0

Reading My Way Across America: Back to Bawlmer

After five months (finally!), I finished the book that I checked out of the library to fulfill the Reading My Way Across America challenge, stop #2 as determined by Siri: the 7th state to join the Union, my home state of Maryland.

Image result for maryland flag

The options were numerous, but I narrowed it down to two, one book about towns on the Chesapeake Bay, and one about Jewish Baltimore, which is also exactly where I grew up, as did both of my parents (in fact, I later found out that both of them had indeed read the book despite it being relatively recent). I read a book about Smith Island earlier this year, so I decided that the Western side of the bay deserved a shot, so Jewish Baltimore it is. It was quite the trip down memory lane and beyond, and interesting to learn about Jewish life in Baltimore before my family showed up in 1939.

On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore was written by Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner. It was published only last year, so it’s pretty up to date. My dad found it to be a little dense on history and less focused on narrative, to which I agree; the first half of the book was kind of a snoozefest with the occasional interesting tidbit or photograph thrown in. On the whole, the book talked about the different waves of Jewish migration and settlement in and around Baltimore, first downtown, then gradually toward East Baltimore and finally into suburban Baltimore County, where I grew up. The first Jewish settlers in the area were recorded as early as the 1770s, before Maryland even became a state, so it’s pretty clear that the Chosen People of Baltimore are truly among the OGs along with the Anglicans (Note: There were probably Native Americans in the area, but on the whole, the central part of Maryland has never had much of a Native American presence. Even today, Maryland is one of the few states without an Indian reservation or any recognized tribal groups.)

A lot of the book focused on the relationships that Jews had with their neighbors, both the white, Christian community, and the large (and historically, relatively affluent) African-American community of Baltimore. The theme of “middle ground” really hit home and reverberated the most when placing the Jewish community in between the other two. Maryland has historically been an even-Steven kind of place, neutral in the Civil War, geographically south of the Mason-Dixon line but culturally closer to the northern states. Baltimore was, for quite some time, host to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Interestingly enough, back in the 1920s, the Jews of Baltimore were more closely affiliated with the Republican party, as the Democratic side leaned more towards the “know-nothings” and white Christians who wanted nothing to do with the Jews. This prompted both the growth of independent Jewish institutions as substitutes for areas exclusively reserved for white Christians, as well as the community’s turn towards an alliance with the similarly disenfranchised black community.

Speaking of the connections between the Jewish and African-American communities, there were quite a few which surprised me ,beyond the obvious demise of The Buddy Deane Show post-integration as chronicled in John Waters’ Hairspray. In 1927, a Jewish female doctor opened Baltimore’s first birth control clinic, which led to the 1938 founding of Northwest Maternal Health Center, the first hospital in the nation where black and white doctors worked side by side. Hot off the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education, the large Jewish presence on the county school board pushed for and ultimately achieved public school desegregation, one of the first districts south of the Mason-Dixon line to do so. And a year later, in 1961, Sinai Hospital (where I was born) became the only hospital in Baltimore to accept African-American interns among its staff, aside from the all-black Provident Hospital.

Of course, the Jewish contributions to life in Baltimore did not go unnoticed. Jews founded Baltimore’s earliest department stores, and had a hand in cultural institutions from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to Center Stage to the Baltimore Museum of Art. On the religious side, Baltimore’s first bat mitzvah occurred in 1936, only a matter or months after the first ever bat mitzvah took place in New York City. By 1951, Park Heights Avenue was known as “Rue de la Shul” (plausible although I’ve never heard anyone call it that, but then again we also have the so-called ‘Gucci’ Giant, the history of which is beyond me), and yeah, it’s still full o’shuls. And Ner Israel, Baltimore’s notable yeshiva, was the first institute in America to offer a doctorate degree in Talmudic law.

Probably the most interesting parts of the book were the details of Baltimore’s Jewish community during the civil rights movement, where private schools and even country clubs were restricted to white, Christian members only. A particularly interesting photograph of Meadowbrook Country Club’s sign warning against blacks and Jews intrigued me. Towards the end of the book, names of people and places became more and more familiar, and on page 223, there was even a picture taken in a classroom at my high school; obviously, a decade after I graduated, but still very recognizable and very…odd to see in a history book. And who knew about Jewish boxing? There could have been way more information about that in the book.

