Was the Gangster Meyer Lansky a Mensch?

Meyer Lansky

Lansky as pictured in Lang’s graphic novel.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough/Courtesy Jonathan Lang

By Shelley A. Sackett

When Jonathan Lang ’98 set out to write a graphic novel about the notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, he was determined to capture the mobster’s life in all its moral complexity.

The result is 2019’s “Meyer,” for which Lang wrote the story and text (illustrations by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough), a fictionalized account of Lansky’s last days hiding out in a Miami nursing home in the 1980s.

In the book, Lansky has one last caper to commit, and while it leads to plenty of murder and mayhem, it also exposes his menschy side – his connection to his Judaism, devotion to his grandfather and support of Israel.

“In my version, Meyer was a businessman and proud Jew,” Lang said. “My Meyer is kind of a Jewish geriatric hero.”

Lansky’s Life

Born Maier Suchowljansky in 1902 in what is now Belarus, Lansky and his family fled antisemitism in 1911, landing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He got involved initially with bootlegging and small-time gambling, but then rose through the ranks to become known as “Mob’s Accountant,” running casinos and nightclubs for organized crime in Las Vegas, Cuba and Florida.

Lang sees Lansky’s career choice as very much the result of antisemitism in America at the time. Lang himself had relatives in Brooklyn in the 1940s who worked as numbers runners.

“Lansky didn’t accept the terms life offered him. He took what he wanted,” Lang said. “It wasn’t a matter of morality. It was a matter of survival.”

Lang said it remains unknown to what extent Lansky participated in the violence committed by some of his best-known associates such as “Bugsy” Siegel and “Lucky” Luciano.

The FBI portrayed him as the financial brains behind the mob’s operations — “he would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business,” an agent once said — but even that is uncertain. A 1991 biography portrayed him as a failed businessman who bungled the mob’s casino operations in Cuba.

In 1970, Lansky was indicted for tax evasion. He fled to Israel but was refused the right to settle there. It was a devastating blow to the mobster, who had always hoped to be buried beside his beloved grandfather on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Lansky was eventually acquitted of some of the charges against him while others were dropped, partly because he was in ill health. He lived quietly in Miami until his death in 1983.

Lang Learns About Lansky

Lang’s fascination with Lansky goes back to his childhood, when his father, a neurosurgeon, saw the gangster in the hallway of a Florida hospital.

Lang’s father described Lansky, who was 5-feet 4-inches tall, as “this well-dressed little pisher” [Yiddish for a presumptuous person]. Lansky had the whole hospital hustling around to help him, radiating a presence that commanded respect. “My father said he never saw anything like it,” Lang said.

Lang said he had his own rebellious streak while growing up. He hung out with troublemakers and nearly got kicked out of Alexander Muss High School in Tel Aviv, which offers American students a year abroad in Israel.

“Kindness toward my bubbie [Yiddish for grandmother], performing tikkun olam [repairing the world] and still cutting class were exactly who I was,” he said. “I straddled the line, at times.”

After getting his master’s in film at the University of Amsterdam in 2000, Lang moved back to Florida, living in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by his baby pictures and bar mitzvah mementos.

Depressed, he sought comfort and refuge at the local library.

It was kismet that he picked up “Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present,” a book he remembered using to write a report about Al Capone in the sixth grade. Thumbing through the book, he found the picture that would launch his novel.

A dapper Meyer, wearing sunglasses, was walking his little dog Bruiser in Miami Beach, looking over his shoulder. The FBI had taken the picture. “When was Lansky in Miami? Who was he watching out for?” Lang wondered.

Lang also thought back to his time at Brandeis when he volunteered as a companion to the elderly at a local retirement home. There, he met Fred Flagg, an amazing 103-year-old member of the first graduating class at Tufts Medical School.

They got together once a week, and Lang would sit and soak up his beguiling stories. “What if my community service was with a gangster?” Lang thought to himself, and that gave him the idea of setting his book in a nursing home.

Lang also read about how Lansky secretly worked with the U.S. Navy during World War II to spot German U-boats along the New York City docks he controlled. “This is a man who was both needed and prosecuted by the same government. How do you reconcile that?” Lang asked.

Lang Meets Lansky II

In another instance of kismet, Lang was busy promoting his book on Instagram last fall. While checking his direct messages, he saw one that stopped him cold. “This is Meyer Lansky. I need to talk to you about your book,” it read.

Terrified, Lang says his first thought was, “Is this his ghost?” After a quick search, he realized it was his grandson, Meyer Lansky II.

Lang called Lansky II, and the two hit it off. Lansky II liked the book so much that he offered to write a blurb endorsing it.

Lang and Lansky II are now discussing a synagogue tour and other appearances.

“What a bizarre turn,” Lang said. “An imaginary biography led to a relationship with walking history.”

