Saturday, November 24, 2012

the joys of research.

Ah, research.  It's a good thing I like it. After all, I am writing a novel about 100 years that covers not just Los Angeles, but race history in the US and in Los Angeles, as well as the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the political tableau of Los Angeles c. 2003--unions vs. developers and how the Community Redevelopment Agencies, the SEIU, the Mayor and the City Council all interact--the Japanese attitude toward Jews over the last century, the Jewish response to Japanese internment, Jewish female education in the last century and on and on and on.

Two writer friends have said to me, "Why don't you make this stuff up?" And of course, I am making things up, lots of things. Research, however, is the ligature that supports the clay of my making. Without that ligature, nothing would stand up.

And quite honestly, that ligature is often so much more interesting than anything I could possibly make whole cloth. The details leap out, the things that make the past come alive, they spark from letters and journals, from oral histories and photos. The child who marched past the National Guard on her way to integrate Little Rock High despite her family's being warned off by a cousin, passing for white, who was not just the sheriff of a small southern town, but a high-ranking member of the local Klan. The interview with a teacher c. 1925 who speaks with disgust of the way she discovered her student was half-Japanese, by helping her style her hair for a little opera (Madame Butterfly) "And it felt just like a horse's tail--that was the texture. Of course, I dropped it right away. I didn't want to handle *that* kind of hair." The Jewish child in hiding in an attic who whispers in her big sister's ear, "I can tell you I'm Jewish, can't I?" Those are the details that set me free as a writer. I know the minute I have found one, the minute I have found what what it is I really need to write about, what is the heart's core of a character that I can use to express this particular idea in the most human way possible.

Yes, there are still so many materials that I long to get my hands on, though the budget does not allow for it--at least not yet. So many materials I wish I could travel to view, so many people I wish I could speak with.

Ah, well. I do the best I can. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving -

Thanksgiving. The child's fever is abating. Our friends insist that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so that, despite said child's illness, we can join them. My little one helped me make what turned out to be not one but two pie crusts. I have never used so much butter in my life. In a little bit, I'm about to start the pumpkin pies themselves. My writing critique group is so full of thanks for each other. The kittens continue to be a delight. I got to sleep in. I got a walk today. We live in walking distance from a lovely (though expensive) food coop. We can pay our bills, if we are very careful. Neither one of us has to go to work tonight at midnight, though, as always, my husband works tomorrow and as a parent, neither one of us ever really gets time off.

Israel and Hamas have signed a cease-fire. This is something to be hugely thankful for.

And for the writing. And the research. The joys of both.

Where, when, how, who--the population of Israel and Palestine through the ages

Should the Dakota people should start shelling the Twin Cities? We took their land, we pushed them into reservations, we yanked their children to boarding schools where they were often physically and sexually abused, let alone the emotional abuse of being taken from their homes, language and culture. 

In researching Jewish girls' education from 1921-1936, I typed Jewish girls, 1921, and pulled up images. It was thus that I accidentally stumbled on an image of a Jewish child in Jerusalem fleeing the Arab riots of 1936. 

I didn't know about the Arab riots of 1936. I didn't really think about Jewish children in Jerusalem in 1936, though I believe an uncle of my husband was there for awhile around that time, going back and forth between Tel Aviv and So, i researched Jewish population in Palestine, and apparently, over the last 2000 years, whenever whichever conquerers allowed Jews to exist in Israel, they did. 

Mark Twain spoke of Palestine as a vast emptiness, but other visitors in that era spoke of fertile wheat fields, etc. From the time of the British Mandate, it looks like Jews were at least 4% of the population, making up more like 20% of Jerusalem's population. Most of the feladin, largely peasants working property belonging to Jordanians, were replaced by Beduins for a time. Jews were buying land from Jordanian land-owners, which knocked more feladin off their tenant farms. I can't find the proportion of tenant farmers vs landowners yet, though tenant farmers can feel an ownership over the land they work but do not own. 

Even after those riots of 1936 chased out many Jews and killed others, the Jews returned. By 1941, Jews were 30% of the population of Palestine. That's something I didn't know. I thought the Jews "took the land." 

Then, the British announced the creation of the land of Israel, war was declared by all the neighboring countries, and present history began. It's interesting to me that so many Arabs stayed, given that fleeing Arabs were promised a swift return by neighboring countries that immediately declared war on Israel. Even at the inception of Israel, the state was about 15% Arab, as it was in 1950. Israel today is about 17% Arab. 

Meanwhile, between 1946-1970, neighboring Arab countries kicked out 820,000 Jews from their countries. That means 820,000 refugees. Their bank accounts were not frozen, but confiscated, as was all their land and property. Like the Palestinians, they had to leave their country, their language, their culture, everything, traveling thousands of miles to their new homes. that is more than the estimated amount of original Palestinian refugees, yet I have never heard someone talk about helping them reclaim their homes or even that these governments should compensate them for their losses, which amount to about $7 billion in today's dollars. Lost Palestinian property, in land, buildings and frozen assets is considered to be about 4.4 billion in 2012 dollars.

