Mark Twain, “Mishpocha,” and Me

By | Tagged: culture

Earlier this week, Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans, wrote about the inspiration for her book and Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature.  Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

The online literary world has been atwitter (please pardon the pun!) about the changes—some are calling it censorship—that appear in a new edition that presents “updated” versions of Mark Twain’s classic novels, Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The change that has attracted the most discussion is the new book’s replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave”; a second modification is the substitution of “Indian” for “injun.” (For general summaries, I’ll point you to news items from
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
; for a sample of some of the commentaries, I recommend an AOL News column by Tayari Jones, a blog post by The Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe, and the multiple contributions featured within the NYT Room for Debate forum.)

I’ve followed the flurry of articles and commentaries with interest for many reasons. But here, I want to focus on one. It is both personal and professional, and it involves “Mishpocha,” the concluding story in my new collection of short fiction,
Quiet Americans

In “Mishpocha,” protagonist David Kaufmann, a son of Holocaust survivors, recalls an incident:

It had happened a few years earlier, when [he and his wife] had been visiting [their daughter] at school and spent an extra day and night in Boston on their own, and as they’d walked down a relatively quiet yet decidedly urban street after dinner, a group of teenagers—teenagers whom he’d instantly imagined must cause nightmares for their parents, tattooed teenagers with heads shaven and clothing ripped—strode up alongside them, their ringleader chanting, “KILL THE KIKES, KILL THE NIGGERS, KILL THE FAGS.” And David had seen his wife’s head turn toward them in outrage; he knew that in about one second she would open her mouth with the confidence of a woman with bloodlines rooted in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and so he’d yanked her arm—hard, harder maybe than he’d really had to—because what you learned from immigrant-survivor parents like his was that it was better to be quiet, better not to give crazy people any reason to get any crazier.

Posted on January 20, 2011

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