This article was published in The Jewish Experience https://www.brandeis.edu/jewish-experience/

Was the Gangster Meyer Lansky a Mensch?


Meyer Lansky

Lansky as pictured in Lang’s graphic novel.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough/Courtesy Jonathan Lang

By Shelley Sackett

When Jonathan Lang ’98 set out to write a graphic novel about the notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, he was determined to capture the mobster’s life in all its moral complexity.

The result is 2019’s “Meyer,” for which Lang wrote the story and text (illustrations by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough), a fictionalized account of Lansky’s last days hiding out in a Miami nursing home in the 1980s.

In the book, Lansky has one last caper to commit, and while it leads to plenty of murder and mayhem, it also exposes his menschy side – his connection to his Judaism, devotion to his grandfather and support of Israel.

“In my version, Meyer was a businessman and proud Jew,” Lang said. “My Meyer is kind of a Jewish geriatric hero.”

Lansky’s Life

Born Maier Suchowljansky in 1902 in what is now Belarus, Lansky and his family fled antisemitism in 1911, landing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He got involved initially with bootlegging and small-time gambling, but then rose through the ranks to become known as “Mob’s Accountant,” running casinos and nightclubs for organized crime in Las Vegas, Cuba and Florida.

Lang sees Lansky’s career choice as very much the result of antisemitism in America at the time. Lang himself had relatives in Brooklyn in the 1940s who worked as numbers runners.

“Lansky didn’t accept the terms life offered him. He took what he wanted,” Lang said. “It wasn’t a matter of morality. It was a matter of survival.”

Lang said it remains unknown to what extent Lansky participated in the violence committed by some of his best-known associates such as “Bugsy” Siegel and “Lucky” Luciano.

The FBI portrayed him as the financial brains behind the mob’s operations — “he would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business,” an agent once said — but even that is uncertain. A 1991 biography portrayed him as a failed businessman who bungled the mob’s casino operations in Cuba.

In 1970, Lansky was indicted for tax evasion. He fled to Israel but was refused the right to settle there. It was a devastating blow to the mobster, who had always hoped to be buried beside his beloved grandfather on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Lansky was eventually acquitted of some of the charges against him while others were dropped, partly because he was in ill health. He lived quietly in Miami until his death in 1983.

Lang Learns About Lansky

Lang’s fascination with Lansky goes back to his childhood, when his father, a neurosurgeon, saw the gangster in the hallway of a Florida hospital.

Lang’s father described Lansky, who was 5-feet 4-inches tall, as “this well-dressed little pisher” [Yiddish for a presumptuous person]. Lansky had the whole hospital hustling around to help him, radiating a presence that commanded respect. “My father said he never saw anything like it,” Lang said.

Lang said he had his own rebellious streak while growing up. He hung out with troublemakers and nearly got kicked out of Alexander Muss High School in Tel Aviv, which offers American students a year abroad in Israel.

“Kindness toward my bubbie [Yiddish for grandmother], performing tikkun olam [repairing the world] and still cutting class were exactly who I was,” he said. “I straddled the line, at times.”

After getting his master’s in film at the University of Amsterdam in 2000, Lang moved back to Florida, living in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by his baby pictures and bar mitzvah mementos.

Depressed, he sought comfort and refuge at the local library.

It was kismet that he picked up “Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present,” a book he remembered using to write a report about Al Capone in the sixth grade. Thumbing through the book, he found the picture that would launch his novel.

A dapper Meyer, wearing sunglasses, was walking his little dog Bruiser in Miami Beach, looking over his shoulder. The FBI had taken the picture. “When was Lansky in Miami? Who was he watching out for?” Lang wondered.

Lang also thought back to his time at Brandeis when he volunteered as a companion to the elderly at a local retirement home. There, he met Fred Flagg, an amazing 103-year-old member of the first graduating class at Tufts Medical School.

They got together once a week, and Lang would sit and soak up his beguiling stories. “What if my community service was with a gangster?” Lang thought to himself, and that gave him the idea of setting his book in a nursing home.

Lang also read about how Lansky secretly worked with the U.S. Navy during World War II to spot German U-boats along the New York City docks he controlled. “This is a man who was both needed and prosecuted by the same government. How do you reconcile that?” Lang asked.

Lang Meets Lansky II

In another instance of kismet, Lang was busy promoting his book on Instagram last fall. While checking his direct messages, he saw one that stopped him cold. “This is Meyer Lansky. I need to talk to you about your book,” it read.

Terrified, Lang says his first thought was, “Is this his ghost?” After a quick search, he realized it was his grandson, Meyer Lansky II.

Lang called Lansky II, and the two hit it off. Lansky II liked the book so much that he offered to write a blurb endorsing it.

Lang and Lansky II are now discussing a synagogue tour and other appearances.

“What a bizarre turn,” Lang said. “An imaginary biography led to a relationship with walking history.”

