Lois Leveen’s newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available.
There’s a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?
Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.
Jen’s novel reminds us that “Jewish” is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn’t Jewish?
Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary’s mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother’s insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war’s devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jewish story.
Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.
There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as “the Shmethicist,” an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I’m a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?
Maybe it’s a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary’s mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary’s trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary’s relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual’s responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluctant Jonah. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.
When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn’t mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.
Read more about Lois Leveen here.
When I first anounced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.
Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War, published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?
There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the twentieth century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.
It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice -– smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publically repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”
Moreover, as president, he demonstrated his respect for Jews by appointing more of them to public office than all previous presidents combined. He also lent strong support to efforts to aid Jews facing persecution in Russia and Roumania. He even became the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, after he left office, the first to visit the Land of Israel. When he died, in 1885, he was mourned by Jews as a hero and compared to the greatest Jew in the world at that time, Sir Moses Montefiore of England, who died the same week as Grant did.
All of this reinforced for me the value of looking anew at old episodes. Given new sources, new questions, and a broader perspective than previous scholars had, I can now confidently report that there is lots new to say about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11.
Read my book and judge for yourselves.