One need not come from a Jewish background to be alarmed and appalled at the recent rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions, but for those of us who do, this disturbing trend has personal connotations and connections. My ancestors on my father’s side of my family tree were Polish Jews, most of whom were from Warsaw. My grandfather wanted me to know that some of these people fought and died in the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, resisting the Nazis during Germany’s occupation of Poland in World War Two. When I hear contemporary Americans echoing the same anti-Semitic rhetoric that the Nazis used, I think about my Jewish ancestors, and I shudder.
Although I feel repelled and deeply disappointed by the recent developments in the history of anti-Semitism in America, I feel a sense of pride in Charlotte’s history of supporting Jewish writers, such as Harry Golden. Golden spent most of his boyhood and young adult days in New York City, but in 1941 he settled permanently in Charlotte. The next year he published a trial run of the Carolina Israelite, a newspaper intended primarily for North Carolina’s Jewish community. It was a success, and in 1944 he began publishing the newspaper on a regular basis. He continued to publish this paper until 1968.
In addition to publishing his newspaper, Golden wrote numerous best-selling books, including Only in America (1958), For 2¢ Plain (1958), and Enjoy, Enjoy! (1960). These books became known for their folksy humor, but they had a serious side to them, too. In many of his publications and public appearances, Golden spoke out against racial segregation and called for an end to the Jim Crow laws. At the time of his death in 1981, Golden was Charlotte’s most famous writer. For Golden, Charlotte proved to be a supportive place where he could pursue his career as a writer. One of the reasons behind Golden’s success as a Jewish writer is that he always emphasized what Jews have in common with people from other religious backgrounds. He used his gifts as a writer to build bridges and unite people.
Another Jewish writer from Charlotte who builds bridges is Judy Goldman. She is especially well known for her memoirs, including her recently published Child, which is about her childhood experiences as a Southern Jewish girl who was largely raised by a non-Jewish, African American woman. In many ways, Child is a true story about a relationship that transcends religious and racial divides. Judy, however, has also published books of poetry and fiction. For more information about Judy Goldman and her books, please click on the following link: http://judygoldman.com
The Slow Way Back, Judy Goldman’s first novel, came out in 1999, and it went on to win the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award. Thea McKee, the central character in this novel, has family roots in Charlotte’s Jewish community, but she knows little about her family history. She is married to a non-Jewish man, and she does not think of herself as being religious. However, when she acquires a series of eight letters written by her grandmother in the 1930s, she begins to delve into her Jewish heritage. The letters are written in Yiddish, which she cannot read, so she arranges to have the letters translated. In the process, she uncovers a series of family secrets that span three generations. Although The Slow Way Back focuses on one Jewish family, it speaks to all families who harbor secrets.
I recently contacted Judy and asked her for her thoughts on being a Jewish writer. She responded by sending me a few paragraphs, which she titled “Am I a Jewish Writer?” Here is what she sent to me:
I suppose, since I was born into a Jewish family and I write books, I am a Jewish writer. I’m certainly not a Presbyterian writer. Or a Methodist writer. But if I’m a Jewish writer, doesn’t this mean I write about Jewish things?
What if my subject is family? Always, family. My books aim to fully and honestly examine how we connect (or disconnect, then re-connect). Does that mean I’m a Jewish writer?
The reason I’m unclear about the answer to this question is that my Jewishness is a small part of who I am. As a writer. And as a person. I don’t really identify myself as a white-haired person or a person with a Southern accent or a person who celebrates Hanukkah. That would ignore the totality of my identity.
When Mark asked me to write a little something about being a Jewish writer, I almost turned him down. But he’s Mark and his intentions are right-minded and he’s a really good guy. So I said yes. However, my yes was an equivocal yes. Because I so wish religion did not divide us, did not separate us into teams that can turn territorial. I wish nobody ever thought about whether a writer was Jewish or Presbyterian or Methodist.
I, too, wish that religion did not divide us. As I see it, Harry Golden and Judy Goldman both teach us that we can respect religious diversity while still celebrating our common humanity. I wish everyone in Storied Charlotte, whatever their religious background might be, a happy holiday season.