Also, I learned that for the first twenty years, the "reservations" for Palestinians were held and ruled by Jordan and Egypt. So okay, my comparison to the Dakota reservation was inaccurate.  It would be more like--let's pretend that the Dakota understood land as property, and sold some, and they were lured into reservations by, say, Ojibwe, and held there for twenty years in stinking conditions until the Twin Cities won a war and got control over them, too. Meanwhile, similar Ojibwe would have been kicked out of Dakota lands and would have simply been absorbed by other Ojibwe. 

Except that's not an accurate metaphor, either. 

Then, it turns out the UN has a different definition of refugee when it comes to Palestinians. So now I have to research why that is and how they are different. 

There was a letter to the editor in the Star Tribune that equated "Jewry" with whining, apologists and Nazis. I know this is common thinking. I know it is current in Norway, in much of England, in Sweden, and in parts of the U.S. Still, I was shocked to see this letter printed in the paper in Minneapolis so shocked that I looked up the writers up. They are self--described "passionate anti-nuclear Catholics" who have legally adopted an adult Israeli Jew, a forty-six-year-old man who is in prison for attempting to give away secrets about Israel's nuclear program. These are characters who would be believable in fiction only if we were writing farce.

I am grateful then, that I have grown up as a Jew, which means I have grown up learning to question. I am grateful for my gifts as a researcher, which allow me to try to see what is behind the "truths" we are presented with. I am grateful that I am surrounded by friends who will talk and listen about the ways they differ on important issues, like gay marriage and Israel and Palestine. I am grateful that I live in a country where I am allowed to speak freely about my concerns, both political and social. 

I am fearful, as always, of bigotry. The evil bigotry can create in the world is so horrendous, and the losses it has caused are so personal--the children we knew who were murdered in the Holocaust, the children we see who are victims of political coups, the places we have lived that were edged with violence which I believe is related to decades of bigoted policies. I am hopeful that those of us willing to listen to each other, to research, and to think can eventually find a way to a better world. 


Monday, November 19, 2012

west adams homes.

This is how I imagine the house in The Color of Safety, except it has spiderweb windows in the central windows. And here is the dining room c. 1909 probably.

Listen, our house wasn't *quite* this big, but it is a lot like our house in West Adams. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Complicated: The Current Situation in the Middle East

It's hard to get ready for Shabbat--for a day of peace, of rest and meditation--while reading about Israel shelling Gaza in response to Gaza shelling Israel in response to Israel assassinating the Head of Hamas in response to the Head of Hamas ordering shelling of Israel, after months of saying that they couldn't control the smaller groups who were regularly shelling Israel.

Still, on Friday, I drove my children to get a challah, the braided bread that is traditional for the Jewish Sabbath. The idea was that  we would find the dining room table underneath the clutter, set a pretty tablecloth, dig out the grape-juice and the Challah cover, and have a peaceful shabbat.

In fact, when we got to the parking lot, I had to wait and listen to the rest of the NPR report on all the missile attacks, and then I had to haul out the IPAD I use in lieu of a computer to show my children maps of Gaza and its population, of Israel and it's environs and try to sketch in the political situation in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. I gave a hint of the differences in the governments of Gaza and the West Bank, the fact that Iran is arming Hamas while Egypt is allowing missiles and launchers  to cross over their borders, the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the upcoming elections in Israel and how all of this might be affecting things. Inside, as they munched on their half of a babka (a rich cake laced with cinnamon and chocolate) I showed them pictures of the eleven-month-old who was killed in Gaza, the tiny body wrapped in gauze, and of the eleven-month old who was injured in Israel, the tiny face blurred for safety. Over and over, I kept saying to my children, "It's complicated. We can't 'just go kill them.' They can't just come kill us. It's not simple. It's so complicated."

We got back in the car and hit the main corner in our city, and there, we were confronted with crowds carrying banners that read, basically, "It's Simple." "Support Palestine," "Israel Human Rights Violator." I felt so angry and so sad.

Those crowds looked, to my eye, to be mostly white people, red-heads and blonds. In my experience, they are often well-to-do Protestant liberals who have been working to divest our state of Israeli bonds for the last twenty-years. I am not mocking Protestants. I know many, and respect a tradition of political engagement. I am not mocking liberals. I am one myself. What saddened me was the reduction of this complicated situation to "Israel, evil occupier; Palestinians, pathetic victims."

I thought of a recent visit to the theatre with a friend whose ancestry is Mdewakantan Sioux. Finally, we were able to get together, to see a theatre piece by a member of our local Jewish community, a one-woman play. The play, advertised as a personal journey, turned out to be a horrified declaration of the betrayal the playwright felt toward her father (who had died when she was young) and how she has now learned that the trees for which he had encouraged her to send money, trees for the new state of Israel, had been planted on the ashes of Palestinian homes, stolen by evil Israel.

Afterwards, we were invited to participate in a question and comment with the playwright. Theatrically, I had been very disappointed in the piece, which had seemed to me an exercise in navel-gazing rather than a piece of theater. Yes, her father died when she was twelve years old, and the woman I saw was still twelve years old, still thinking with that adolescent brain that he had abandoned her, spreading that horrified sense of betrayal onto the entire world. I approached my comments theatrically, speaking of metaphor--the play began with an old trunk holding a Hebrew lesson, which the playwright used to as a trunk carried by the kicked-out Palestinians.

