A Stroll Down Our Collective Memory Lane

The warm breeze, aroma of springtime earth, and visions of buds on trees are like a sensory prize at the finish line of this year’s marathon of a winter. Surviving the winter deserves a party, and Alan Maltzman’s two-hour Jewish cultural walking tour of Boston is the perfect way to celebrate. 

A high-tech retiree, Maltzman founded Boston CityWalks in 2006. His menu included tours of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, downtown Boston, the Freedom Trail and
Cambridge. After repeatedly hearing, “Where’s the Jewish tour?,” he decided to add one to his roster in 2009.

Malzman’s goal is to combine history and architecture, with anecdotes and humor. He delivers on all counts.

First, some tips: There are a lot of cobblestones and much of the walk is uphill, so wear comfortable shoes. Bring a snack and some water. And carry a map of Boston — it helps with orientation when roaming through back streets and alleys.

The tour covers a lot of ground, both literally and historically. We begin at the Milk Street Caf, and end at the Holocaust Memorial. In between, we explore old City Hall, Boston Latin School, Beacon Hill’s Back Slope, the VilnaShul, the North and West End, and more. Maltzman’s narrative thread on local Jewish immigration answers questions about our arrival as a people to Puritan Boston’s shores.

The knowledgeable Maltzman, 67, is a Northeastern Universitytrained industrial engineer. His professional niche was starting up new manufacturing plants for Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq; hence his interest in architecture. Born in Chelsea, he grew up loving Boston.

“I thought I knew it all, but when I started these tours I realized how little I actually knew. I now have a library as big as the Library of Congress on the history and architecture of Boston,” he said.

The Famine Memorial (Washington Street/School Street corner), sculptor Robert Shure’s commemoration of the 1845 potato famine that brought the first Irish immigrants to Boston, was our first stop. The significance, explained Maltzman, was that acceptance of the Irish immigrants opened the doors for other groups, including Eastern European and German Jews.

As we meandered towards Beacon Hill, Maltzman peppered facts and figures with delightfully arcane tidbits. We learned, for example, that the Boston Latin student body was 25% Jewish until the first ethnic survey in 1920. After that, the percentage dropped to under 10%. Ho Chi Minh was a chef, Malcolm X was a busboy and the first recipe using chocolate (Boston Cream Pie) was created at the Omni Parker House Hotel. My favorite was the story of how Filene’s got its name. Willem Katz, its founder, was a German Jew who wanted to Americanize his name before emigrating. Not finding “katz” in the dictionary, he substituted “cats,” which led to “feline” and a retail dynasty.

The mid-1880’s Back/North Slope of Beacon Hill was home to the poorest immigrants, including Jews, Italians and Irish, and other “undesirables” such as prostitutes. Maltzman pointed out the architectural differences between North and South Slopes: wooden houses (versus brick); tenement-type structures (versus single family, multi-storied homes); and the presence of stores, noticeably absent to this day in the Boston Brahmin residential area of Beacon Hill.

The Vilna Shul, the former Vilner Congregation, was for me the highlight of the tour. It is now Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, with a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service and public programs and events. Of the 50 synagogues that existed within Boston city limits during the 1920’s, this 1919 building is the only one still standing. The second-floor sanctuary is an amalgam of Lithuanian Orthodoxy, New England classical Baroque, art nouveau biblical murals, and pews salvaged from the 1840 Twelfth Baptist Church. Eclectic is an understatement.

The first floor community room houses a small but densely informative History of Jewish Immigration in Boston. It is the only museum of its kind in Boston. We got just a peek; I definitely plan to return.

On our way to the Holocaust Memorial, we stood across the street from the location of the pre-urban renewal West End House. The club was a cornerstone for West End youth for almost 70 years. In 1971, it moved to the Allston-Brighton area and, in 1976, it became one of the first to include female members. There is a West End museum, which was not included on this tour but is open to the public.

