REVIEWING

War Dances

By Sherman Alexie


Grove Press | 2009 | 209 pp | $23.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


sherman alexie

When I was an artist-in-residence several years ago on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I used Sherman Alexie in my high school classes. After one of the classes, a student asked if he could borrow The Toughest Indian in the World, the short story collection I had been using. Though I had censored my selections and was a little wary of him reading the “uncensored parts,” I handed it over. I don’t even know if he read the book, but somehow it gave me comfort imagining that book, with its funky orange cover, lying in the kid’s bedroom.

However, some of the other teachers and administrators were not so pleased that I had used the book. To them, Sherman Alexie’s stories were full of the clichéd “drunken Indians.”

“Why perpetuate stereotypes?” the teacher who taught the Crow language class asked me, his face twisted in displeasure. And what did I know? I answered weakly that I was only trying to give them stories that were true to their lives.

Maybe Alexie wouldn’t mock this little anecdote; after all, in his latest collection of short stories, War Dances one of the central themes is that of being able to examine something from multiple angles.

In the book, he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once…”

So through this collection, the main characters are trying to come to terms with oppositions: the vintage clothing entrepreneur who doesn’t desire his sexy wife anymore, though he feels he should; the grief stricken son who gently cares for his Dad in the hospital as his Dad is dying, although his father was an alcoholic who could crack his kids open with his brutal words; the son of a Republican Senator who feels threatened by his friend’s confession of being gay, yet who can’t stop loving his friend. Beauty and harshness rub against each other, causing an electrical, exciting friction.

In one story, when the mother creates a quilt made entirely from old blue jeans, the sister proclaims it a quilt made from “men’s asses.” Turn a few pages and Alexie describes the quilt as a “quilt made from God.” From men’s asses to God? In my mind, the quilt lies somewhere in between—in the flow of man, in the realm of Heaven.

Alexie pulls the rug out from the reader continuously in these stories, asking the reader to rework the story, along with the narrator. He uses clichéd language and sentiments purposefully in order to undercut or emphasize his points. In one instance, a father and son are described as sitting together in silence.

He writes, “We sat there in silence. A masculine silence, thick and strong. Oh, I’m full of shit. We were terrified and clueless.”

Again the truth seems to hover somewhere in between these statements. Can you be strong and terrified at the same time? Perhaps. War Dances stories concern themselves with story telling and the inability of language to be precise. It seems impossible for the narrators to describe the world in all its subtlety and wondrousness.

In “Breaking and Entering,” the narrator, a film editor, tries to describe the sound of a window breaking. “…I heard a window shatter in the basement. Is shatter too strong a verb? I heard a window break. But break seems too weak a verb.”

So what are these stories about? In most, people confront their biggest fears and learn to love those who have failed them. In some cases the men have failed themselves, as in the story of the writer turned crossword puzzle aficionado, who has writer’s block.

“The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” was my favorite story. This character is terribly, terribly flawed. This “average Joe” seems pathetic as he chases after a woman in an airport and hits on her by quoting the Hall & Oates song, “Sara Smile.”

As I reader I was both drawn to and repelled by this guy. He worshipped this woman from afar—the shape of her rear and her good-looking red Puma sneakers (how he loved those sneakers!)—and accosted her with a primal urge. On the one hand, it was disturbing to see such a boorish fellow; on the other hand it was refreshing to see a story so intently focused on desire.

This entire collection is worthy of the description—bold, gutsy, and beautiful.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.



Return to home page

REVIEWING


Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama

by Peniel E. Joseph


BasicCivitas Books, New York | 2010 | 277 pp | $26.00

Reviewed by Herb Boyd


peniel joseph

President Barack Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office a year before the books about him and his historic victory began to surface and some of them were predictable and inevitable. Dr. Peniel E. Joseph’s Dark Days, and Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama is not among such expected treatises. He is less concerned about how Obama won, his political philosophy, the nature of his governance, or whether he will he be another one term president, than his relationship to Black Power.

To illustrate this connection, Joseph, for the most part, examines extensively the lives and contributions of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). For him, these two stalwarts of Black Power are primary antecedents to Obama’s ascendancy. “Despite their volatile images,” Joseph writes, after presenting vivid descriptions of the two icons, “Malcolm and Carmichael played crucial roles in America’s extraordinary journey from Black Power to Barack Obama.”

