How Hannah and Ralph Came to Love the Shiksa

I met my husband the same year his first marriage fell apart. Theirs had been a short union, under three years, but in that day divorce was still scandalous in most circles and cross-cultural unions considered dangerous or an indication of an imbalanced mind. Which is why my my husband’s parents, Hannah and Ralph, did not want to see me, know me, hear about me, or so much as consider my existence when Stephen told them he’d fallen for an Irish-Polish Catholic girl whom they would come to love as much as he.

This was before the house in Delray Beach. Hannah and Ralph were snowbirds, spending a month or two every winter in North Miami Beach, at the old Colonial Inn. They had a regular social crowd there, a group of five or six couples, New York or New Jersey Jews all, who palled around together. They played Hollywood gin rummy by the pool, went to jai alai, ate at The Famous (kosher) restaurant downtown, took in the revue at The Americana. A few months after Stephen and I met, Hannah and Ralph, worried about their eldest coping with his failure in the marital department, sent for him to join them for two weeks, which he dutifully did, taking a room on the opposite side of the pool at the Colonial.

Now there was nothing Stephen hated more than a Boston winter. He should have been delighted to bask in the sun and enjoy maternal attentions and paternal pride. But he was lonely. After the first week, he sent me a plane ticket then told his parents his plans: I would arrive the next Tuesday. They were aghast. Not the shiksa! they cried. How can we show our faces around here if you bring the shiksa! But I love her, he told them. I want you to know her. They were adamant. We will not speak to her. We will not meet her.

Alright, Stephen said. Do what you must, but she’s still coming. I’ll check out of the Colonial and move into the Suez. The Suez was the motel next door. There were tears and protestations from Hannah, scowling disapproval from Ralph. But their son was a grown man. He did what he wanted. When he told me of their opposition, I said: Maybe we can win them over. No, I do not think so, he told me, somewhat mournfully. And maybe it was his tone of voice, of this man I loved who had already suffered enough from the break-up of his marriage, but I decided to punish these cruel parents for their refusal to meet me. I thought: Get in the way of his happiness? I’ll show them!

Basically, my plan was this: They expected a blond, blue-eyed, slut of a shiksa who would ruin their son’s life. Well, then that’s what they were going to get. I dyed my dark brown hair platinum, I bought a very short black crepe suit. I bought false eyelashes, upper and lower. Luckily, my eyes were already blue.

When I got off the plane at Miami International, Stephen was waiting for me. I saw him some ten yards away and my heart leapt. I click-clacked towards him in my black crepe suit and spike heels. He glanced at me, then looked beyond me. I had to stand in front of him and pluck his sleeve to get his attention. Uh, Stephen. I’m here, I said. He started and dropped his far off gaze to the bleached out hussy in front of him. Mare? he asked, is that you? Well, yeah, I said, fluffing out my hair with an upturned palm. Do you like it? He was drop-jawed but covered quickly. I like you any way you choose to be, he said, his voice low and heavy with subtext. I laughed. We hugged. We kissed. We got my luggage and to the hotel in record time.

The next day, he told me he had to go make an appearance at his parents’ hotel next door and then he’d be back to spend the day with me. He returned after fifteen minutes, shaking his head with wonder. They want to meet you, he said. Who knew if I called their bluff, they’d crumble like a house of cards. Who knew?

Now it was my turn to feel anxious, guilty. I brushed down my bouffant Marilyn Monroe do. I put on minimal make-up. Unfortunately, I hadn’t packed the one bra I had that I’d not burned in ‘71. All the skirts I had with me were mini. My shorts were short shorts. But I did my best in to dress respectfully to meet the Glickmans. With what I had to work with.

Our first meeting was stiff, formal. Much as I’d tried to tone Ms Slut Shiksa down, I knew I still shocked. Yet they were polite. I could see what it cost them to make the effort and I was ashamed. They told us they were going to the Bahamas for a few days with their crew of friends, returning after we’d leave to go back to Boston, but they wanted to have dinner with us first. I thought this a radical victory of young love over old world prejudice.Then we drove for dinner. Far far away from North Miami Beach. To the most out of the way, nobody-knows-you’re-there delicatessen in all of Florida. It was so out of the way it’s possible we were in Louisiana.