So anyway, upon finishing, I asked for a number 1-50 from Siri, and she picked 39, so North Dakota, here I come! I have already picked out a few books; hopefully it will not take me another five months to read and recap a book from that state.

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9

Feminism, In Its Purimist Form

Well, after sleeping for almost 24 hours straight from Friday to Saturday, I woke up just in time to go to the Ovation Purim party last night. It was pretty enjoyable, plenty of hamantaschen to eat and a very nice megillah reading, then back home and to bed.

But this morning, I realized that us Jews and our holidays – well this one in particular – are surprisingly progressive for such an ancient religion. Allow me to explain.

Purim is a day when we celebrate the Book of Esther, and specifically, its heroine, the Queen herself. She was pretty much a bad-ass bitch, making her way into the palace to replace the dethroned queen, hiding her true identity, and then pulling off a pretty covert mission in order to uncover the wicked Haman’s plans to jettison the Jews. Long story short, Haman got hanged from a tree, the Jews of the Persian Empire were safe and happy, and in her honor, we dress up, get drunk, and eat cookies which are supposed to be shaped like three-cornered hats but sometimes end up looking like vaginas.

To me, feminism means disruption of the status quo in order to ensure a greater good, benefiting a marginalized group. And it’s no coincidence that it was a woman-led effort. I mean, what other mainstream religion has a day celebrating a woman, and only a woman?

I hear the arguments that Judaism is whatever, demeaning to women, second class, all that, but at the end of the day, without women like Esther and Ruth, we wouldn’t have some of our best holidays and our religion would lose a significant part of its meaning and importance.

I hope these inside-out hamantaschen turn out all right.

 

15

Kajagoojew

And here’s the long (…well, a few days) -awaited review of the second book I finished this past week. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the recent past, and I think a lot of people will find something about it they’d like, so here’s a review for Hush, by Eishes Chayil (pseudonym).

Hush takes place between 2000 and 2008/2010 in Boro Park, the most Jewish section of New York. Gittel Klein, a 9-year-old girl in one of the most religiously observant of sects, witnesses some unspeakably horrible occurrences revolving around her best friend Devory Goldblatt, and 8-10 years later, as a young newlywed, her life changes forever when old feelings from the past bubble up to the surface, threatening to explode her marriage, her family, and her community.

(Wow, that’s like, the most concise plot synopsis I’ve ever written. Good job, laconic me.)

It was hard to put this book down. On Friday night, I willed myself to stay awake until the words on the page became mush, and I spent Saturday afternoon, when I should have been studying, engrossed in Gittel’s world for several hours outside on my new chaise on the sixth floor terrace. Eishes Chayil (real name: Judy Brown) weaves a compelling tale that effortlessly jumps from past to present and back again. The only real criticism I have is that Gittel’s sister is alternatively referred to as “Surie” and “Surela” so it took me until about halfway through the book to realize that they were the same person. The emotions that I felt while reading this book ranged from shock to horror to embarrassment to shame. It was as if Gittel was navigating her own way in this world populated by crazy people, from her marriage-obsessed parents to her painfully awkward husband to her teachers, who said some of the worst things.

Although I have not experienced any of the kinds of domestic/sexual abuses seen in Hush (for which I am thankful), I can only imagine that this book provides a hint of the soul-crushing experience it can be, not just on the victim but on those who love her, and those who don’t understand what is going on to their friend. What makes it worse is that Gittel had nowhere to turn to, and no one who would (or could) tell her the truths which she deserved to know. It makes it seem understandable, then, why she acts the way she does as a 19-year-old who has the wherewithal to go to the police; the code of silence under which she has been pulled has pervaded her worldview to the point that she has no frame of reference, and that if she has been lied to her whole life by her family, why wouldn’t those outside her family lie to her as well. What’s even sadder than what happens to Gittel and Devory is again, how those who are older and presumably wiser (just about everyone else in the story) is so blinded by status and marriage prospects that the welfare of their own little girls suffers. And with how the abuser’s story goes – well, let’s just say that it makes Brock Turner’s punishment look harsh by comparison.

