I’ve often cited George Santayana about people ignoring the past being condemned to repeat it. I’ll add William Faulkner: the past isn’t dead—it’s not even the past. Let me offer two examples—one current, one ancient.
Writing fiction, I’m drawn to the past. It offers perspective on issues the whirring present sometimes confuses. So, I set Flight of the Spumonis and Lola Flores in the past. Slick!, San Café, The Boy Walker and The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht take place in what was the present. 2084 describes a frightening future—the year 2044—which someday will be the past. (For details, see Books.)
I’m now reviewing the proofs of my upcoming novel, The Short (Pun Intended) Redemptive Life of Little Ned. Covering the first twenty years of the twentieth century, it presents three children of poor Jewish immigrants staggering beneath the grueling promise of the American Dream.
Writers from all ethnicities and cultures tell American Dream stories. The Jewish experience dates from before the American Revolution, continues through the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union and includes contemporary Ukrainian Jews. Why did I choose 1903–1920?
Many Jews—like me—trace their American origin to the great emigration from the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire that began in 1885. It ended in 1924 when Congress all but shut the gates to Jews. In 1906, my father Morris (Moishe), age 2-½, arrived in New York from Warsaw with my grandparents and two aunts.
He and my mother Blanche (born in New York to immigrants) are gone, but my sister Kay and I are here. Their story is ours—and our children’s. Themes in Little Ned, chiefly antisemitism and assimilation, remain contemporary.
Wednesday evening, most Jews in America and around the world began the seven-day (Israel/Diaspora Reform) or eight-day (Diaspora Orthodox/Conservative) festival of Pesach—Passover. Gathered around a Seder table, we again told an ancient story that binds us all: God’s freeing the Israelites from Egyptian bondage over 3,200 years ago.
It grounds the soul to know your family’s—and people’s—history. Yes, people have the right to be universalists free of religious, ethnic, cultural or national sentiments. I suspect, however, that by separating themselves from their past, they live somewhat isolated from the present. Identifying as “everything” might leave you feeling nothing.
More, an ethnic identity—or more than one—does not prevent anyone from connecting with the rest of humanity. We all bear a measure of responsibility for the wellbeing of others near and far.
As to Little Ned, the three young Jewish protagonists experience the underside of the American Dream. Talented and passionate, they try to claw their way upward in a nation that often rejects them as alien and unwanted despite their having been born in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
I hope this resonates with today’s assimilated American Jews. We all face growing antisemitism. The past offers more than one vital lesson. Many of the assimilated Jews of Germany ignored the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. They paid a horrible price.
Little Ned should be available on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com early- to mid-May. It’s a page turner. But like Passover, it will only be meaningful if readers stop every now and then to think about what the past means to them.
Observing Passover? Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)! Easter? May the season bring joy and renewal. Ramadan? Ramadan Mubarak! If I’ve forgotten another holiday at this time, let me know.
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