always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, An angel on Earthnever another like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don’t speak.

What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I’m told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him—the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness—to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life. Continue reading

Posted on January 24, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What’s Meant to Be

salt.gods.daughterOne of the things that I find most compelling about Judaism is the idea of b’shert. It fills me with joy when someone says our meeting was b’shert, our friendship is meant to be, when a new connection seems predestined. From the time I was a child, raised slightly less traditionally than my Conservative grandparents, this paradoxical sense of destiny, elusive yet certain, made of equal parts fate and faith, resonated with me.

Perhaps it’s the ethereal aspect of b’shert, the assertion that some things are meant to be while others are not meant to be, which skeptics undoubtedly dismiss as merely a lens through which to impose order on chaos. And yet, the promises of b’shert are vast. Those who were lucky enough to find their b’shert, well, it seemed somehow the divine favored them. They’d passed the test, were deemed worthy, and had been chosen.

No matter what else happened, they could claim this: they found theirs in this lifetime.

How many b’sherts did you deserve? And when would you run out of chances? What happened if you never found your b’shert? Continue reading

Posted on January 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Debating the Term “Concentration Camp”

In my blog posts this week I have written about the Kodachrome slides that Bill Manbo took while imprisoned with his family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. Today I return to the question with which I began: was Heart Mountain an American “concentration camp?”

Controversy over the use of the term “concentration camp” erupted in the late 1990s when an exhibition about the camps for Japanese Americans was slated to open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York. The exhibition, created by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, was entitled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience.”  Some American Jewish groups, most prominently the American Jewish Committee, objected to the title. They argued that using the term “concentration camp” to describe places like Heart Mountain diminished the suffering of those (mostly Jews) who lived and died in the Nazi camps in Europe. Eventually a compromise was negotiated: the exhibition would retain its title but feature an explanatory panel disclaiming any attempt to compare the American camps to those in Europe.

This did not end the matter. Over the following years, activists in the Japanese American community and some scholars continued to encourage all who speak and write about the imprisonment of Japanese American to use the term “concentration camp.” Their position continued to attract support until finally the national Japanese American Citizens League adopted a resolution endorsing it as a preferred term.

I won’t use the term in my own writing and speaking about the American camps, except in situations where I have (and wish to spend) lots of time explaining exactly why I’m using it.

The best argument for the term is that it’s historically authentic. Lots of people called the camps for Japanese Americans “concentration camps” at the time. Take a quick look at these little clips from stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from 1942:

Another argument for the term – one that I’ve never found terribly persuasive – is the dictionary. Advocates for the term maintain that the dictionary definition of “concentration camp” unambiguously fits places like Heart Mountain. I suppose it depends a little on your choice in dictionary. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1993), a “concentration camp” is “a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or foreign nationals) are detained or confined and sometimes subjected to physical and mental abuse and indignity.” That’s certainly in the ballpark, but what if you prefer to look at the Oxford Dictionary of English (3d ed. 2010)? There you find the following definition:

“a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution.  The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe 1933–45, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.”

The second sentence of this definition captures why a dictionary can’t solve our problem: however accurate the first sentence is in describing the American camps, the second sentence rings true about conventional usage. You say “concentration camp” to most people and what they hear is “Auschwitz.”

I believe that many of the advocates for the term “concentration camp” understand this connotation – and that it’s this very link that makes the term attractive. Rightly trying to correct the misperception that the American camps were justified and life in them pleasant, they want a word that will jolt people. I once attended a talk where a leading Japanese American advocate for the term “concentration camp” urged the audience to adopt the term because it would “get people in the gut.” Exactly. But the major reason why the term “gets people in the gut” is Auschwitz.

One other common argument in favor of the term “concentration camp” maintains that the error is in using that term not for Heart Mountain but for Auschwitz. The German camps, this argument goes, were in actuality “death camps,” not concentration camps. (Koji Steven makes this argument here, for example.)

In the name of trying to correct historical error, this position makes big errors of its own. The Germans devised and ran many different kinds of imprisonment camps in Europe for Jews and others.  I mentioned four camps in my first post back on Monday: WesterborkFlossenbürgBuchenwald, and Sobibor. Each of these differed from the others. Very few people died at Westerbork, and killing was not its specific purpose. More and more died at each of the other listed camps in order, and virtually every person taken to Sobibor perished. But from this list, only Sobibor was a “death camp” – a camp built for the purpose of killing people. To insist that Heart Mountain was a “concentration camp” while the German camps were “death camps” is to collapse all of the horrific complexity of German wartime incarceration into a simple and mistaken idea. It misses the point that Buchenwald, which my grandfather survived, was importantly different from Sobibor, which his brother did not.