When we got back home, I dyed my hair back to its natural color. Three months later, Hannah and Ralph came to Boston to visit us. Our buzzer was broken, so I ran downstairs to answer the front door when they arrived at our apartment on Beacon Street. Hannah was climbing the steps, her hands busy with shopping bags full of New Jersey delicatessen and bakery goods she was certain were not available in Back Bay. Ralph was at the car, half way in the trunk, unpacking yet more provisions. Hannah took one look at me and without pausing to say hello, she called to her husband: Raaalph! She’s not a blond anymore!

It was an odd weekend. Everyone played nice but I knew there was still a lot of parental resistance. Then on Saturday night after dinner, someone suggested we play Hollywood gin rummy. We pulled a card table out of a closet and played. Hannah and I won big time. She was so excited at one point, she called me by Stephen’s first wife’s name. Good hand, Julie, she said. And we all ignored it because after all, it was a sign of acceptance, wasn’t it?

The next time they visited, she brought me gifts. Two pantsuits. Two polyester pantsuits that were Hannah’s idea of fine dressing and mine of please-God-don’t-let-anyone-I-know-see-me-in-this. We went out to dinner at a high-profile restaurant. I wore one of the pantsuits for that one and only time. On seeing me, Hannah and Ralph sighed. She looks beautiful, Stevela, they said. Their son beamed.

And they loved me ever after.

Cain, Abel, and Everybody Else

Everybody knows the Cain and Abel story. Good son, bad son, jealousy, murder, exile. Then there’s Jacob and Esau.Trickery, betrayal, more exile, guilt, reconciliation. Mix up genders and there’s Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom.Innocence, rape, revenge, exile yet again, rebellion. All of it meaning there’s a motherload of complexity when siblings disagree and rarely do siblings disagree with more passion than when the parents are in extremis. That’s a fact, Jack. And I’m here to say Amen, brother, Amen.

There are two parts of this, I think. One is that individuals bring their own manners of coping with trouble to the table and one man’s rosy dawn is another’s night of the dead. The optimists and the realists, the half glass full crowd and the half glass empty crowd each get to bang their spoons against their plates. Which is where it ought to end because we’re all tolerant, aren’t we? Of opposing views in 2012?

But then heads bang against the second part: adolescent roles are revived quantum style when Mommy and Daddy are fading away, abandoning the field, leaving the troops to their own devices. Where childhood’s roles resurrect in adult bodies, no one’s safe.

As I’ve been pondering this awhile now, without coming up to any useful conclusions, I thought I’d go to an expert. That’d be Susan Morse, author of The Habit, a humane, humorous memoir of coping with her very unique and elderly mother’s battle with cancer.

Here’s what she said:

“I really can’t comment. In fact I have no idea what you are getting at, and honestly I resent the implication that my siblings and I have any trouble getting along whatsoever. My siblings understand perfectly that I was sent from heaven. I am the one with boots on the ground, the Good Daughter Who Takes Care of the Aging Parent, and they know their job, which is to do exactly what I tell them. If they behave themselves (and that’s a Big If) they are allowed to occasionally offer advice, and then duck when I lunge around ready to bite their heads off for interfering. We all have our roles in a family. We just have to figure them out.

“So I feel for you and your problems with your adult siblings, Mary, but they have nothing to do with us. By the way has my sister been talking to you? Oh, man, she is asking for it; that’s it, I’m calling her…..”

Ah well. As Tolstoy said: All happy families are alike. Not sure about those unhappy families. Neither Susan nor I know anything about them.

Gals n’ Guns

In the South, people take the 2nd Amendment very seriously. It’s a cultural thing. Maybe it has to do with the Civil War. Whatever else the Civil War was about, the threat of federal troops in one’s backyard left an indelible impression that bleeds into notions of self defense.