Other than his Introduction, which is extended in his opening chapter, the book is, in effect, three lengthy chapters—one on Malcolm, one on Carmichael, and one on Obama. There is no attempt here to disclose any new information about Malcolm and Carmichael in his year-by-year dissection, but perhaps inadvertently Joseph uncovers some very interesting facets and facts of their lives that will certainly please even those well-informed readers and scholars.

Joseph reminds Malcolm scholars of the great leader’s comment upon learning that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. “You know, I, too, am a man of peace, but I never could accept a peace prize in the middle of a war,” Malcolm said.

Oddly, Joseph, who goes to no end in drawing parallels between Obama and the Black Power advocates, misses an opportunity here in view of Obama’s Nobel Prize, which I don’t recall if he discusses at all. (We have to cut him some slack on this point since the event happened after he submitted the manuscript, although as early as the Winter of 2009, Obama was rumored to be among the contenders).

In his 53-page exegesis on Carmichael’s life and legacy, Joseph observes that Carmichael was reticent to “acknowledge the depth and complexity of his political journey (even in his own autobiography) at times contributed to the lack of serious scholarly interrogation of his extraordinary life.” This chapter should serve Joseph well in his promise to write a Carmichael biography, in the same way his book Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour is absolutely invaluable to this book’s narrative.

The third longest section on Obama recounts much of what the media has dispensed to Americans over the last two years about the presidential campaign and the ultimate triumph. “If Barack Obama’s election permanently altered the aesthetics of American democracy, then the civil rights and Black Power era provided the historical context for this watershed moment,” Joseph notes. But he is mindful to add several caveats to this progression, which he insists is not “linear,” but rather “reflects the arduous road toward racial justice and reconciliation that was littered with as many false starts and betrayals as it was celebrated with improbable victories and climatic marches.”

This is the young scholar at his most insightful and imaginative thinking, and all the potential displayed in his first two books bears even more fruit, although without the exhaustive and detailed analysis that he is capable of. Even so, how wonderful to see the ideas and commitment of the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, Luke Tripp, and journalist William Worthy given such prominence in his research, particularly of several obscure, but important political formations.

It is unfortunate that the same amount of attention was not given to some of the unheralded but significant players such as Dr. Ron Daniels, when Joseph offers an account of the National Black Political Assembly; or Elombe Brath, when he recalls the demonstrations at the United Nations following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

And something more should be said about the importance of the National Negro Congress, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress as predecessors of the civil and human rights movements, only one of which Joseph gives a passing nod.

A few careful readers will also be disturbed by a plethora of errors of commission, and none more disconcerting than the botched and mangled names of A. Philip Randolph, Emmett Till, Jim Crowley, Nikita Khrushchev, Juan Almeida, Irv Kupcinet, Betty Shabazz, and most egregiously, one wonders what source he relied on to call the renowned Trinidadian Marxist, Cyril Lionel Robert James, Cedric Lewis Robinson James? And, it should be noted, that before Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid there were attempts by Eldridge Cleaver, Charlene Mitchell and Dick Gregory.

These minor but annoying distractions, however, should not and will not diminish Joseph’s great writing and his thoughtful reimagining the Black Power through the prism of Malcolm’s and Carmichael’s splendid odysseys and Obama’s monumental victory. Joseph continues to be a fascinating thinker who dares to probe the nation’s political transformations and the tricky contours of American democracy.

We eagerly look forward to what should be a definitive work on the charismatic Carmichael, a subject that gets an engrossing introduction in these pages.

Herb Boyd is the author of Baldwin’s Harlem.



Return to home page

REVIEWING


The Help

by Kathryn Stockett


Amy Einhorn Books | Putnam, 2009 | 464 pp

Reviewed by Janet Garber


the help cover

Miss Skeeter’s been buzzing around her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, trying to survive, while hoping she doesn’t inadvertently sting the wrong people. The year is 1963 and the times, they are a-changin,’ for sure. Medgar Evers just got whacked, the march on Washington with Martin Luther King’s sharing his dreams is about to occur, and then President Kennedy. . . Tensions are high and everyone is feeling threatened. But in Skeeter’s world, the white “haves” are carrying on pretty much as they always have and the “have nots” and their black maids, are toeing the line.