Ruth Wisse will discuss her new memoir, “Free As A Jew,” in person at JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on November 7

Ruth Wisse

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ruth Roskies Wisse is no shrinking violet. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, she and her family escaped to Montreal in 1940, where her parents’ home became a salon and safe haven for Jewish writers, actors and artists who had also fled the Nazis. After graduating with a BA from McGill University in 1957 (where she befriended Leonard Cohen), she earned a MA in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America that offered such a program at that time. She returned to Montreal to raise her family and finish her Ph.D.. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found a program that would become the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill.

No less a trailblazer academically, Wisse became a joint professor in the Departments of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 1993, where she taught until she retired in 2014. Her gender, religion, subject matter (Yiddish) and conservative political and social views set her apart from the get go. Her razor-sharp intellect and prolific authorship made her views impossible to ignore.

In 2000:, she received the National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship for “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture” and in 2007, she received the National Humanities Medal, which cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

Along the way, she developed relationships with Nobel Prize winning authors, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a bevy of Harvard University students, faculty and administrators.

A staunch neoconservative and supporter of Israel, Wisse is a prolific author. She has collaborated on Yiddish collections, penned numerous political essays (many of which appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic and The Jerusalem Report), and authored several books, including the controversial “If I Am Not for Myself…The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” a Zionist critique of the American Jewish climate.

No less controversial is her new book, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation,” a no-holds-barred memoir. Wisse will discuss her book with Andrea Levin, Executive Director and President of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), as part of the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on Sunday, November 7 at 3 pm at Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead. The in person event includes a reception and book signing.

According to Wisse , she began writing about parts of her life as a way of understanding the world around her. “Free As A Jew” takes her to the point of her retirement from Harvard in 2014. “One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate is in the interesting people I’ve come to know. I’ve tried to write this as cultural history, and about myself as a minor participant in that history,” she said by email.

She chose the title carefully and deliberately. “I call it a personal memoir of national self-liberation because I concentrate on the public, intellectual, cultural, and political events I witnessed: most extraordinarily, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish country. The defeat—at least formally—of German Fascism and Soviet Communism were great victories. Not for a moment can we afford to take those civilizational achievements for granted,” Wisse said. “But they are being taken for granted.”

The direction of current political and cultural life concerns her, particularly the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and what she calls “contemporary loss of confidence.”

“It is no secret that the ideological and military war against the Jewish people has in many ways revved up rather than quieted down in recent decades. When people are under assault, many grow frightened, or apologetic, wanting to stay out of trouble. Some respond by trying to appease their attackers, or by becoming more like them. Jews have many things in common with other minorities, but no other minority is under the same sustained attack. This is confusing. Many lose confidence in their Judaism and blame their fellow Jews for the attacks against them,” she said.

Wisse stresses that her memoir is intended as neither homily nor “how to” book, but rather as another tool in one’s toolbox. “In explaining how I came to think about certain things, like the modern challenges to women, the nature of community, liberalism and conservatism, how literature works and why it matters, education and Jewish education, and so on, my story may be useful to others. No two lives are alike, but we all tend to have certain problems and opportunities in common,” she said.

The Exodus story of the Jews leaving slavery Egypt for freedom in Canaan particularly resonates with Wisse and also influenced her book’s title. “Jews learn that escape from bondage is only the first step of the process. We are a rabble — miserable, needy, and anxious — until we accept our pretty stringent set of laws. To be free as a Jew means to assume the responsibilities of freedom and to realize how liberating that really is,” she said.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Beloved Boston Radio host Jordan Rich kicks off JBM Speaker Series

By Shelley A. Sackett

Jordan Rich

Although the venues may have shifted over the decades from news to music-drive-time-FM-host to podcaster and talk show host, Jordan Rich’s impressive career weathered a half century in the mercurial field of Boston radio. In his new memoir, “On Air: My 50 Year Love Affair with Radio,” the longtime host of WBZ AM 1030 Radio’s ‘The Jordan Rich Show’ chronicles his remarkable run in his home town.

“It was my dream as a kid in junior high to impact and entertain on air, and I continue to live it out every day. Audiences here in Boston are like no other,” Rich said by email. “The greatest reward of my 50-year career has to be having the luck and opportunity to ply my craft in this market for so many years.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm, Metro Boston fans of Rich and the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series are also in luck for this double treat: the popular series will kick off its 27th year with an in person opening night event at the JCCNS featuring Rich.

His book is chockfull of stories about the personalities local audiences know and love, and the changing landscape of Boston radio from the 1970s to the present. It also includes intimate details of Rich’s struggles with depression and how his honesty with his radio audience helped him to heal. “When the voice in the night, the trusted, calming, funny voice reveals his human side, beautiful things can happen — and did for me,” Rich explained.

