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My Grandmother’s Book Reviews

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My Grandmother’s Book Reviews

A century-old archive offers a window into the evolution of American Jewry. September 15, 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Yom Kippur, observed this week, is one of only four occasions on which we chant the service known as Yizkor—a time to remember one’s close relatives who have died and to ask that God remember them. This year, I will benefit from a new way I can remember my maternal grandmother—thanks to the charity of another Cleveland Jew whose gift has provided a window into Cleveland’s Jewish history.

Sam Miller was the co-chairman of Forest City Realty, the property and development company that has grown into an empire but, as evidenced by Miller’s charity, has not overlooked its roots. The Samuel H. Miller Keeping our Words Alive Digital Archive “provides access to the past 131 years of Jewish history in Northeast Ohio,” through a long chain of local Jewish newspapers, culminating with the present-day Cleveland Jewish News, always required reading in my parents’ home. Looking through the archive, one experiences something akin to time travel, reading news of bar mitzvahs long past, synagogues that long ago moved from city to far-off suburb, and meetings of brotherhood and sisterhood groups and the books they discussed.

It was the latter which made possible my trip back in time to the world of my grandmother. One remembers one’s parents and grandparents primarily as caregivers, but the Miller archive provided a rare gift: a chance to know my grandmother as an adult and a community leader—and as someone who led book discussions that, it turns out, highlight the cultural trajectory of Jews in America.

I had general ideas about her flight from present-day Belarus (Volozhin)—where much of her extended family would later die at the hands of the Nazis—and about her ardent Zionism. But children are effectively fenced off from knowing adult family members in other roles. For this Yom Kippur, I have been fortunate in discovering a pipeline into my grandmother’s passions.

In the archive, I found short items on books about which my grandmother, Ethel Levine (always under the byline “Mrs. David A. Levine”), gave public talks. The subjects of these talks, in a way, measure the distance between American Jewry today and that of the prime of my grandmother’s life. Three books in particular reveal my grandmother, an immigrant raised in poverty, as someone who could celebrate both America as a land of opportunity and the necessity of Israel to Jewish survival—at any cost. Neither idea is terribly popular with American Jews today.

The first book is a tale largely of the old country. In Yesterday, Miriam Shomer Zunser, the Odessa-born American playwright, promoter of Jewish music, and founder of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah, tells stories about her family. Published in 1939, it proved durable over the years and was even reprinted by Harper & Row in 1978. My grandmother apparently thought it important for her audience to look back on what they or their parents had left behind, albeit without Fiddler on the Roof-style sugar coating. Zunser wrote of the ten surviving children out of the 24 borne by her grandmother. “The rest were claimed by the many scourges of infantile life that were rampant in Europe.”

The second book is a literary treatment of Jewish upward mobility and assimilation in America. The Worcester Account (1954), by New Yorker writer S. N. Behrman, is a stylish, still-readable narrative of the author’s childhood on Providence Hill, in the factory town of Worcester, Massachusetts, in which he is torn between staying in shul for Yom Kippur and sneaking out to hear Eugene Debs speak. My grandmother, keen to assimilate and send her progeny off to the Ivy League, was nonetheless able to recommend a book that included a sophisticated account of the tension of that process—of what it felt like for a Jew, as we say now, to feel marginalized. Behrman tells the story of finding himself on a streetcar with the Yankee headmaster of the local private academy, Dr. Abercrombie, seated across from two Yiddish-speaking clothiers. “I remember feeling an intense self-consciousness. I hoped my elders would make a good impression, exhibit a certain elegance of behavior. Whatever I hoped for, Mr. Lavin did precisely the reverse.”

The last of my grandmother’s book reviews had a harder edge. It was her Zionist identity speaking when she reviewed Marie Syrkin’s Blessed is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance. The heart and soul of this book is its chapter about Hannah Senesh, the 23-year-old Budapest-born Jewish poet in Mandate Palestine who, in 1944, joined an astounding Jewish-organized “special operations” unit of Haganah volunteers who agreed to be parachuted behind Nazi lines with the aim of rescuing Hungarian Jews bound for Auschwitz. Senesh would eventually be captured, tortured, and executed. “I am mobilized. I am a soldier. I see everything that happened before as a behest and preparation for the mission.” It is the poetry of Senesh, today a national heroine in Israel, which gives the book its title:

Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame,
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

None of my grandmother’s chosen books, however, can be found today in the Jewish Book Council’s list of suggestions. Those now include Jo Ivester’s Once a Girl, Always a Boy: Memoir of a Transgender Journey, Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers, and (yes) Bari Weiss on combating anti-Semitism. But overall, contemporary, assimilated Jews are more likely to focus on the flaws of both America and Israel. We’ve come a long way from my grandmother’s bookshelf, from a deep attachment and support for the Jewish state—and from celebrating what America has made possible for Jews.

Photo: Portrait of Ethel Levine by Janet Merlin / Courtesy Arthur S. Levine

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