Skeeter is woefully underemployed, despite her BA in Journalism from Ole Miss, writing a Household Hints column for the local paper, a feat she can only accomplish by cribbing all the ideas from her friend’s maid, Aibileen. Still smarting from the sudden disappearance of the maid who raised her, Skeeter starts slowly realizing that the help have lives too – and, even more interestingly, they have engaging stories to tell.

It takes two years for her, and about a dozen of the town’s maids, to secretly collaborate on a tell-all book about the private lives of the white folks in town and their relations with their black help. Fearing repercussions that can be deadly – a grandson is blinded and almost beaten to death for mistakenly using the public restroom reserved for whites – she and the black women keep at it nonetheless

.

The idea of finally “telling it like it is” proves a powerful stimulant. The Help is published anonymously but with such telling details that the city and populace is easily recognizable as Jackson, MS., but they have “insurance,” a cleverly planted detail so gruesome that they are betting no one will dare own up to it

.

The story line can’t help but be engaging – we go back less than 50 years and are dropped into a world that Boomers can remember, full of passion/debate for civil rights, ending the war in Vietnam, and emerging feminism. Not many of us spent those years in the deep South, however, and it is a revelation to see the hypocrisy that abounds there: It’s acceptable for your maid to kiss and hug and maybe even nurse your babies while tending house and cooking for you, but she better not plant her tush on the family toilet! She might spread her “Nigra diseases.”

The characters of the women, black and white, are what make The Help so appealing, and what has propelled Kathryn Stockett’s novel into one of the best selling novels in years. We spend most of our time with Skeeter (a/k/a Eugenia Phelan), a gawky member of the Junior League who’s been marked by her loving relationship with her childhood maid, Constantine and Aibileen, who cares for the two children of the cold-as-ice, withholding mother, Elizabeth, and Minny, a “sass-mouth” who has managed to get herself fired at least 19 times but now lucks out working for clueless Celia, who hails from rural Sugar Ditch, dresses like a trollop, and can’t understand why the other ladies shun her.

We hear the voices of each of the main characters and see the circumscribed circles they turn in. As they change by taking small steps outside the circles and start leaning on one another, they come into their own for the first time in their lives. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

What they discover by book’s end is that love knows no boundaries and respects no lines, particularly the love between women, and between women and children. “For women, we realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.” These are radical ideas in Mississippi in 1963, where a black person even looking a white person in the eyes, or sitting down with them at a kitchen table, can be tantamount to treason

.

We’re left with some questions and dialogue we’d like to have with the characters: Skeeter, why does it take you so long to see the inequities and downright evil-doings of your best friends and sorority sisters? What are you doing living at home at age 23? When are you going to straighten your mother out? Aibileen and Minny: Would you and the other maids really risk having your tongues cut out and worse? These questions to “real” people ultimately draw us further into the story.

Miss Stocketts’ first book, like a roller coaster, takes the reader along on a slightly bumpy ride to a place we recognize as our future. There’s real fear in this world, but we already know the future is bound to be a happier and safer place for them, and for us, than this present world, so we can lean back and rejoice in the perfectly rendered happy ending.

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.



Return to home page

REVIEWING


Rooftops of Tehran

by Mahbod Seraji


NAL Trade | October 2009 | 368 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe


mahbod seraji

Iran is in the news these days either because of Western fears she is developing nuclear weapons (which could upset the balance of power in the Middle East and the world) or because her people are demonstrating against what they consider to be election fraud. Thousands of Iranians have poured into the street of Tehran to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad, the narrow-eyed, wiry president who has the audacity to deny the Holocaust!

If we know the recent history of Iran, once part of ancient Persia, we would applaud the Iranian people for their courage, for such was not always the case.

In the 1970’s, Iran was ruled by the Shah, whose secret police, the SAVAK, engaged in such frightful practices that the Iranian people grew to become paranoid, afraid to trust their own neighbors for fear of being thrown into prison for indeterminate periods of time and tortured.

