Author Archives: Kathryn Ruth Bloom

The Lilith Blog

August 13, 2019 by

Are There Lessons in Quiet Judaism?

Back in junior high school, the girls had to participate in an extracurricular sports team, and my friend Sheila and I played junior-varsity outfield. Sheila was slightly less awful an athlete than I was, and we shared a mutual strategy: since most of our classmates couldn’t hit the ball too far, playing outfield meant that all you had to do was stand around and pretend you were interested in the game. The Phys Ed teachers only paid attention to the athletic girls, which meant Sheila and I could stand near each other and talk about important things, like boys and that cute new social-studies teacher.

There was a small Jewish community in our suburb. In the first community my family had lived in, on the other hand, we were the only Jewish family on the block. And it was a very long block. My parents were quiet about our faith, and told me when I was still a little girl that some people didn’t like Jews and that sometimes I might hear mean comments directed to me. Both my mother and father suffered terrible anti-Semitism in their youth—my father in particular was the object of hideous physical violence that left his face scarred forever—not in Nazi Germany, but right here in America. So they did not deny being Jewish, but were quiet about it, although the mezuzah proudly hanging on our front door might have given things away to our neighbors.

Sheila was Jewish too, and we talked about it sometimes, especially about The Diary of Anne Frank, which staggered us both. We knew about the Holocaust, which took place just before we were born, and we knew that, although Judaism had to go underground at certain times—much in the way the Franks and the Van Daans and Dr. Dussel were hidden in the attic—it was a religion and a people of survival. So we smiled with pleasure when we found out that the young actress who played the Norwegian-American Dagmar Hansen in the television series “Mama” was really Robin Morgenstern, not Robin Morgan. And on the ball field one day, waiting for fly balls that never came our way, Sheila asked if I was still a Girl Scout.

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you read The American Girl?” The Girl Scouts’ monthly magazine featured articles about young women who earned merit badges by picking up neighborhood trash and knitting socks for the poor. It also featured short stories about slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls named Krissy and Gwen and Mary. My friends and I hated our dark, curly hair and dumpy body types and longed to look like them.

“Yes, I do.”

“Did you see it? The name?” We smiled at each other. One of the stories featured a heroine named Shayna, which we knew meant pretty girl. Shayna Punim, the name our grandmothers called us. And this Shayna was more than just a pretty girl; she was a clever girl who sneaked into a story about bland, conforming Middle America.

A few years later, being Jewish became fashionable. Girls flaunted Stars of David to let the Jewish boys know we were available. We bragged that all the best doctors and lawyers were Members of the Tribe, and although the lives of people in books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow bore only superficial resemblance to our own, they came to define Jewish society in America. We celebrated our leadership in arts and culture, science and medicine, moral righteousness and the quest for social justice. It was an extended moment and lasted many years, but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that things are changing now. The newspaper columnists and talking heads on television, the young physicians who treated me during a recent hospitalization, the authors of newly-published fiction about coming of age in America are less often Jewish than they are African American, Latinx, or Asian. 

That’s as it should be in a country that is increasingly diverse and conscious of different experiences and opinions. Nevertheless, friends who are leaders in the Jewish community worry about the global rise of anti-Semitism, a turning away from Israel, and a general erosion of the centrality of the American Jewish community in the lives of many American Jews. I’m aware of this too, of course, but what gives me confidence in our people’s endurance is that, as my friend Sheila and I recognized as young girls, Jews don’t always have to make a bold fuss about who we are. Like Shayna, we come through.

After retiring from a career in public relations, Kathryn Bloom went back to school and received a PhD in literature from Northeastern University in 2018. She now teaches at several Boston-area institutions and writes critical articles and essays for a variety of publications. 

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The Lilith Blog

October 30, 2018 by

Rediscovering “Peony,” a Novel About Jews in China

peonyWriter Pearl Buck came by her in-depth knowledge of China from first-hand experience. Born in the United States, she was brought to China as an infant by her Protestant missionary parents. The author of more than 40 novels and numerous short stories and works of non-fiction, Buck is best-remembered for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth (1931), a moving portrayal of the struggles of a Chinese family. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Less known is the fact that Buck wrote fiction about Jews in China, too. Because I’m always interested in narratives about Jewish life in other times and places, I approached her 1948 novel Peony with particular interest. At the time of publication, Peony was hailed as an insightful study of the decline of a small Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, in the mid-1800s. But although Buck’s historical facts may be accurate—and the dangers of communal disappearance through assimilation resonate in our own time—I was struck by her reliance on ethnic stereotypes. What I found was an ambiguous underlying attitude toward Jews and Judaism. What is disturbing about it is the vague sense of pleasure in the disappearance of Jewish life that forms an unstated subtext to her narrative.

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The Lilith Blog

August 17, 2018 by

Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst and Their Cult Classic Jewish Novels

In their heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst enjoyed tremendous popularity but fell into relative obscurity soon after their deaths in 1968. With a decidedly Jewish sensibility, both of these women tell stories to inspire compassion and empathy about social issues–from body image to opioid abuse, from women’s roles to racism and the treatment of immigrants–startlingly relevant today.

Ferber and Hurst were very different kinds of writers, but their lives overlapped in surprising ways. Both were born in 1885 and grew up in assimilated Jewish families in the American Midwest. Both moved to Manhattan in their twenties to pursue their writing careers. Each was one of two daughters; ironically––or oddly, given their other coincidental pairings––Ferber’s older sister was named Fannie and Hurst’s little sister, who died as a child, was named Edna. Ferber didn’t marry and Hurst and her husband famously maintained separate residences throughout their marriage, giving rise to the expression “a Fannie Hurst marriage.” Neither had children. Both published dozens of well-received novels, short stories, memoirs, plays, and magazine articles that brought important social and cultural issues to the attention of their readers. But in light of today’s excellent fiction by American Jewish women that serves a similar purpose, why am I convinced that people will continue to enjoy and identify with their narratives?

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