Of course, there was predictable backlash from within the Jewish community, especially Orthodox, and Chabad Lubavitcher circles. However, having read some of those reviews, like this one from JewishMom.com, there might be a case of tunnel vision going on; it’s not about that at all. For what I think is a more accurate review, from a Jewish standpoint at least, is this one from Hella Winston of The Jewish Week.

I can’t speak for the Chabad or Hassidic communities, but as an Orthodox Jewish person and a human, I thought that this book was absolutely necessary, and regardless of the Jewish facts and descriptions, it’s the story of a community, their behavior, and the consequences that result from willful ignorance of evil and wrongdoing. Even if the author exaggerated some aspects of Boro Park Jewish life – so what? It’s fiction and she had a point to make. She didn’t go out to write some kind of abuse expose – she could if she would have wanted to, and that would be a completely different book – it’s a story she has lived with for quite a while, and fictionalized in an artful way without pointing fingers at any one group of people, with all the fake names and pseudonyms she uses, all the way up to her own name, for the first year of the book’s publication.

Go pick yourself up a copy of Hush. Come on, don’t be too shy-shy.

This book review was brought to you by bad 80s pun, some delicious strawberry sangria, and The Bachelorette.

Here’s some music.

7

Bye, Bei, Bye

Now that I finally have a moment…

Here’s another pet peeve of mine.

The sentence “we stayed by my grandparents’ last night” is something that a Jewish person might say.

It is also horribly grammatically incorrect. I never actually noticed it until a few years ago when my dad pointed it out, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

By means via, as in “by train”, alongside, as in “pass by a house” or “sit by a window,” or indicates a creator, as in “a painting by Picasso”. It does not mean over, at, or with.

“But why do you call out Jewish people, Jacob?”

Because they’re the only ones whom I’ve heard use it that way. I used it myself until my dad corrected me.

Actually, it has a linguistic meaning. In German, the word bei means “with,” therefore making its usage in the aforementioned sentence about staying with grandparents grammatically correct. For some reason, this word kind over traveled over and became a false cognate in English speech.

For some reason, though, it irks me more and more each time I hear someone use it incorrectly. I don’t know why it does, but it is grammatically incorrect. One time, I tried to correct someone, and was greeted with a blank stare, so it is not something that I try terribly hard to change about others’ speech patterns.

But don’t start saying it now.

That, or singing the Maude theme song in public, or else Lady Godiva will be freedom riding through your brain for the rest of the day.

4

Dancing with the Enemy

So, yesterday, after the show, I went to watch the second of four films offered by this year’s Madison Israel Film Festival, Dancing at Jaffa, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and starring Pierre Fontaine and Yvonne Marceau. For someone who is a huge fan of documentary films, of ballroom dance, of human interest stories, and of Israel, I have to say that I was let down.

Dancing at Jaffa documents the true story of an intercultural experiment aimed at uniting two groups of children in a very unusual way: through a ballroom dance class. French ballroom dance champion Pierre Fontaine returns to Jaffa, Israel – a suburb of Tel Aviv and the city of his birth – to see how he can best contribute to the people of a divided city in a divided nation. The idea of a ballroom dance class is brilliant, and especially the way he did it, by making Jewish boys dance with Palestinian girls, and Palestinian boys with Jewish girls. Of course, the program does not run smoothly; the scenes where the children meet for the first time are wonderfully awkward, and their reactions are candid and honest. Slowly, though, the resistance to look at, to touch, and to dance with the partner of the opposite sex and religion melts away, and by the end, they all (well, most of them) dance in a competition in front of a crowd of parents, family, and friends from both communities. Other than Pierre, two of the trajectories are those of Noor, a chubby Palestinian girl who can be either incredibly shy and withdrawn, avoiding everyone or hostile and belligerent, attacking and scaring everyone; and that of Lois and Alaa. We do not learn about Noor’s partner, but we do learn that Alaa comes from a very poor Palestinian home at which Lois is shocked, and that Lois’s thing is that she was fathered by a sperm donor, which prompts an adorable scene where she tries to explain to her partner what a sperm bank is, and then is followed by an awkwardly graphic scene where Lois’s mother gives Alaa the intimate details of her procedure and of the reproductive process. She’s a wily one, that lady. Noor’s arc basically ends with her in control of her emotions and actually proving to be a very talented dancer, and Lois and Alaa take us out with a scene where they row Alaa’s father’s boat and it’s all very Hand in Hand and gooey as the credits roll.