So many Southerners are rather fond of their guns. After all, the South has a culture that can support a magazine called Gardens and Guns. Many daddies teach children how to shoot at a very young age, by overall national standards. I’ve known young women who’ve received pistols as graduation presents, tucked away in the glove compartment of the traditional graduation car. They’re meant for self-protection. The bluest democrat I know, a gentlewoman of great compassion and charity towards her fellow man, can shoot the flame off a candle. (She’s also a little deaf from target practice back in the day before ear protection became mandatory.)

While I learned to shoot up North prior to a trip to Jerusalem (long story), when I moved South, I got myself a Concealed Weapon Permit. Why? Because I could. Later, I bought a gun, a 38-revolver known as a Pink Lady for its pink laminate grip and its light weight. It took me a while to find the time and occasion to fire it.

Then a friend asked if I’d like to accompany her and her husband to a local shooting range and at last get to fire that new gun of mine. I said yes. We went to a standard indoor range, satisfied ourselves that our weapons worked, our aim was serviceable, and our nerves still intact. The women tired first. My friend and I went to a lounge to wait for her husband to finish up. It was there we were treated to an only-in-the-South moment.

One of the ranges had been closed for a private party. NRA bigwigs? Hunters’ confab? No. Out of that door fluttered six twenty-something women, each flushed with pleasure, each in her own pink t-shirt reading “Caution: Gals with Guns”, each carrying pink ear and eye protection, pink targets, and huge smiles. I asked if they were a club. No, says they, we’re a bachelorette party!

Well, I thought, here’s something new under the sun. Let me investigate.

Me: So you’ve shot before?

Them: Only Shirley!

Me: How about the bride?

The bride: First time today!

Me: So, did you like it?

All of them: It was great! I never felt so empowered!

Me(to the bride): Does your intended shoot?

The bride: No.

Me: Keep it that way.

As their happy pink backs skipped out the door, an old man approached my friend and I. Very smart gals, says he. We concur. Know what you do with them pink targets? he continued. I’ll tell you. You put ‘em on the wall where a man lookin’ in from outside can see ‘em. Ain’t no low-life goin’ to enter a house that tells him from the git-go ‘There’s a gal in here with a gun. And she can shoot.’

He had a point, I suppose. But I don’t think even our bridal party would get past the idea of used targets, especially pink ones, as living room décor. Earth tones work much better there. Pink is for t-shirts and grips.

In Memento Mori – a guest blog by Felicity Carter

I once read a novel about mortality, about an apocalypse that was wiping out earth and heaven simultaneously. The central conceit was that the dead only exist for as long as they’re remembered; once the last living person forgets them, the soul disappears forever. So a well-known historical identity like, say, Socrates might go on and on and on. A nonentity who never reached the history books, on the other hand, might be forgotten about after a few years, and wink out of existence altogether.