Lastly, and most importantly: all four of the German camps I listed (and all of the others I didn’t) were points on an importantly different spectrum from the American camps run by the War Relocation Authority. The German facilities – regardless of whether they functioned chiefly as transit camps or forced labor camps or death camps – were in service of a system of (at very best) disregard for the simple humanity and survival of those who passed through them that never entered the American experience.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on January 18, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Making It Human

The question that I am exploring in this series of blog posts is what a “concentration camp” looks like. In the first post, I noted that there has been tension between some American Jews and some Japanese Americans over the use of the term “concentration camp” for the prison camps that held Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. In the second post, I tried to describe a bit of what was unique about the American camps — the ways in which they arose from some of the same kinds of causes as the German camps while being administered by a government agency with a very different set of views from the SS. Tomorrow, in my last post, I’ll say a few words about how I’ve resolved the dilemma about using the term “concentration camp” in my writing about the American camps.

Today, I’d like to say a little bit about Bill Manbo, the photographer who took the Kodachrome slides featured in Colors of Confinement, and his family. It’s often rightly said that the number “six million” is an abstraction and that the truth of the Holocaust can only really be appreciated in the context of a real human life. The same is true of the 120,000 people the US government exiled and imprisoned.

That’s a photo of Bill Manbo. He was born in Riverside, California, to Japanese immigrant parents in 1908. He and his parents moved to Hollywood before Bill went to junior high school. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1929 and went off to study auto mechanics at the Frank Wiggins Trade School. That’s where he met Mary Itaya, four years his junior, who had grown up on a farm in Norwalk, California. Her parents, Junzo and Riyo Itaya, were Japanese immigrants and successful farmers of truck vegetables; they had a particularly successful and valuable crop in rhubarb. Mary was at Frank Wiggins to become a seamstress.

Bill and Mary married soon after graduating from trade school. Bill opened up a garage in Hollywood and Mary took in sewing and did some costume design for Los Angeles theater companies. In 1940, Mary gave birth to a son, whom they named Bill, like his father. They called him “Billy.”

Billy was not quite two years old on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. A few months later, the FBI arrested Billy’s grandfather Junzo Itaya (Mary’s father) as a potential saboteur because he had done some accounting work in the late 1930s for his neighborhood Japanese after-school program. This meant that Junzo was gone, locked up in a Justice Department detention camp, when the rest of the family was rounded up and forced to live in a horse stable at the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the end of April of 1942. The day before leaving, the family signed an agreement with their white landlord that required him to preserve and market their rhubarb crop for as long as the family was gone. Continue reading

Posted on January 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Behind Barbed Wire

My new book Colors of Confinement presents dozens of stunning Kodachrome photographs of everyday life inside the barbed wire confines of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. The photographer was Bill Manbo, a thirty-something auto mechanic from Hollywood, California, who was locked up there in September of 1942 along with his family and his wife Mary’s family. Although Manbo was not a documentary photographer, his pictures (and the fact that he was allowed to take them) capture much of what was unique about the confinement sites that the U.S. government created for the West Coast’s ethnically Japanese population during the war.

On the one hand, the photographs reveal a population held captive in a desolate desert compound with no conceivable justification other than suppositions about racial loyalties.

On the other hand, the photos reveal that the population’s captors allowed them a surprising number of freedoms, including the freedom to engage openly in Japanese cultural and religious activities … and the freedom to wander around taking pictures of them.

Of the first point — the injustice of the mass incarceration — there can be no doubt.  Months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government uprooted and exiled some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — citizens and resident aliens alike — for reasons that included biological racism and economic opportunism.  The U.S. Army general who ordered the roundup explained that U.S. citizens were just as dangerous as their Japanese immigrant parents because the “Japanese race” was an “enemy race” in which the “racial strains” ran “undiluted” in the blood of the second generation.  White-dominated agricultural interests on the coast that had long sought the ouster of successful Japanese farmers saw an opportunity to put them out of business and were among the most forceful advocates for mass exclusion.  It would be a distortion to say that the ouster of the Japanese from the West Coast and the ouster of the Jews from Germany had exactly the same causes, but it would also be a mistake to miss the fact that the two mass deportations shared key motives.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy noted this in a 1943 decision when he wrote that the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans bore “a melancholy resemblance” to Germany’s treatment of its Jews. Continue reading

Posted on January 15, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Does a Concentration Camp Look Like?

What does a concentration camp look like?

Does it look like this?

(Set aside for a moment the fact that it’s a color photo, and that we’re accustomed to imagining concentration camps in black and white.  The photo is from 1943, and yes, it’s in color—but more on that later.)

It’s easy to imagine that this could be a row of barracks at Westerbork, the transit camp in Holland that housed Dutch Jews (most famously Anne Frank) awaiting removal to the east.

It could just as easily be a shot of Flossenbürg, a camp in far eastern Bavaria housing mostly political prisoners for forced labor.