The 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial was the last monument we visited. It is no coincidence that it sits on the Freedom Trail. Architect Stanley Saitowitz designed the six, 54-feet high luminous glass towers that sit above six pits. The towers represent six concentration camps; the pits symbolize crematoria. Etched in the towers’ walls are the tattoo numbers of the six million murdered. Walking through the internally lit towers, past the engraved words of survivors, one is struck by the power of memory and impact of the evil that was World War II.

Elie Wiesel, who spoke at the Memorial’s dedication, said at his 1986 Nobel Peace prize acceptance, “For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act.”

Strolling down our collective memory lane on a beautiful spring day in Boston felt like just such an act. Thank you, Alan Maltzman, for your Jewish Cultural Tour and for providing a means to perform the mitzvah of remembrance.
To sign up for a Boston Jewish Cultural Walking Tour, visit zerve.com/BostonWalks/Jewish. The cost is $25 for a two-hour tour.

Pictured above: Alan Maltzman is the owner of Boston CityWalks and is a tour guide for the Jewish Cultural Walking Tour of Boston.

Truth and Consequences

Another side of the Supreme Court’s Clarence Thomas

Pictured: Anita Hill at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1991.

On October 9, 1991, during televised proceedings, an arresting young woman in an eye-catching aqua linen dress testified to the character of her male supervisor, stating that he had repeatedly made graphic sexual comments and unwarranted sexual overtures towards her while she was employed by the U.S. Department of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

The woman was Anita Hill, the first African American professor tenured by the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The man was Clarence Thomas, African American nominee to replace retiring Thurgood Marshall on the U. S. Supreme Court. The proceedings were Thomas’ confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 14 white men. Those few days changed the course of Anita’s life and planted the seeds that revolutionized an entire body law.

The author with Anita Hill at the opening of “Anita” at Kendall Landmark Cinema.

Academy-Award winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock’s splendid new documentary film, “Anita: Speaking Truth To Power,” tells this story with archival footage, contemporary interviews, and scrapbook-like glimpses of Anita’s family stories. The result is as good as documentaries get: the audience learns, feels and questions.

Mock opens her film on October 9, 2010, with Ginni Thomas’ voice message to Ms. Hill, asking her to consider apologizing for what she did to her husband when she testified at his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings

“I am reaching across the airwaves,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I pray about this.”

“That phone call is symbolic of the story,” Mock pointed out in a conversation with the Journal. “It represented how relevant and resonant and raw the issue of the hearing is almost 20 years later. It is still on people’s minds, and it still evokes an immediate response.”

“Anita” lays out the historical chronology of the events clearly, yet with enough nuance and depth to engage both cinemaphile and attorney. Lili Haydn’s score accomplishes her goal to “tickle the heart as the words tickle the brain.”

The youngest of 13 children, Ms. Hill grew up in a rural Oklahoma farming family, exhibiting the dignity, poise and intelligence she displayed at the hearings from an early age. She graduated from Yale Law School and worked in Washington D.C. as special counsel to Clarence Thomas. Because of that work connection, the FBI contacted her for a routine character background check on Thomas when Republican President Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. Ms. Hill filled out the questionnaire and sent it to the Senate, assuming it would be confidential. Somehow, it was leaked to the press, and Ms. Hill found herself a reluctant witness at the confirmation hearings.

From that moment on, her life would never be the same.

The hearings were an excruciating example of democracy run amok with senator after senator grilling Ms. Hill with questions and comments meant to humiliate, embarrass and confront.

“Are you a scorned woman?” drawled Senator Heflin of Alabama. “Do you have a martyr complex?” Never had there been such an attack on a witness with nothing to gain.

“People didn’t understand,” Ms. Hill said. “They thought I was on trial. The issue became my character instead of the character of the nominee.”

Thomas denied Ms. Hill’s allegations, dismissing them as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” The Senate confirmed him 52 to 48 and he sits on the Supreme Court today, where his conservative vote is often the fifth in the Court’s frequent 5-4 decisions, including Bush v. Gore.

For Ms. Hill, the hearings’ immediate aftermath was not as rosy. “The hearings changed my life,” she reflected, “the way I see the world.” She received death threats; the press hounded her. The conservative republican state legislators tried to close the law school when they realized Ms. Hill’s tenure prevented them from firing her.