Here’s what Ryszard Kapuscinski has to say about the SAVAK in his book, Shah of Shahs :

“The ubiquitous terror drove people crazy, made them so paranoid they couldn’t credit anyone with being honest, pure, or courageous. After all, they considered themselves honest and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to express an opinion or a judgment, to make any sort of accusation, because they knew punishment lay ruthlessly in wait for them…. Nobody actually knew where SAVAK was located. The organization had no headquarters. Dispersed all over the city (and all over the country), it was everywhere and nowhere. It occupied houses, villas, and apartments no one ever paid any attention to…. Whoever fell into the grip of that organization disappeared without a trace, sometimes forever. They might be locked up in a prison, but which one? There were six thousand…Savak censored the press, books, and films (it was Savak that banned the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere because they criticized monarchical and aristocratic vices.) Savak ruled in the universities, offices, and factories. A monstrously over grown cephalopod, it entangled everything, crept into every crack and corner, glued its suckers everywhere, ferreted and sniffed in all directions, scratched and bored through every level of existence.

“They would kidnap a man as he walked along the street, blindfold him, and lead him straight into the torture chamber without asking a single question. There they would start in with the whole macabre routine—breaking bones, pulling out fingernails, forcing hands into hot oven, drilling into the living skull, and scores of other brutalities—in the end, when the victim has gone made with pain and become a smashed, bloody mass, they would proceed to establish his identity.”

Worst of the torture methods of the SAVAK was “the frying pan,” a steel table that was heated until it literally fried its occupant. One might ask what macabre psychological mechanism resides in the human psyche that allows people to participate in such torture of their fellow man.

While the SAVAK was torturing it’s own people, often for no reason at all, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was intent on bringing Iran into the modern age—within a generation, with the quiet help of the United States, he would make Iran, a then backward, disorganized, half-literate, barefoot nation, into the fifth greatest power on earth. Under the slogan, “Prosperity for All,” the Shah would build atomic power plants, electronic factories, steel mills, and great industrial complexes. He would equip Iran with modern highways and means of transportation.

Presidents of multinational corporations, directors of great conglomerates, representatives of famous companies from all over the world stood in line for the contracts the Shah was handing out like candy on Halloween. George Orwell would have had a field day with the sad irony behind the Shah’s grandiosity. That the Shah neglected to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate his vision of a Great Civilization was but a small oversight.

But who are these people? A new, semiautobiographical, debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji, is set in the 1970’s before the overturn of the Shah, during the time of national paranoia because of the SAVAK.

Statistics are well and good, but nothing gives as much insight into the character of a people as a well-written novel. War and Peace tells more about the Russian character than any number of statistical surveys, just as Gone With the Wind tells us more about peoples’ struggles during the American Civil War than any number of reports of battles fought and numbers killed.

Madame Bovary tells the careful reader more about bourgeoisie France of the mid-19th Century, and Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past informs us of more about the fin de siècle France, than can be gained by any other means.

Rooftops of Tehran follows in the same tradition, and gives us tremendous insight into the Persian character.

A quote from the credits on the book’s back cover: “In a middle-class neighborhood of Iran’s sprawling capital city, 17-year-old Pasha Shahed spends the summer of 1973 on his rooftop with his best friend Ahmed, joking around one minute and asking burning questions about life the next. He also hides a secret love for his beautiful neighbor Zari, who has been betrothed since birth to another man. But the bliss of Pasha and Zari’s stolen time together is shattered when Pasha unwittingly acts as a beacon for the Shah’s secret police. The violent consequences awaken him to the reality of living under a powerful despot and lead Zari to make a shocking choice.”

Rooftops of Tehran is at once a gentle romance and a political statement. It affirms the resiliency and courage of the human spirit against all odds. Various characteristics of those who people the novel, make them human and endearing:

What’s remarkable about what’s going on in present day Iran, in my estimation, is that it’s a demonstration of what was once impossible, becoming possible. During the 1970’s, Iranians were unable to resist the SAVAK because of fear. Now they have the courage to defy another repressive regime, although not as lethal as the SAVAK, and demand their rights as a free people. It seems to me that Iran is a country where the people’s demand for free expression will not be quieted until it is attained, teaching us once again the lesson that sometimes defeat paves the way for victory.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.



Return to home page

REVIEWING


James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball

By Rob Rains


Temple University Press | October 2009 | 216 pages

Review By Ken Liebeskind


Here’s a hoop dream for you – a book that lets you envision the game’s invention


book cover

A basketball aficionado would like two questions answered by James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball: how did Naismith exactly invent the game and how was it initially played?