One story not in his book is the way he has coached and advised dozens of people, mentoring broadcasting students on their way into the business just as he was mentored in his young days. One mentee, writer, editor and educator Matt Robinson, is delighted he’ll be interviewing Rich at the October 5 event. “In addition to being a friend, he is an inspiration and ardent supporter,” Robinson said.

The remaining 11 events will take place between October 14 and November 16 in COVID-mindful formats. “We’re hoping that, in whatever way you feel comfortable, you will plan to ‘join’ us for this year’s series, which features a combination of in person, virtual and hybrid events,” JBM committee Chair Diane Knopf said.

Four novelists will share behind the scenes details about their latest works of fiction. Authors Ronald H. Balson (“Defending Britta Stein) and Pam Jenoff (“The Woman with the Blue Star”) will speak about their WWII historic novels, both inspired by true events (Oct. 14, 7 pm on Zoom). Internationally best-selling Israeli author David Grossman will talk about “More Than I Love My Life,” the story of three generations of women on an unlikely journey to a Croatian island with a secret that needs to be told (Oct. 21, 12:30 pm on Zoom). Rounding out the category is Joshua Henkin’s “Morningside Heights: A Novel,” the sweeping and compassionate story of a marriage that survives immeasurable hardship (Nov. 9, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Although memoir is a popular genre among this year’s lineup, the four authors differ dramatically in the experiences they share.

Jenna Blum’s “Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog” is a valentine to Woodrow, the treasured black lab who had been by her side for 15 years (Nov. 1, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Tracy Walder tells the larger-than-life story of her journey from sorority sister at USC to CIA Middle East undercover operative and FBI counterintelligence specialist in the gripping, action-packed memoir, “The Unexpected Spy” (Oct. 26, 7 pm on Zoom).

Widely published columnist and Harvard University professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse chronicles her life’s journey from her childhood escape from the Nazis to her trail-blazing fight to gain academic equality for Jewish literature and Jewish women in “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead will host the in person event on Nov. 7, 3 pm.

Nhi Aronheim’s inspirational survival story starts with her escape from Vietnam through the Cambodian jungles. Eventually, she lands in the US and converts to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man. “Soles of A Survivor” reveals her deeper appreciation for the humanity, diversity and unconditional love she has experienced as a Vietnamese Jew (Nov 16, 7 pm on Zoom).

Completing this year’s literary menu are three nonfiction selections. In “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” Judy Batalion details the spectacular accomplishments of three brave Jewish resistance fighters (community read in partnership with Abbot Public Library, Swampscott Public Library and SSU Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies with a book discussion led by Izzi Abrams in person at the JCCNS on Nov. 3, 7 pm; discussion with the author Nov. 14, 8 pm on Zoom). Mahjong fans will have the chance to listen to Annelise Heinz’s virtual presentation of “Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture” while enjoying a Chinese dinner, wine and — of course — playing mahjong (Oct. 20, 6 pm in person at JCCNS).

Finally, for those who have been dying to know how the Israelis manage to succeed in the start up venture arena, veteran venture capitalist Uri Adoni shares the secrets to Israel’s incredible track record and the principles and practices that can make any startup, anywhere in the world, “unstoppable” in “The Unstoppable Startup: Mastering Israel’s Secret Rules of Chutzpah” (Nov 14, 11 am on Zoom).

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Local author unpacks a pivotal court case, an obscure doctrine and an ugly legacy

Jack Beermann

By Shelley A. Sackett

The Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine is aptly named. Known to induce temporary dormancy among even the most avid first year law students, its post-bar review practical value outside academia is, essentially, nil.

And yet, Jack Beermann, a Boston University School of Law professor of Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Administrative Law, has just published a book, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” based on a little-known but pivotal Supreme Court case that hung its hat on this arcane and crucial constitutional construct that prevents both discrimination against, and excessive burdens on, interstate commerce

Moreover, he turned out a narrative that is as accessible to lay readers as to legal scholars.

It all started when Beermann, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois and lives in Swampscott with his wife, Debbie Korman, read a law review article that cited Hall v. Decuir, an 1877 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana state antidiscrimination statute and, for the first time after the Civil War, actually approved race-based segregation.

He had never heard of the case.

His curiosity piqued, he began a ten-year journey of trips to Louisiana, research, writing and re-writing, fueled by a drive to document the Court’s first step towards validating segregation in US society. The end result, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” while exhaustively researched and painstakingly scholarly, is also immensely readable, owing to the compelling human story at its center.

Josephine Decuir, a mixed-race, privileged and wealthy woman whose free family owned slaves that worked their Louisiana plantations, had, as was her custom, booked a first-class ticket in the ladies’ cabin aboard the interstate riverboat, The Governor Allen. Instead of honoring her prepaid ticket, the boat’s stringent segregation policy relegated her to the “colored-only” section of the riverboat, where all non-White passengers, regardless of sex or social status, slept in common areas.