Yet, her testimony also unleashed a national discussion and awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Congress passed tougher laws with more protections and remedies for victims. Since 1991, the numbers of sexual harassment claims and women elected to public office has surged.

“Despite the high cost, it was worth having the truth come out,” Ms. Hill acknowledged. “People misunderstand that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about the control and the power.”

After years spent deliberately out of the spotlight, the deeply private Ms. Hill decided that the time had come to tell her story. A friend recommended she watch Freida Mock’s documentary about Tony Kushner, and Ms. Hill connected with Mock’s style. Three years in the making, “Anita” debuted to sold-out crowds at the renowned Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted people to understand who Anita is and why she did what she did. In the sensationalism of the hearings, I felt the story of Anita Hill was lost,” Mock said.

“Anita” is a brilliant, engaging, enraging but ultimately uplifting film. Ms. Hill’s bravery, generosity and intelligence pierce the dark murky residue left by those 14 senators some 20 years ago. Her legacy empowers a new generation facing the same old issues of gender and workplace inequalities.

“If I am not public, then there will be a sense of victory that they will have over me,” Hill said. “I try to live each day with a heart full of grace.”

Shavit’s Patriotic, Personal Narrative of Israel

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” is a literary magnetic force. It attracts with enchanting rhapsodies about the miracles of the land of Israel and the early Zionist years; it repels with tales of occupation, corruption and cruelty. It navigates through the entirety of the Israeli experience, from 1897 to 2013, with 16 epochal pit stops. It extols Israel’s greatness and censures her weakness. It is positive and negative, and every gradation inbetween.

Shavit is a distinguished Israeli journalist who has compiled a patriotic, personal and powerful narrative. His clear and engaging style makes the sometimes incomprehensible complexities of Israeli politics understandable, even to one whose familiarity with the plays and the players is cursory. His interviews with key historical figures are intimate and raw, his scholarship exhaustive and praiseworthy. With a style that combines Studs Terkel, James Michener and ThomasFriedman, it is no wonder this book is a bestseller.

Shavit begins at his and Israel’s beginning, with his Zionist British great-grandfather’s 1897 trip to Palestine. Herbert Bentwich’s purpose was to evaluate the land as a potential national homeland for the Jews. What he saw led to his conclusion that the land was physically suitable. What he chose not to see would underpin the triumph and tragedy of Israel. While the 500,000 Palestinians living as nomads lacked cogent national identity, they were undeniably there in 1897.

Throughout his book, Shavit repeatedly links Israel’s current existential challenges to the single question, “How could they not have seen them?” By personalizing the tales, the reader feels what Shavit feels, and sees what he sees. We stand beside the early settlers as they clear the swamps, we smell the first orange blossoms in Rehovot, and we tingle alongside early kibbutzniks with the thrill of “creating something from nothing.” We also cringe at Lydda in 1948, where the War of Independence leads the Zionists to “throw off the yoke of morality,” looting, torturing and expelling Palestinians into the desert. “Lydda is our black box,” Shavit avers. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.”

There are chapters on the 1967 launch of Israel’s nuclear program, Tel Aviv’s frenzied culture, Israel’s religious zealots, and of course, the occupations and settlements. In “Up the Galilee,” a Palestinian-Israeli attorney provides apenetrating alternative viewpoint. “Existential Challenge” examines Iran.

“My Promised Land,” however, is much more than the sum of its parts. It is an exceptionally crafted valentine to Israel from her rebellious but unconditionally loving son. Shavit acknowledges her faults and wonders, but mostly he worries about her future.

“This start-up nation must restart itself,” he opines. “This immature political entity must grow up. Out of disintegration and despair we must rise to the challenge of the most ambitious project of all: nation rebuilding. The resurrection of the Israeli people.”

Is Shavit optimistic that this can happen? There are as many who would say yes as no. And every gradation in between.

Ari Shavit Random House Publishing, 2013