Tag Archives: china

Funny, You Don’t Book Jewish

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 MosesDanielEsther—even the reluctant JonahThe 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.

 

Posted on June 26, 2012

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

Why Self-Publish?

Why self-publish? The mainstream publishing industry continues to be in a state of flux and when we began our cookbook many publishers were not taking on first-time, high-risk authors. There were small publishing houses willing to take us on, but the return was so minimal that the raison d’être, to raise funds for Jewish elder care, would not eventuate. Self-publishing was the best option to achieve our goal.

After all information gathering was complete, we changed our business plan and became publishers. To ensure credibility and success, and to produce the envisaged high-quality coffee-table cookbook, we employed professionals: a well-known editor, food photographer, food stylist, award-winning graphic designer, indexer, colour correction expert and lawyer. The next step was to produce the physical book. After printing in China, the books were shipped to warehouses in Sydney and Chicago. No easy feat for two women without sponsorship nor experience in the industry.

Our self-publishing route was an enormous task with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, joy and fun. We had our fair share of laughs, from dropping the angel cake onto the floor, with no spare, just before the final photograph to the insisting by one potential contributor on a recipe for lobster thermidor that we could, of course, not use.

After eleven years of determination, One Egg Is A Fortune is available worldwide. Even more importantly, we’ve already been able to make our first donation: to the Centre of Ageing in Sydney, Australia, a community group created to help Jewish seniors to stay in their own homes for as long as practicable.

Blazing Hot Wing Sauce with Beer

A recipe from my friend John Schlimm, author of The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook

Serves 6

SAUCE

1 packet Good Seasons Italian Dressing (powder)
½ cup margarine
2 cups Frank’s Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce
6 tablespoons beer
12–24 chicken wings or drumettes

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Make sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl, mix well and set aside (makes 2¼ cups).
Make chicken wings: Boil wings in a large pot until they rise to the surface. Drain, place the wings into a baking dish and pour over sauce. Bake for 45 minutes or until crispy.
Note: This sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce for chicken tenders.

Aussie-style Blazing Hot Wing Sauce with Beer

Serves 6

SAUCE
2 tablespoons McCormick Italian Seasoning Blend (dry)
½ cup margarine
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons dried cayenne pepper
1 tablespoons hot pepper sauce (e.g. Tabasco)
6 tablespoons beer
12–24 chicken wings or drumettes

Preheat oven to 180°C.
Make sauce: Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mix well and set aside.
Make chicken wings: Prepare chicken wings as above.

Posted on June 13, 2012

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