This week, Mary’s mother died, which is why she isn’t blogging today. I’m Felicity, a friend of hers who lives in Europe, and I’m filling in for her. I thought about that book again this week, because Mary and I have been discussing grief by email. One of the things we’ve talked about is how physically painful it is when the people close to us die. It’s like the deceased hack away a big chunk of our flesh on their way out the door.
There’s probably a physiological reason for this. I’ve read that grey cells – the same ones that can be found in our brains – also live in the stomach and the fingertips. We literally process emotions in our stomachs, so it’s not surprising that when we’re under extreme emotional pressure, our stomachs twist and clench and make us feel like hurling. Grief can feel an awful lot like the urge to vomit.
But I think there’s something else at work as well, and it’s to do with memory. Except the novel got it the wrong way round. It’s not that we the living forget the people who have passed on, it’s that the dead take their memories of us with them. People who have played an important role in our lives, who have witnessed us at crucial times, take their witnessing with them when they go.
Like most people, I’ve passed through several distinct phases of life. For example, one of my major goals in my 20s was to stand on stage in a red velvet recital gown and sing something operatic, to huge applause. While I never managed to get the huge applause, I did at least accumulate a series of voluminous recital gowns, in a wide range of eye-catching colours.
Those gowns are now in storage somewhere. Today if you asked people to describe my personal style, they’d probably say ‘middle aged and boring’ and they’d be right. I could protest and tell people about my inner yen to parade through the streets in a Baroque gown, swigging from a bottle of wine, but they wouldn’t believe me. That’s not a side of me they’ve ever met.
Sometimes even I feel like I should grow up and accept the fact that I’m tediously middle aged. What saves me is that I have a handful of friends who remember what I was like back then, who have experienced at first hand that I have a wilder, more bohemian side. Their first-hand knowledge of me is my assurance that I really do have more dimensions than meet the eye.
I need people in my life who can put me in touch with who I was, who I’ve been and who I might still become. Without that, I’m literally no-one.
Having a novelist as a friend is always fraught with danger, because you never know if something about you is going to be used for creative purposes (a character called Felicity Rose Carter, anyone?). But novelist friends are also capable of reflecting our deeper truths back to ourselves, which is why I value Mary’s friendship so much. Good friends help you remember who you really are.
And mothers, well, mothers literally define who you are. What could be more physically painful than losing a mother, even if she was very old and died peacefully, and we’re long past the age when mothers are supposed to mean so much to us? Because who knows us better than our own mothers? Who else saw us when we first came into the world, when we made our first mud pie, or when we first went off to school? Those are parts of our identity that we ourselves usually can’t remember. When our mothers die, those important parts of who we are, held within her memory, die forever.
Mary, no wonder it hurts.


Caution: Me in a Dark Mood

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about aging and death. Partly because I’ve got a character right now that needs to die and I’m not sure how. I don’t know. If I can’t figure out a decent way to kill him off, maybe he’ll live. The point is such problems set the mind in a certain direction.

The character I’m thinking about is sort of old, but it’s a period piece and he’s not as old as folk get today. That brings to mind another question. How old is old? When does old start? It’s not a state of mind, as people – typically ones getting older but still young – like to say. Once the aches and pains kick in on a daily basis, or a major organ requires meds, it’s dumb to decide you’re as young as you feel.

Age is like beauty – in the eyes of the beholder. I remember when I was in my mid forties, still looking really good, feeling strong. I spent the day with my niece who was then about seven. I was taking her to the ballet for the Nutcracker that night. She asked if she could do my hair for the evening. Alright, says I, game for whatever amused her.

Twenty minutes later I had all my hair pulled up tight to the top of my head and then fashioned into a knot. My niece said: There, Mary! Now you look like a movie star! You’ll look so great tonight!
It was, of course, a disaster. All I needed was a bone stuck through the top of my head to look like Bam-Bam Flintstone. I told Anna: No, no, no, no, no. I look old this way. Anna’s little face went quizzical. But, Mary! You are old!

So let’s take niece seven-year-old Anna’s assessment and make 45 the beginning of old. The next question is: When is old too old? That’s something my pragmatic, 92-year-old mother knows well. Whenever a health or environmental difficulty arrives on her doorstep, she says: Well, that’s what I get for living too long.

Which gives me pause.

When I was a kid, we were taught to pray for what the nuns called “a good death”. Even then, I couldn’t imagine what a good death was. Now, I think I know. It’s a death that comes before you’re too old or in chronic pain or dependent in a way you don’t like or when everyone else important to you has gone on before.

So I’ve decided to avoid the issue.

I have this age in mind, which, if I manage to achieve it, will signal the year I stop taking my meds. Every week, I’m going to buy a few cartons of cigarettes, two bottles of bourbon, a case of wine, and two pounds of butter. Every day, I’ll eat red meat and drink my coffee with heavy cream. My plan is to go the old fashioned way. One great noisy heart attack or swift silent massive stroke.