Madame Decuir sued the riverboat owner, citing Louisiana’s nondiscrimination statute, a state law passed during Reconstruction. State courts ruled in her favor, and the owner appealed. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court as Hall v. Decuir. That court ruled against Madame Decuir, citing the US Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine, which is used to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against interstate or international commerce.

Essentially, the Court accepted the owner’s argument that, despite violating state law, segregation was both customary on riverboats and necessary to keep Whites as customers; i.e., integration had the potential to negatively impact his business.

Beermann, who already knew the Supreme Court had prevented the federal government from enforcing Congress’s civil rights program for Reconstruction, wasn’t aware it had also prevented states from enforcing liberal civil rights laws. “I would have written the book regardless of what was happening in the world, but it feels like this subject gets more timely every day,” he said by email.

There are many parallels between the Courts of 1877 and today, Beermann said. “One thing courts are very good at is justifying terrible decisions with bland, benign language. The Justices in 1877 were good people, well-trained in the law; and yet, without flinching, they doomed millions of their fellow citizens to terrible lives of oppression and injustice.”

During his research, Beermann experienced two “aha” moments. One was when he realized the scope and implications of the story he had uncovered. Decuir, as a “person of color”, was used to the treatment and privilege her wealth, status and lighter skin afforded her. Suddenly, she felt the sting of prejudice and exclusion almost as strongly as the darker-skinned people at the bottom of the social ladder.

The other was when he recognized, after repeated attempts, that he couldn’t address the complicated issue that Madame Decuir and her family were themselves slaveowners before the Civil War. “I decided to focus on her dignity harms and leave that issue to the reader, or perhaps to another project,” he said.

As a teenager, the protests against the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King’s activism awakened Beermann’s interest in civil rights. He remembers his father as “a bit involved in politics. I knew we were a very liberally oriented family, even when I was a small child.” He has taught in Israel numerous times and, “although I don’t agree with all of its policies,” he is a strong supporter. His family (including three sons and a daughter, when they are home) attends Chabad House and Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “Our Jewish identity is very important to us,” he said.

Beermann hopes his readers will gain a better sense of the racial politics of the Reconstruction era, opening their eyes to how laws and courts contributed — and continue to contribute — to racial segregation. In the end, though, he admits he doesn’t know the moral of the Decuir legacy.

“It’s too simplistic to say that race discrimination is wrong; my sense, maybe what I was trying to communicate, is that race discrimination, and white supremacy in particular, are woven into the fabric of our country and have resisted unraveling at every turn,” he said.

Join Beermann at a free Zoom author event on May 27 from 7-8 pm. To register, visit jccns.org.

JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series goes virtual

Jason Rosenthal, seen with his late wife, Amy, will open the series on Oct. 6.

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – With hurricane season, daylight savings time and the election looming just around the corner, we could all use an engaging and stimulating indoor activity to look forward to during these trying COVID-19 times.

To the rescue is the 2020 virtual Jewish Community Center of the North Shore’s Jewish Book Month Speaker Series with a line-up of 12 outstanding authors who will literally travel right into your living room and share their books.

“Books are a way into people’s souls. Arts and culture are a non-threatening way for people to have a Jewish identity,” Suzanne Swift, Jewish Book Council Director of Author Network, told the Journal. JBC provides resources and support to Jewish organizations, including the JCCNS.

From Tuesday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 29, the annual JBM speaker series offers an especially broad selection of genres and topics, including memoir, history, fiction, humor and – of course – food.

JBM chair Diane Knopf acknowledges there is a silver lining to mounting the series during a pandemic. “There is no geographical barrier to participate in a virtual series” she said.

Jason Rosenthal, who will open the series on Oct. 6 with his memoir, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” lived in a romantic fairytale for the 26 years he was married to his bashert (soulmate), Amy, a writer and filmmaker until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her last project before she died in 2017 was an op-ed piece for the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” expressing her wish for her beloved Jason to remarry. It was published right after her death, catching Jason completely by surprise.

His book describes his life with Amy and their three children (the “Rosies”) and how he coped with his grief and loss. Judaism played a big role in his upbringing and in the family he and Amy raised in Chicago (regular Friday night Shabbat dinners, Jewish day school for his kids). “Shabbat dinners meant slowing down from a hectic week. Simple. Quietly reverent. And always full of gratitude,” he told the Journal.

After Amy’s death, however, he sought comfort elsewhere. “I look more to other spiritual elements in my life; mindfulness, meditation and yoga come to mind,” he said.

Although he shares some upbeat stories about women who wrote to him after they read Amy’s column, his aim is to help others. “Grief is a beast and a non-linear process,” he explained. “Ultimately, my book is filled with a message of hope and resilience. One never ‘gets over’ grief; we move through it.”

Other memoirs in the series include: “On My Watch” by local author Virginia Buckingham, who was head of Logan Airport on 9/11 and bore public blame for “letting it happen,” and “What We Will Become” by Mimi Lemay, a woman raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family who supported her transgender child’s odyssey.