The concept of the film is great; cute kids and a fun project. If the synopsis weren’t enough, the trailers made me want to jump right up and buy a copy of the movie for myself. However, as I mentioned before, it was not a cakewalk to sit through.

Okay, disclaimer: granted, I missed the first 20 minutes because I was still at the theatre finishing up with the costumes, but for an almost 2-hour-long movie, missing 20 minutes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and I was able to get right into it when I walked in. The main criticisms I had were the treatment of ballroom dance, the character development, and the camera work/filming style.

Okay, first, the ballroom dance. Obviously, I was not expecting to watch children do ballroom for two hours straight, because that would be boring, but they could have shown more of that and fewer tracking shots of school buses and checkpoints. The only dances that I counted were merengue (which is not something I know much about), rumba (a different style than what I’m used to, though, and tango. There was a tiny bit of foxtrot and waltz in the scenes where Pierre and his American partner, Yvonne Marceau, were demonstrating for the class, but they didn’t show them teaching it. It’s obvious that the children were not professional dancers or even actors, but I felt like I was either watching them dance the same steps over and over in different settings or just watching them talk about their lives. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

This leads into character development. I found it odd that almost nothing was mentioned about Noor’s partner; that would have been a great counterpoint to Lois/Alaa. It is clear that we were supposed to root for Noor, but she seemed like a whiner up until the very last moments. Unlike Lois/Alaa, the Noor scenes always seemed to be about someone other than Noor, and Noor’s relationship with that person (Noor’s mother, Noor’s teachers, Noor’s classmate, Pierre). Also, some of the adult characters were frustrating. Pierre seemed a little full of himself at times; Lois’s mother, while funny, clearly attempted to commandeer a documentary that was not about her; and there was something that one of the teachers said to a class that I thought was incredibly harsh and unwarranted. Also, there were like five different schools, and so many children that we barely knew anyone else’s name by the end.

Finally, the camera work. Pick a style and stick with it. You want to do it as if it’s a real movie, with no fourth-wall breaking? Do it that way. You want heavy confessional action? Do it with all the characters, or at least not just Pierre. And for goodness sakes, decide if you want your voice in it – there was one scene in the Palestinian neighborhood where they were talking to Alaa and some of the other boys, and it was clear that the prompts/questions were coming from the person holding the camera.

I would give it a 2 out of 5 star rating, and that’s only because I just love ballroom dance.

And hello to another six continent day, the first after a few! So, just who danced in today? North America (Canada and USA), South America (Paraguay and Colombia), Europe (UK, Hungary, France, Netherlands, and Czech Republic), Asia (India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia), Africa (Burkina Faso), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

4

Paging American Mayors

Today, the news story that broke my Facebook news feed and the Internet worldwide (my apologies to Kim Kardashian) was what happened in Israel. When Israel hits the headlines, there’s a 75% chance that it’s bad news, and the newest incident/terrorist attack/”terrorist attack”/whatever CNN wants to call it felt particularly close to home.

Among the four dead, three were American citizens.

Here’s the rundown: Two Israeli Palestinian brothers storm into a synagogue in Har Nof, a very religious neighborhood in Jerusalem which has not been the scene of many acts of violence, armed with a gun, an axe, and a meat cleaver. Shouting “Allah’u akbar,” they attacked the men who were praying there. Nine were wounded, and four died: Moshe Twersky, a prominent rabbi from Boston; Rabbi Arieh Kupinsky, a Detroit native;  Cary William “Kalman” Levine, from Kansas City; and Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, originally from London and holding dual Israeli/UK citizenship. All were married and in their 50s/60s. Between them, they were fathers to 17 children and even more grandchildren. In addition, a Druze policeman who came to the rescue was shot in the crossfire, and died a short while after.