The age I’ve chosen is the same one Issac Bashevis Singer began to experience the first signs of dementia. He said, famously, that when he got up in the morning and could not remember the names of his characters from a work in progress his heart broke. It was the final blow. I can imagine what he meant.

My husband is a little offended by all this. He thinks I should stay alive as long as he breathes too. But he wants to live to be 110. As his mother is now 98 with a heart as strong as a lion’s, he stands a good chance. I’m reminded of Conrad when I envision 110: The horror, the horror.

I told my husband recently my definition of a good death was to die in one’s sleep. He scoffed at me. Nobody dies in their sleep, says he. It’s too big, too grand an event. Surely the mind comes alert and takes note of the occasion. No, they don’t die in their sleep, they die in the other guy’s sleep. The one that’s snoring next to.

He’s got a point. I guess I’m back to cigarettes, bourbon, and butter. There are worse ways to go. And the best part is, no matter when it is, even if it comes up and takes me by surprise tomorrow, no one will say: Oh, she died so young!

Quo Vadis, Author?

I had a tough week. It was all accounting. All numbers all the time from Tuesday on. My verbal brain went comatose. I’m trying to wake her up now and she’s at least stretching despite the leg cramps for which I think we all should applaud the old girl. But writerly discipline demands that I write. Only what?

I cast my voice upon the waters and my friend the wine critic, Felicity Carter, answered. Why don’t you write about genteel Charleston’s scandalous past, she suggested. Start with that barely plastered over giant phallus on Nina Liu’s Gallery on State Street, the home of a brothel for much of the first half of the 20th century. Then follow up with that story of the brothel owned in the early part of the 19th by the daughter of a cantor of the local synagogue. And I thought, well, geez, those aren’t bad tips.

Nina’s a pillar of Charleston’s art establishment, whose three storey art gallery features an eclectic range of contemporary art works. The way she tells it, it’s always been full of eclectic collections. Like the prostitute who was heard screaming in the middle of the day sometime in the 1940s as a sailor hung her by her hair out the window.

Now admittedly, if you had to be hung by your hair out the window, State Street’s not a bad street to be dangling over. It’s one of Charleston’s most beautiful with courtyard gardens and wrought iron fences galore and two blocks from the ocean to boot. Unfortunately, it’s a tough story to write about, because I never really found out why the sailor was so displeased. And Google as I might, I couldn’t confirm the cantor’s daughter story except in my memory, always a shaky thing.

Despair ensued.

So I decided to do what writers always do –make it up. Ahem. Here goes: The sailor dangled the whore out the window by her hair because he found out she was his long lost mother and was enraged that she’d trashed the family honor.

After I’d finished working out my non-existent history, I felt bad for a minute, thinking I should never fob my readers off with a fake story. Then I opened my PW Daily online and found an article by Laura Miller worth promoting. It’s about authors scamming social media by paying marketers to write false reviews. Apparently, such folk sabotage the honor, the decency of our anti-establishment People’s Internet, rendering the Internet review meaningless. Now, frankly, I thought this had already been accomplished by reviewers who give Jane Eyre one star and Angels and Demons five. My own view on the subject is one I got from bestselling author Lisa Alther, who told me that she never reads reviews because they reflect more about the reviewer than they do the work. But Ms Miller’s final paragraph captivated me. She cites Ewan Morrison in The Guardian:

(His) article is a lengthy and blistering indictment of the idea that authors, whether traditionally or self-published, can use social networking to sell their books. Maybe it worked once, he concedes, when the concept was new — say, two years ago — but by now the Kindle store alone has been flooded with 1.1 million new authors. The chance of making oneself heard over the Web-2.0 din is vanishingly slim, or just vanishing.

Eureka! I thought. If everything goes, including fraud, on the Internet, it doesn’t matter what I write today! I can write made-up history if I have to. What’s important is that I’m writing.

And after the writing comes the second part of my friend’s advice – the glass of wine. Here’s to you.