But that trunk could have been used by the desperate remnants of the Jewish people, fleeing from not just one of the most horrendous and over-arching attacks on a people ever, but continued persecution after the end of the Holocaust, vowing, "Never again will we be at the mercy of other countries to let us escape the enemy. Now we will have a country of our own."

It could also have represented refugees within the countries--Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia--which refused to accept Palestinian refugees, kept them caged like animals for decades, still does not allow some of them citizenship or even to be legally employed. It could have been held by the many Jews who have had to flee those same Arab countries over the last sixty years. It could have been packed by Jews moving to Israel to reclaim Biblical territory in settlements while adamantly refusing to accept that people lived there first, or represented those Palestinians worldwide who have developed their own diaspora stories, their own next-year-in Jerusalem legend. It could have held the remains of Jewish soldiers sent home in pieces to their families, the remains of Palestinians assassinated by their own people because they were suspected of being soft on Israel. It could have stood for the coffins from the cult of the martyr that is part of Palestinian culture now, the idea that you want to tell your three-year-old to grow up to blow himself up for good of the people.

It could have been used to tell us all: It's complicated.

When I said as much to the artist, she looked startled. Her response was, over and over, "But this is my personal journey," as if a personal journey removed her from an artist's responsibility to strive for clarity or wisdom in this world of complications.

And yet, there is hope. We few Jews sat among a crowd of Muslims, many from countries at that time involved in the Arab Spring rebellions. And yet, when an Iraqi Jew told the artist of his family's rescued from the Iraqis by Israel, when he said, emotionally, what that had meant for his family, to have a safe place to go, to automatically granted safety when they had to flee, to even be assisted to that safety, I could feel the crowd listening, (though one woman insisted that the Iraqi Jews were chased out by synagogue bombings created by Israeli intelligence, a widely held legend in Iraq, despite a virulently anti-semitic police officer who was found with bomb-making materials in his home and blood on his hands.) But the majority I felt really heard this Iraqi speak, until he asked the facilitator, (a pale, well-dressed red-head, maybe twenty-three and reeking of money,) "Why this cause? Why not China's treatment of Tibet? Why not Burma? Why not Zimbabwe? Why you? Why is Israel the villain?"

His questions were valid, and I think worthy of pursuit, but they were also off target. I could feel the audience shut down. It gave the young woman the chance to invalidate his comments, turn them into personal attacks. And thus, the topic was changed, the ears closed up, and the Iraqi Jew and his family left, wordless, helpless, filled with fear and rage.

And yet, his questions ring in my ear. Why these people? Why this cause? Why can't these people see the complications? We are coming out of a state made more unified, more neighborly, because of a series of conversations with one another about gay marriage. How can we create a conversation within this state to allow people like that wealthy young redhead to see the complications? If we can't see the complications, we can never figure out how to heal the situation.

It occurred to me to bring hot cocoa to those narrow-minded people standing at the corner with their signs. To invite them to our synagogue to try to understand what leads them to harshly judge only one side. But I'm not sure if that would work. Like everything else, I suppose, it's complicated. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"I am your neighbor." Citizen's United for a real United Citizenry

The state of Minnesota just defeated an anti-gay marriage amendment through having a lot of conversations. Yup, people just talking to people, heart to heart, difficult talks, along with a famous basketball player's comments and a fabulous ad by a decorated war vet about his gay comrade who died fighting for his country. People making tough phone calls, people having awkward dinner conversation, people talking to people about issues close to their hearts, and listening to the uncomfortable in response.

This campaign has inspired me. I have been watching through the national and state elections as we as a country have demonized two sets of folks: the poor, and immigrants. I have been thinking that one way to further the conversation about these people would be a series of television ads.

One set of ads would take respected members of our local, state and national community, research their ancestral histories--when people came here, how their ethnic group was treated at the time, and how they coped. Narrated by these respected community members, the ad would illustrate their stories of, say, fleeing a war, or famine or financial hardship, of, "Irish and dogs need not apply," or "my parents never really got comfortable in English, so I was their translator," or "we lived in a community of other Italians." Still narrated by the respected community member, the ad would then bleed into images of someone who has recently immigrated. "My abuela doesn't speak English, so I translate for her," "We fled the war in Somalia." etc.

We wouldn't ever have to say that We are them. We could just show it.

The second set of television ads is a lot simpler. I propose that we find people of all colors, sizes and shapes, who are now or have ever received "Welfare." We show them all--folks from the country, inner city people, people who got sick and lost their jobs and homes, people raising bright-faced children, people struggling to stay above water. People who used their time on welfare to get back on their feet, to go to school. People talking about how hard it is to apply, and how helpful it has been or is now in their lives.

And at the end, we have each one say, "I'm your neighbor. And I am the face of welfare."

Now, I'm sure that these ad campaign would cost a bundle. But. . .we have two years before the next congressional elections. Want to change the tone of elections in Arizona and Georgia? Run these ads. Let people see who they have chosen to demonize. Let's use the Citizen's United decision to work for a real United Citizenry.