On the fiction stage are Lynda Cohen Loigman’s “The Wartime Sisters,” the story of two estranged sisters reunited at the Springfield, Massachusetts armory during the early days of WWII, and Anna Solomon’s Good Morning America Book Club pick, “The Book of V.”

In “The Book of V,” Solomon intertwines the individual stories of three women: a Brooklyn mother in 2016; a senator’s wife in Watergate-era 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther in ancient Persia.

Solomon, who grew up in Gloucester and whose mother was the first female president of Temple Ahavat Achim, reconnected with the story of Esther when she read it to her own children. She was struck by how many questions the story raised, especially about Queen Vashti (executed after disobeying her husband, the king), who had fascinated her since she was a little girl.

“What did she do that was so bad? That was the mystery I wanted to unravel,” she told the Journal. “I also wanted to explore how our notions of a bad and good woman have and haven’t changed over time, and how we continue to reduce women to types.”

Solomon was born in the late 1970s when, for some women, it seemed gender equality had been achieved. “But anyone can see that’s not the case today. I wanted to play around with what it means to experience life in a way that doesn’t match what you’re being told. These three women all take charge of their own story in some way,” she said.

She hopes the book’s call for more connection and less competition among women resonates with her readers. “Let’s judge each other – and ourselves – less and reach out across our supposed differences more,” she said.

Fans of nonfiction and investigative reporting will also be thrilled. Longtime BBC correspondent Raffi Berg will discuss his “Red Sea Spies: The True Story of Mossad’s Fake Diving Resort,” the story of undercover Israeli spies who staffed a luxury resort on the Sudanese coast and secretly evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Local author Eric Jay Dolin covers the history of American hurricanes from Columbus’s landing to contemporary climate change in “A Furious Sky,” and Kristen Fermaglich’s “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” chronicles the impact of name change on American Jews. “The Last Kings of Shanghai” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Kaufman recounts the remarkable history of two wealthy and powerful Jewish families who helped shape China’s economic boom.

On a lighter note are Iris Krasnow’s “Camp Girls” (about the joy and lasting importance of the summer camp experience); Rachel Levin’s “Eat Something” (part comedy, part cookbook and part nostalgic journey). Alan Zweibel, an original Saturday Night Live writer who got his start selling jokes on the Borscht Belt circuit, shares his own stories and interviews with friends in the riotous “Laugh Lines.”

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Daughter offers glimpse inside private world of Leonard Bernstein

by Shelley A. Sackett

Leonard Bernstein, whose global 100th birthday celebration has invigorated his reputation as one of the great musicians of modern times, was best known as a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and humanitarian. With the publication of her memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” oldest daughter Jamie Bernstein shifts the spotlight to his least examined – but to her – most important role: that of father.

Jamie, a writer, broadcaster, filmmaker, and concert narrator, paints a detailed portrait of a complicated and sometimes troubled man, plumbing the emotional complexities of her childhood and inviting the reader into her family’s private world of celebrity, culture, and occasional turmoil.

North Shore Leonard Bernstein fans will have a chance to hear Jamie speak about her book and answer questions at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 7, at the newly renovated Temple Emanu-El, 393 Atlantic Ave. in Marblehead. In addition, there will be a screening of the documentary, “Leonard Bernstein, Larger Than Life,” followed by a dessert reception. The event is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center North Shore Jewish Book Month and International Film Festival committees.

One of Jamie’s goals in writing her memoir was “to answer the frequently asked question: WHAT WAS IT LIKE?!” she told the Journal by email. “What was it like growing up in that family, with that father? The short answer: not boring. The longer answer: read my book!”

In her 400-page memoir, chockfull of spicy details and intimate family pictures, Jamie paints an eyewitness portrait of the 1960s and 1970s she lived. “I grew up in amazing times. They were turbulent and shifting. It was a particularly intense time to be a young woman,” she said. She also dishes about the extraordinary circle of characters that populated the Bernsteins’ lives, including: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Lauren Bacall.

Her two siblings, Nina Bernstein Simmons and Alexander Bernstein, also have been involved in preserving their father’s legacy. Jamie showed them every draft of her memoir. “All along, I told them that they had complete veto power. They were amazingly supportive; I don’t think they ever asked me to take anything out,” she said.

Their mother, Chilean pianist and actress Felicia Montealegre, raised her three children to be bilingual, which serves Jamie well when she narrates concerts in Spanish in locations such as Madrid and Caracas. “Our mother was not only beautiful, elegant, and talented, she was also the stabilizing force for our family in general and [for] our dad in particular,” she said.

Giving new meaning to the phrase, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Jamie communicates her own love affair with classical music through her roles as speaker and concert narrator. She writes and performs the script for “The Bernstein Beat,” a popular and successful program of family concerts about her father’s music modeled after his own groundbreaking “Young People’s Concerts.”