Promises, Promises. Or: The Last Time I Open My Big Mouth.

During the last six months I’ve been telling anyone who asks “What are you working on?” that my new novel has a concept and blah-blah-blah, women alone, about the diverse ways single women coped without a man in their lives during different decades of the 20th century. (Believe it or not, young ‘uns, women alone used to have an exceptionally hard time of it.) Then I’d say blah, blah, blah how I’ll use characters from my first two novels, characters readers seemed to love, who “go offstage” during the time of their lives they’re on their own. I’ll answer the question of  how Aurora Mae managed between her abduction and her reappearance at Ghost Tree Plantation and how Katherine Marie and her kids managed with her husband locked up in federal prison all those years.  I’d unify these characters both thematically and plotwise, to give a panoramic view of the coping mechanisms of single Southern women, black, white, Jewish, throughout the 20th century. Not only that, no matter where I started in the century, I’d finish it all up with Bill Clinton at the end of his second term pardoning Mombasa to reunite Katherine Marie with the love of her life and all the readers who fell in love with Mombasa could at last be happy.

Boy. Was that a great idea or what?

It was. Just the promising I’d do it that was wrong. I’m at the midpoint of No. 3 in my Southern Jewish series right now. I’ve only gone from 1917 to 1925ish in the action, but I’d thought of clever ways I could jump ahead and tie all the generations of sisters together and was about to try using them until. Until.

I had a dream.

I know I’ve blogged before about the Unconscious Critic. But this dream embodied his granddaddy – the Unconscious Creator. See, I had this dream that I wasn’t feeling well and went to the hospital. The ER doctor told me I was having a baby. Imagine the shock at my age. Ok, I went home and lived my life until one day, I happened to notice a neighbor lady at her window nursing a baby and I thought: Oh, yes! I’m supposed to have one of those. I wonder where it went?

My husband then called the hospital and was told the baby was there, we’d just forgotten to pick it up. So we go over and bring the little package home and it turns out to be a sweet girl baby about as big as my thumb. I realize this tiny thing can’t possibly nurse at my breast without drowning and send my husband out to get me some formula and such at the drug store. Meanwhile, the baby keeps falling out of my hands, sliding down the bed sheets to the floor, detaching her tiny, bloodless limbs along the way. When I catch her and bring her back up, she’s intact again just small. Until the last time.

The last time the tiny girl baby fell from the bed and slid down the covant, I picked her up and lo and behold, she’d morphed into a robust, affectionate, black and white puppy I could barely contain with two hands. The puppy hopped all over the bed, licked my face all over, too, as bursting he was with delirious, happy energy, unrestrained, pure of spirit.

When I woke up, I thought: Ok, that was all about the novel. It’s changed along the way and I need to abandon the original concept, high and mighty as it might have been. Maybe high concepts always bear puny offspring, I dunno. It’s a theory worth thinking about sometime. For now, all that’s certain is I’ve got a hearty, flesh and blood critter on my hands, scampering about the page, pissing all over my old plan but along the way creating a vigorous one of his own.

Which means I must apologize to all of you who were looking for something more familiar next time around and whose expectations I’ve raised. Sorry! I can promise you’ll still get more Aurora  Mae and Horace; at least they’ve come out to play already. And there’s some expansion of minor folk from the other novels whose names you’ve probably already forgotten. There’s new people, too, wonderful characters who’ve won my heart and mind in a way I’m hoping is wildly contagious.

In the end, I guess you can fairly call me a liar, a cheat, a seducer full of false promises. Guilty, I say, guilty. But if I’ve learned anything at all from the Unconscious Creator, it’s to follow its lead.

So I will. I know I won’t be sorry. I’m thinkin’ you won’t be either.

Janus, the two-faced god.

