Jews and the Civil War, God and gays, Israel and the bomb, are just some of the hot topics highlighting the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s literary festival through November 2.
Hot writers including Ursula Hegi, David Bezmozgis, and Lucette Lagnado read from, discuss, and sign their widely praised new books at the DC JCC’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.
Here’s the full schedule for the festival — Editor’s Pick in “The Washington Post Going Out Guide”.
Speaking of hot, the festival opened October 23 with gay activist and religious scholar Jay Michaelson discussing his controversial new book, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality” — the first stop on his 25-city book tour.
About 80 people heard Michaelson make his compelling argument that religious communities should favor gay rights because of religion, not in spite of it. In his book, which sold out at the event, Michaelson explores the moral principles that favor acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and debunks conservatives’ anti-GLBT interpretations of Biblical verses. Here’s Michaelson’s interview with Brightest Young Things.
The festival commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, with staged readings/”re-enactments” and a historical narrative “United by Faith, Divided by War: Jews and the Civil War”, which officially opened the festival on October 24.
The dramatic program on this little-known topic draws upon letters by Jewish soldiers; the diary of a Jewish Southern belle spy who faced down a Northern general nicknamed “Beast”; intriguing history of Confederate Secretary of State and War Judah P. Benjamin; and the controversy behind Abraham Lincoln’s appointing the first Jewish military chaplain; as well as Dara Horn’s “All Other Nights” and other recent novels about this aspect of the Civil War.
The program was written and directed by Shirley Serotsky of the DC JCC’s Theater J, and researched (disclosure) by me.
It was featured on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show October 24. Click here to read the transcript.
So who knew Jews fought in the Civil War? Some eight to ten thousand Jews fought in the Civil War, according to the new book “Jews and the Civil War, A Reader” (NYU Press) edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn.
“Three thousand fought on the side of the Confederacy and 6,700 for the Union,” according to Arlington National Cemetery — a total of 9,700 Jewish soldiers out of the 150,000 Jews in the US in 1861.
Mark Twain, like many others before and long after him, said he was “ignorant that the Jew had a record as a soldier… In the Civil War (Jews were) represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by…the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations… This … means that the Jew`s patriotism was not merely level with the Christian`s, but overpassed it,” Twain wrote in “Harper’s” Magazine in 1898.
One soldier was Marcus M. Spiegel, a German immigrant who rose to become a Union colonel. He wrote to his wife, as you’ll hear, “May our unhappy and distracted country safely be rescued from the vile hands of traitors and Rebels … and the horrors of slavery…the accursed institution… this is no hasty conclusion but a deep conviction.” Colonel Spiegel, one of the few Jewish officers on either side of the war, was killed in action.
The program also cites the set-to between Union Major General Benjamin “Beast” Butler and Southern spy Eugenia Levy.
“Beast” termed her “an uncommonly vulgar, bad and dangerous woman, stirring up strife and inciting to riot”, and added, “If such women as you are let loose, our lives are in danger.”
When he wrote out Special Order No. 150, “The Woman Order” sentencing her to the remote, yellow fever-infested Ship Island off Mississippi, Levy told him that the island “has one advantage…You will not be there.” Levy added later, “It’s fortunate neither the yellow fever nor General Butler is contagious.”
One staged reading of these real events pits a pro-slavery rabbi in New York City against an anti-slavery Baltimore rabbi — who was subsequently run out of town.
The 1861 sermon “Bible View of Slavery” by NYC Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, the most controversial statement ever issued by a rabbi, claimed that the Ten Commandments sanctioned slavery.
“How dare you denounce slavery as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job…were slaveholders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of ….blasphemy?” Raphall railed.
Rabbi David Einhorn said in his fiery rebuttal, “A Jew, the offspring of a race which daily praises God for deliverance from the bondage of Egypt … undertakes to parade slavery as a perfectly sinless institution, sanctioned by God…! A more extraordinary phenomenon could hardly be imagined…”
The October 24 audience will certainly hear about Judah P. Benjamin, dubbed “the brains of the Confederacy”, serving as Secretary of War and Secretary of State to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the South lost the war, Benjamin fled to England.
Benjamin, in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” is termed “the dark prince of the Confederacy”, “dapper Jew, Seal-Sleek, black-eyed, lawyer and epicure, Able, well-hated…’I am a Jew, What am I doing here?'”