Conditions were harsher and many more people died at the notorious slave labor camp Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany.  My grandfather was among those imprisoned there; he spent a few weeks at the camp late in 1938 after his arrest at Kristallnacht.  He described it as a dismal and brutal place, but I can imagine that in certain weather conditions he might have seen a view not unlike the one in the photo above.

And though it’s far less likely, the image could even conceivably be of a camp like Sobibor, where I believe my grandfather’s brother Leopold was gassed in 1942.  (In the linked photo, Leopold sits in the chair with his left arm in a sling. My grandfather stands next to him.)  Sobibor and a handful of other German camps existed only for murder, so if the image above is of one of those places, we might guess what the smoke is.

Now consider this picture.  Is this what a concentration camp looks like?

This image has a lot of what we’d expect in a concentration camp, but the little inmate clutching the barbed wire fence doesn’t look European.

In fact, he is American, of Japanese ancestry.  His name is Billy Manbo, and he is about three years old in the picture.  The detention facility behind him, which housed over 14,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945, went by the official government title of “Heart Mountain Relocation Center,” but people at the time routinely called it a “concentration camp.”

And one last picture, also from Heart Mountain.  Is this a picture of a concentration camp?

These images are among the nearly two hundred stunning color slides that a Japanese American amateur photographer named Bill Manbo (the father of little Billy pictured above) took while imprisoned at Heart Mountain in 1943 and 1944.  They are featured in my new book Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, and they offer striking and sometimes unsettling new vistas on this American episode of mass injustice.

They also offer a chance to think about an unfortunate conflict that has roiled relations between some in the Japanese American and American Jewish communities—a conflict over the meaning of the term “concentration camp.”  I’ll use my blog posts this week to explore that conflict and explain how I, as a descendant of inmates of one kind of camp and a student of the other kind, have resolved it.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Images from COLORS OF CONFINEMENT: RARE KODACHROME PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPANESE AMERICAN INCARCERATION IN WORLD WAR II edited by Eric L. Muller. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs by Bill Manbo copyright © 2012 by Takao Bill Manbo. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Posted on January 14, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Genesis of “The Jewish Furrier” in “The Prince of Tides”

Carol Conroy was browsing the poetry section when my parents Sigmund and Frances walked in. They were visiting with me in Atlanta as they did every year on their way from Israel to the States. I introduced Carol to my folks and they sat in the coffee room of The Old New York Book Shop for a few minutes getting to know each other. curious.vision.of.sammy.levitt

Now, I always joked with Pat Conroy, my friend and Carol’s brother, about how much smarter Carol was than he. But when Carol came to the store a week later and dropped 5 poems on my desk, I had proof after reading the first poem called “The Jewish Furrier Tells How to Write Poetry.”

“Cliff’s father was right.
He said: Simple. You just do it.
You hold the animal and pick your knife.
Courage it takes. The rest forget.
But have the coat on the woman’s back,
not in your mind.
For instance the whistle.
You hold it in your throat
and send the air through the mouth’s toy.
Lips can be silver.

Siggy Graubart knows something.
His advice is good.
It is as natural as the swift intake of joy
in Megan’s smile,
the youngest niece,
when she cries daddy across the yard
and runs to kiss the matted fur
of a father’s head, the poet.”

I was stunned that Carol could glean so much from my father in so short a time. It was 1980, and Pat and I decided that our new publishing company (founded in 1978) would grow into poetry. We asked Carol to expand the 5 poems to 10 and we would produce a book of poetry, and a few months later The Jewish Furrier came out in a limited edition of 150 numbered copies in gray boards and tan cloth spine on Hayle hand-made paper bound by hand at the Pamami Press in Douglasville, Georgia by Mike Riley.

I did not know then how significant that little book would become. Carol submitted the work in a contest connected with Harper Lee and won a year’s residence at a University in Virginia and a contract with W. W. Norton for The Beauty Wars, her first regularly published book.

In 1986, when Pat was going to press with The Prince of Tides, he had created “Savannah,” a poet based on his sister Carol, and incorporated a poem from The Jewish Furrier. Two days before going to press, Carol called Pat’s publisher demanding that the poem not be printed. She was unhappy at being portrayed in the book to begin with, and would not tolerate the printing of her poem.

Pat had two days to re-write the poem, and the book was printed with “The Jewish Furrier” as a different poem.

Serendipity. Carol’s not Jewish. Pat’s not Jewish. Carol writes a book of poetry, about my Jewish father, which opens the door to her career as a poet. Pat writes The Prince of Tides, his break-through novel, which incorporates her book, and has a strong Jewish component in the Lowenstein character, portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film version. Somehow, I found myself in the center of this creativity and expansion into Jewish themes so near to me, and loved it.

Posted on January 11, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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