You all remember him? Janus, the god with two faces. The ancient Romans believed he balanced the provident and the dire, controlled doorways and gates, the places of transit from here to there. He’s been on my mind tonight as I’m thinking of my ancient parents, newly resident in a nursing home masquerading as a rehab facility. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful facility. If I had to be in such a venue – and please, may it never happen – I couldn’t wish for a nicer one. It’s clean. It’s bright. It doesn’t smell. Everybody’s got private rooms. The staff is caring and seems genuinely fond of my folks. But for all the niceties provided which means someone is really, really trying to do all the right, the humane things, it’s still – let’s face it – a nursing home. In our society, that makes it The Last Stop. And you can flip all you want on that dime. Doesn’t change a thing. Pretty, bright, clean, sweet of scent, kind, private, yet still The End.

How do you deal with that? If there’s a handle to grasp, it’s damn slippery. Mommy and Daddy are about to be gone. Probably fairly close together in time. In the case of my parents, they’ve lived a very long time. They’re in their nineties and only recently found time catching up to them and knocking them on the head. Up to just about yesterday, they were on their own, living in the home I grew up in. Everyone knew it couldn’t last forever, but still, but still.

Frank and Freda are together. That’s very important to both them and their seven children. They spend an hour or so a day sitting wheelchair to wheelchair in the day room. They hold hands. They kiss. They vow their love to each other.  “I love you,” she says.  “I love you back. More than you’ll ever know,” he says before breaking into a few bars of “Don’t Blame Me”.  Everyone who witnesses them smiles and feels a warmth blossom inside. Then his head falls on his chest and he’s drooling again. And she looks like she needs to flee.

So, if Janus is the god of endings and beginnings, of the past and the future, and if ever his essence walked the earth, it’s there, in the nursing home. He most certainly represents the model commanding these two who love each other so much they cannot be separate and live. Because Daddy doesn’t know quite where he is; he’s just pleased that she’s there too. Sometimes, he seems to know the world he’s in is bad, very bad, and that it’s a world she cannot inhabit with him but for moments of the day. Whereas, she knows exactly where she is but can’t join him in his world because that would mean she’s there, too, on the brink, in the demented land of The End and she’s not ready, not quite yet.

Janus haunts their children, too. There we are, happy they are alive yet wishing their suffering was over. We rush to their sides but are relieved when we can go home. I’m one of the long-distance children. After spending a week with them at the rehab facility/nursing home, I took my leave. I told my mother: “I’m so sad to leave you.” She replied: “You’ll get over it.”  The next day, my brother said to my father: “Mary and Stephen are back in South Carolina now.” And my demented daddy replied:  “I’ll bet they’re glad, too.”

What can I say to that? Yes, I’m glad I’m home. Who likes to live in a hotel for a week unless it’s in Tuscany or on a Kenyan wildlife preserve? But I’ve a sadness in me that won’t go away. But who knows. Janus willing, I’ll get over it.


Frank and Freda together

All The Hatred That’s Been Sown

This year I took my debut novel, Home in the Morning, on tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Network. It’s been fabulous to meet readers and discuss the book’s themes and the history behind its genesis. Morning is about the Southern Jewish experience with a focus on the Civil Rights Era and the arc of its development follows the transition from the Old South to the New.  When I present it, I talk about the differences in the Southern and Northern Jewish experience, and the perilous impact Northern Jews traveling South as activists in that time had on the lives of indigenous Jews. I particularly like seeing how northerners and southerners have a different reaction to the book. I find Southerners laugh at my anecdotes of Southern life, whereas Yankees look quite stern and thoughtful about them. Southern Jews frequently come up to me afterwards and tell me how I got the tensions and fears of the era just right, while Yankees are still trying to absorb the fact that not all Southerners were or are redneck race baiters.  I blame Hollywood for that.

But one comment continues to shock me, and I’ve had it all over the country. At many Q&As, someone will ask me if the White Citizen’s Council, the white collar enforcer arm of Southern segreationists, truly existed, or if I made it up.

It floors me that intelligent, highly educated people have such a gap in their general knowledge, particularly since so little time has passed, really, since the Civil Rights Era. I wonder:  Has Black History Month become lessons in Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King with little context?  Since much of my speaking focus is the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, this is both disheartening and shocking.