Boston.

Detroit.

Kansas City.

My first instinct was to go to the websites of each city’s largest newspaper and see what they had to say about their lost denizens. I found the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, and the Kansas City Star. Surely they had family, friends, and community leaders who were devastated.

In these articles, however, I noticed a trend.

Here is a list of everyone who was quoted in the articles:

President Barack Obama. Richard M. Joel (Yeshiva University). Eric Nelson (Maimonides School). Yehuda Yaakov (Israeli Consul, Boston). Michael Zwick (friend of Kupinsky). Jordana Wolfson (Akiba Hebrew Day School). Beverly Phillips (Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit). Rabbi Michael Cohen (Young Israel of Oak Park). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Secretary of State John Kerry. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Yosef Posternak (Witness). Yohanan Danino (Israeli Chief of Police). Alan Edelman (Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City). Jonathan Bein (Brother-in-law of Kalman Levine). Shimon Kraft (Childhood friend of Kalman Levine).

Who is missing?

Let’s see…the mayors of the cities of Boston, Detroit, and KCMO. State governors. Representatives. Congressman. Senators. Anyone from the United States of America who is not either in the federal government or a representative from the Jewish community. Where are they, and why haven’t they said anything? After all, these were their constituents, their taxpayers, and first and foremost, residents and natives of their hometowns. And they were brutally murdered in a terrorist attack, while praying in a house of worship in a foreign country. Remember Natalee Holloway, the Alabama girl who never returned from her trip to the Caribbean? Her state governor Bob Riley wagged his finger at the entire island of Aruba and issued a travel boycott. What about you, Governor of Michigan?

I considered the chance that maybe the reporters and news wires had missed the cities’ mayors in their rush to get the word out, so I decided to go to each mayor’s personal website and see if he put up something, a statement or a picture or anything, about what happened to a resident from his city. In the Press Room section of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s website, an article about the arts in Boston from a few days ago. Sly James, from Kansas City? Wrote about Summer Youth Employment yesterday. And today’s news from Mark Duggan in Detroit? Auto insurance.

Now, I’m not implying that employing our youth and insuring our automobiles is unimportant, but people in these cities may not be aware of the fact that someone who once lived in their ZIP code was murdered today. And those who do get word of it could wonder: what does this mean if I go to Israel, or anywhere abroad; would I be safe, and if not, would any public official who I might have campaigned for or voted for or shaken hands with give a darn? And would they make it public? How public? Would there be a memorial day for me in my hometown? Would my parents, siblings, children receive any sort of encouraging message from those who claim to have their jobs at the hands of “the people,” act for “the people,” and represent “the people” of their city to the United States and to the world?

It’s only been two days, but even in just two days all of the people listed above came out of the woodwork and said something. Elected officials, where have you been? If something like this happened in your city, by now you would have addressed the public, called an investigation, and offered public/private sympathies to the family. And one of the victims was the son of an actual person, with a Wikipedia entry, and everyone knows that if it’s on Wikipedia, that shit’s legit, # sarcasmbutyeahitskindatrue.

Most likely, no mayors, governors, senators or city councilmen will happen to bounce on over here and read this, and because I have a paper to finish, a suitcase to pack and some pizza that’s calling my name, I can’t contact every single one of them. But if I could page these three mayors, I’d tell them the truth and if they didn’t believe me, I’d give them the names of the families.

And if they happen to be reading this, then, welcome, and please don’t sue me 🙂 I am nicer than this normally, I promise.

***

Works Cited

Adler, Eric. “Two rabbis killed in Jerusalem attack have Kansas City ties.” Local. Kansas City Star. 18 November 2014.

Rosen, Andy, John R. Ellement and Peter Schworm. “One of four men murdered in Israel has ties to Boston area.” Metro. The Boston Globe. 18 November 2014.

Warikoo, Niraj, Zlati Meyer and Tia Goldenberg. “Rabbi killed in Jerusalem attack grew up in Oak Park.”