And what (else) will you be doing here at this literary festival? Here are just a few of the many other fascinating offerings, some of which are free:
- October 25 Charles King, “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams”
The port city of Odessa has been a gathering place of geniuses, villains, artists and political insurgents of every nationality, religion, and social class. King traces the history and myths that have made the city one of the world’s most important multicultural centers for nearly three centuries. King is a professor of international affairs and government Georgetown University.
- October 27 Panel – Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing
Howard Cosell biographer John Bloom, author of “There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell”; former “New York Times” columnist and Emmy-winning TV host Robert Lipsyte, whose memoir is “An Accidental Sportswriter”; and moderator Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post’s “D.C. Sports Bog” discuss sports, culture, and modern media.
Steinberg blogged this on his D.C. Sports Bog:
“Because I haven’t written about any touchy subjects at all in recent days, I wanted to mention that I’m moderating a panel called “Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing” Thursday evening at the DC JCC at 16th and Q.
“With any luck, I’ll just sit there and look pretty and dream about potential fantasy football trades, while the stars of the show — longtime New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte and Howard Cosell scholar John Bloom — discuss sports, culture and modern media.
Though it’s possible I’ll also rant and rave. You never know.”
He offers two free tix to the first person identifying whom Cosell was referring to — “I know [this person] inside out,” Cosell said. “He publicly admitted to me — and I don’t blame him one bit — that he is a racist.”
I myself am a sportsophobe, so I couldn’t possibly tell it like it is.
Suggestion: what about offering two more free tix to the person who can identify Cosell’s hairpiece maker.
- October 29 Ursula Hegi, “Children and Fire”
Hegi’s sequel to her best-selling “Stones from the River” tells of a brilliant, and unknowingly part Jewish schoolteacher in Germany, who becomes persuaded by Nazi propaganda to encourage her students to join the Hitler Youth movement.
- October 30 Panel – Glasnost’s Children
Acclaimed novelists David Bezmozgis, a “New Yorker” Magazine “2010 top 20 fiction writers under the age of 40” and author of “The Free World”; Haley Tanner, author of “Vaclav & Lena”; and Nadia Kalman, author of “The Cosmopolitans” discuss the modern Russian immigrant experience with moderator Faye Moskowitz, Professor of English and Creative Writing at George Washington University. Moskowitz, whose book of essays “And the Bridge Is Love” is being republished by The Feminist Press on November 1, will give a reading at DC’s Politics and Prose Bookstore on November 13 at 1 PM.
- October 31 Alicia Oltuski, “Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a
Way of Life“
Local author Alicia Oltuski’s “Precious Objects” combines the fascinating history of those gemstones with the author’s own family history in the intriguing diamond business. A diamond may be forever, but for Oltuski’s family, a diamond was survival. Her multi-faceted book also radiates adventure, mystery, comedy, science, and much more, just as she will during her appearance.
- November 1 Panel – Israel, Loose Nukes and the End of the World
Former network correspondent Marvin Kalb talks with Ron Rosenbaum, author of “How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III”, and Professor Avner Cohen, author of “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb”, about the history and risks of Israel’s nuclear bomb.
- November 2 Lucette Lagnado, “The Arrogant Years”
Multiple award-winning writer Lucette Lagnado, who wrote “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”, discusses her new follow-up memoir that focuses on her and her mother’s experiences in Cairo and America. The “New York Times” has said Lagndo writes “in crystalline yet melodious prose.”
As a schoolgirl in Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods, she dreams of becoming the fearless Emma Peel of “The Avengers”, and later becomes an “avenging” reporter for prestigious newspapers. The title comes from her experience with cancer at age 16, which steals her “arrogant years”. She looks to the women of her childhood synagogue, to students at Vassar and Columbia in the 1970s, to her own mother and other women of their past in Cairo, and reflects on their stories as she struggles to make sense of her own choices.
Lagnado delivers the Gerald L. Bernstein Memorial Lecture, which closes the festival. A reception follows.
Clearly, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this literary festival.
For more info and tickets: Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, full schedule, www.washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/literary/jewish-literary-festiva…. Most events begin at 7:30 PM, and some are free. Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th Street at Q Street, NW, Washington, DC, 202-777-3251, [email protected]