After one of these experiences, I was alone for a time after my talk while people cleaned up the room, picking up drink glasses and coffee cups, putting away chairs.  One of the people cleaning up was a middle aged African American woman from the South – she was old enough to probably have preferred the term “black”.  She and I got to chatting. She asked me how the presentation went. I told her very well but that I’d been astounded one of the women had asked me if the White Citizens Council truly existed.  She picked right up on that.  She said:  Oh, I know, I know.  I have to remind my own people – because of all the hatred that’s been sown –  that if it wasn’t for the Jews, we would not be free today.

Because of all the hatred that’s been sown. 

Now, I know the African American community and the Jewish community are not as close as they used to be in the ’60s, when the majority of white civil rights workers were Jews.  In fact, I’m sorry to say that some of the worst anti-semites in the  United States today are African American. A lot of hatred has indeed been sown by wildly influential people like Louis Farrakan and I confess, some of my own misguided people, too.  But to hear it spoken of this way, in this context, disturbed me.  Both my novels feature loving relationships between African American and Jewish characters at different times during the 20th century. These relationships are textured by the challenges of history. I’m rethinking that texture now after hearing because of all the hatred that’s been sown, which has disturbed me enough that my novel-in-progress will tell a different tale than the one I first envisioned. 

When I left that night, I asked the organizers of the event to give one of their copies of my book to that African American woman.  I think she’d like it, I told them.  They said:  Why of course, of course!  

I hope they followed up.  And even more, I hope she reads.


This piece originally appeared on the Open Road Media blog on May 25, 2012, during Jewish American Heritage Month.  

What I Don’t Get About Fifty Shades of Grey

I read an article recently in the NY Post about the revolutionary idea that Fifty Shades of Grey might be ready for primetime, at least according to Lifetime boss Nancy Dubuc.

From the April 16th article: “I watched the firestorm, the domino effect of the very first woman in my circle to admit having read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” Dubuc says. “And it took about 6.3 seconds for the other 50 women (in the room) to admit that they had read it, too. You are just waiting for that first person or that first show or that first moment. We are in a cultural moment,” she tells The Post. “Literally and figuratively, women are coming out of the closet about how they feel and asking tough questions. . .”

What on earth are you talking about, woman?  ‘Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?’ is a tough question? Ok, I can’t say I read it. I did buy it to see what the hype was about. I thumbed through it, but even if I could get beyond the gee whiz aspect of its tone, it seemed way too tame for all its controversy, in fact I thought it excruciatingly boring. Call me jaded if you like, but in my day women cut their sexually liberated teeth on The Story of O (ok, that sounds pretty bad, didn’t mean to get all vagina denta on you), handing it off to each other as if it were Gone With The Wind. We read deSade’s Justine during the collegiate years. Somewhere someone probably read it in class. Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t have made it on our radar.

And reading was the tip of that iceberg. As far as sexual politics go, we were devoted to revolutionary acts. A lot of them were not very good ideas, but we’d all just come out of the pre Summer of Love years when “Don’t get a girl pregnant, it’ll ruin your life” echoed through every young man’s brain so that any of them who wanted a life (all of ‘em) kept condoms in their wallets ‘just in case’. After a while, most of those wallets wore the telltale indentation of a condom ring because they never got used. If they ever did, they’d probably turn to dust before they got out of the foil. Not because these boys wanted to ruin their lives but because young women had their own brain echo: “Who’s going to buy the cow if you give away the milk for free” so they just never got the chance. You see, all the young men then thought they could have a life and wanted one very badly while all of young women really, really wanted to be a bought cow.

Then came the Haight and the Beatles and the drugs and the rock n’ roll. For better or worse, everything changed. Every last one of us had times we surely ain’t gonna talk about to the grandkids, and I’m only telling tales now because I’d really like to know:  how’d Pandora get all that stuff back in the box?