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1970. Photo by Heinz Weissenstein, Whitestone Photo, BSO Archives

“I’m not exactly channeling him [her father], since I’m only doing half of his job – the writing and talking part,” Jamie said. “But I do feel a similar urge to reach out and communicate to my audiences. I love sharing the stuff I’m excited about.”

While on her book promotion tour (“a considerable amount of schlep”), she has talked to many people who experienced her father’s mystique, either through concerts at Tanglewood and the New York Philharmonic or through recordings, TV, and Broadway productions. “It has been incredibly touching. The attendees are curious and attentive and quite emotional. And so many of them have stories!” she said.

Izzi Abrams, president of the JCC in Marblehead, is among those with stories. Her family had an indirect relationship with the Bernsteins through her uncle, Rabbi Israel Kazis of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, where the Bernsteins were members when Leonard was a boy. Abrams also taught a course on Bernstein last fall and winter. “I’ve been excited ever since I heard a couple of summers ago that Tanglewood was going to celebrate Bernstein’s 100th birthday in 2018,” she said.

With over 5,000 events worldwide, Jamie acknowledges that her book is just a small piece of the LB Centennial celebration that she and her siblings hope will remind those who lived in their father’s era of the enormous legacy he left behind.

“We also hope that young people will discover Leonard Bernstein, and be excited to know more about him, his music, and his music-making,” she said.

For information or to buy tickets to the April 7 event, visit jccns.org or call 781-631-8330.

 

Swampscott author explores a 430-year-old mystery

 

NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – SWAMPSCOTT – About five years ago, Deahn Berrini and her family were enjoying dinner at their Swampscott home. Her son, knowing of her interest in Native American people, mentioned that researchers had just discovered a clue to the lost colony of Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina.
“I said, ‘That could be a good story.’ And then my son said, ‘Hey, mom. You could write that,”’ said Berrini, the daughter of an Air Force father, who was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. A member of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, she grew up in Ipswich and attended Brown University, where she majored in history, and Boston College Law School.

When her son brought it up, she found herself drawn to that unsolved puzzle of the mysterious disappearance of 115 British men, women, and children in 1587. Once she started her research, she knew she wanted to write the story, but not from the colonists’ point of view.

Some have speculated that Native Americans attacked and killed the English colonists. Others theorize they tried to return to England and were lost at sea, or might have been killed by Spaniards who came north from Florida. One theory suggests the settlers were absorbed into friendly Native American tribes.

When Berrini approached the story from the point of view of the people who were already there – the Croatoan Native American tribe – her heart and her imagination followed. “The characters came to me fully formed,” she said.

“When we think of the story we’re taught in middle school, it’s from the white British point of view. We’re never taught to think about the native peoples who were living there before the Europeans arrived. It was a thriving place up and down the eastern seaboard. We have very little consciousness of that.”

Four years and three rewrites later, Berrini hopes to change that with the publication of her third historical novel, “A Roanoke Story,” on Nov. 30. She will launch her book tour by reading from and discussing the book at the Swampscott Public Library from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 13.

In addition to broadening our understanding of history, Berrini also sees a clear connection between “A Roanoke Story” and the abiding Jewish tenet of social justice. As head of Temple Emanu-El’s social action committee for the past five years, she has championed shedding light on unfairness and untruths.

“A lot about our country’s origins has been mythologized to make it easier to swallow,” she said. “I hope readers will look at the colonization of this country with a greater sense of the people whose land we invaded. Telling the story from the point of view of the marginalized people, that’s the social justice component.”

The Swampscott Public Library is at 61 Burrill St.
For more information, visit swampscottlibrary.org or call 781-596-8867.

Swampscott library hosts tea sommelier

Tea sommelier brings book to life at Swampscott library

By Shelley A. Sackett

IMG_4986

Hillel Bromberg, a certified tea sommelier, as he prepares to present his tea tasting at the Swampscott Public Library.

 

Last Wednesday night, over 50 people sat and chatted in the Swampscott Library at tables set with white cloth tablecloths, teacups, tea lights and tea biscuits. Promptly at 6:30 p.m., a spry, bearded man in a colorful vest stepped behind a table adorned with a variety of artistic teapots and addressed the crowd.

 

“Thank you for coming to take tea with me,” said Hillel Bromberg, certified tea sommelier.

 

For the next 90 minutes, Bromberg talked about the history of tea, its many heath benefits and the proper (and improper) way to brew an authentic cup of tea. He also conducted a tasting of several distinctive styles of teas. “I really like tea, and it turns out I’m not alone,” he said.

 

IMG_4989

Bromberg carefully pours water heated to just the right temperature into the cast iron tea pot.

 

The inspiration for the program came from the book, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See, which was the library’s Popular Titles Book Group selection for September.

 

Laurie Souza, head of circulation, had just read the book and wanted to learn more about tea. She had heard about Bromberg from other libraries and suggested to the Friends of the Library that they bring him to Swampscott. “They thought it was a great idea,” she said.

 

Bromberg, who lives in Newton with his coffee-drinking wife, was introduced to tea as a child. He grew up in an observant Jewish home where the family and guests enjoyed a “full-blown Shabbat dinner” every Friday night. After dinner, they would sit around for quite a while, sipping tea, eating dessert and “schmoozing.”

 

“We drank your basic Lipton that I usually loaded up with lemon and sugar,” Bromberg recalled. He has continued that ritual in his own home. When his son and daughter left for college, he made sure they left home with a hand-selected supply of their favorite teas.

 

He received his tea sommelier certification from the International Tea Masters Association. During the four-month training (one intensive weekend of study and three months of weekly online assignments), he learned about different teas from different countries. “When I started drinking tea, the whole world opened up to me,” he said.

 

Bromberg captivated the audience with his lively condensed version of the history of tea, peppering the fascinating chronicle with amusing tidbits such as the difference between high tea and afternoon tea, and the Lexington Tea Burning, which pre-dated the December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party by three days.

 

The audience learned what is tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black and post fermented teas, which all belong to the camellia sinensis species) and what is not tea (all fruit and herbal teas, known as tisanes).

IMG_4992

A proper cup of tea can only be brewed using a proper tea strainer which, according to Bromberg, allows the tea leaves to “stretch out.”

 

In addition, properly steeped tea must take into account three specifics that differ with each variety of tea leaves: the amount of tea leaves in the strainer; the temperature of the water, and the amount of time the tea steeps before drinking.

 

Throughout the presentation, Bromberg demonstrated the proper way to brew a pot of tea, which can only be accomplished with a proper tea strainer. He brewed five different teas, including white tea, oolong tea, a pineapple flowering tea and black tea. He set his electric teakettle to different temperatures for each, and poured a taste into each participant’s white ceramic teacups.

 

Somehow, he magically made a small teapot stretch to accommodate all.

 

Next came instruction in the proper way to taste tea. Since 80% of the taste of tea is from its aroma, smelling it is an important first step. So is slurping — and the more noise the better.

 

One thing the mild-mannered Bromberg is unequivocal about is his abhorrence for tea bags. “They are horrible, vile and disgusting,” he said with the trace of a shudder. “They were invented in the United States by two women who tired of cleaning leaves out of pots.”

 

Strainers are designed to let tea leaves come to life; tea bags are designed to steep quickly with macerated, tightly packed leaves that lose their flavor. “Tea wants to stretch out,” he emphasized, as he passed around the strainers with post-steeped tealeaves as evidence.

 

Bromberg had just borrowed “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” from his local library when Souza contacted him to arrange the Swampscott tea tasting, so the timing was perfect. He liked the writing a lot, especially the way the author described the hard work the tea pluckers, who were almost all women, did for very little pay. “I like to make people aware of the strong and patient women who were at the very beginning of the tea making process,” he said.

 

Izzi Abrams, who has run book groups at Swampscott Library for over 18 years and is co-director of the library’s children’s department, was delighted that Bromberg excited the crowd with his knowledge and experience. “A program like this evening makes a book come alive. It makes it experiential,” she said.

 

For more information about Hillel Bromberg and his Tea Oasis business, visit http://www.teaoasisboston.com

 

 

 

New Haggadah is A Feast for the Senses

We Erica Brown fans are in for a special treat this Passover. The gifted columnist has penned “Seder Talk” with her usual flair for combining the sensitive, scholarly and practical. The result is a Haggada with a fresh approach that is as imaginative as it is traditional, as educational as it is emotional; in short, it is a book with something for everyone.

Brown’s book is really two books bound as one. “Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada” is a commentary on the Haggada text that opens as a Hebrew text, from right to left. Chockful of poetry, songs and rabbinic readings, this Haggada also explains the meaning of the various seder rituals in a simple, informal style. The most engaging and distinctive, however, are the conversational cues interspersed throughout the text that, in signature Brown style, provide moments and roadmaps for celebrants to pause, reflect and share aloud. This is the stuff memorable seders are made of. There are also more personal life-homework exercises that promote greater mindfulness, intention and inner freedom.

The second book-within-abook, which opens from the other cover, contains eight essays, one for each of the eight days of Passover. Only Brown would think to start her first essay, “All Who Are Hungry,” with this perfect seder icebreaker, a quote from Oscar Wilde: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” Other essays are titled, “The Four Sons, the Right Question,” “Slave Wealth” and “Pour Out Your Wrath, Pour Out Your Love.”

Brown is a deep Judaic thinker and a respected author and educator. She has created a delightful new Haggada that belongs on the bedside reading pile, long after Passover has passed.

Pictured at top: Seder Talk The Conversational Haggada by Erica Brown. Maggid Books and OU Press, 2015