Rob Rains, the sports writer who has written a series of baseball and one football book(s), answers the first question at the outset of his biography of Naismith by following the Scottish immigrant from his childhood home in the farming community of Almonte, Canada, to Springfield, MA, where he became a teacher at the School for Christian Workers, hoping to blend his Christian upbringing with his love of sports. Naismith gave up his pursuit of the ministry to teach at the school, where he thought he could “provide more service through athletics than through the traditional activities of the ministry.”

At the school, he was challenged to invent a new game that could be played indoors to offset the doldrums of winters spent in a gymnasium with little to do. It must be a game “requiring skill and sportsmanship, providing exercise for the whole body, which can be played without extreme roughness or damage to players and equipment,” Naismith wrote.

After attempts at modifying football, soccer and rugby for indoor play were unsuccessful because there was too much physical contact, he came up with a new idea. His game would involve a ball that players couldn’t run with and that would be thrown into a goal. “I thought if the goal were horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc,” Naismith wrote. He envisioned a pair of boxes on each end of the gym floor that would be the goals. Then he realized that it would be impossible to score if players were standing in front of the goal guarding it, so he decided “the goals would have to be elevated above the defenders’ heads, so they could not all stand in front of the goal and block it.”

With the basic idea of the game in place, Naismith executed it by finding peach baskets for goals, which were nailed to the gallery, 10 feet above the floor. For the first game, which was played on Dec. 21, 1891, a soccer ball was used.

Naismith created 13 rules for the new game, including that the ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands; a player cannot run with the ball; the ball must be held in the hands, not the arms or body; and “a goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there.”

A student suggested the game be called basket ball, which was originally written with two words and shortened to one by sports writers in 1921.

Only one goal was scored in the first game, because “no one knew just what to do,” Naismith wrote. “There was no team work at first. The forwards tried to make goals and the backs tried to keep the opponents from making goals. Any man on the floor was close enough to the basket to shoot, but we tried to have the guards pass the ball to the forwards.”

In Rains’ telling, the game was very rough at the outset, but he doesn’t provide many further details on how it was played. He offers snippets of information that help us understand how the game developed. The first basketball was made in 1894 by a bicycle manufacturer. It was lighter and larger than a soccer ball. A basket originally counted for one point, and was increased to two in 1896. There were nine players on a team until 1897, when it was reduced to five.

In 1896, players from Yale began dribbling the ball, which was rolled on the floor previously. Iron rims with nets were introduced to replace peach baskets in 1898. Backboards were also introduced to prohibit fans from knocking the ball away. The fact they could be used to more easily score baskets was an unintended consequence

.

Rains writes that a YMCA secretary, William Chase, scored the first basket on a 25 foot shot, but he offers virtually no information on how shooting the basketball developed. This reader yearns for more information about how goals were scored and how shooting styles arose, but it’s not in this book.

The book is a biography of Naismith’s life, so it goes beyond the game to provide details of his life including his service with the Kansas National Guard during World War I, when he was sent to France to assist in the care of soldiers. After leaving Springfield, he took a job at the YMCA in Denver, where he also attended medical school. Then it was on to Kansas, where he became the athletic director at the University of Kansas. He coached the basketball team there for nine seasons and refereed some of the games.

In 1936, Naismith traveled to Berlin to attend the Olympics, where he was honored for inventing basketball, which was played by 21 countries at the Games. It was the same year that the U.S. defeated Canada for the championship. The 1936 Olympics were renowned for Hitler’s role in the Games and his distress at seeing Jesse Owens win four gold medals, but there is no indication he viewed a basketball game. The closest Rains comes is to write that Naismith was invited to a party hosted by Hitler, but no details of the event are available in Naismith’s letters or diaries, which are the sources of Rains’ book.

Naismith comes across as a humble man who was devoted to basketball and proud that it enabled him “to leave the world a little better than he found it.”

Today’s game may bear little resemblance to the one Naismith invented in the late 19th century, but we are indebted to his original idea, which provided the backbone for what has become one of the world’s most popular sports. We could say he scored a slam dunk.

Ken Liebeskind is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Ct.



Return to home page



REVIEWING


The Good, the Bad and the Not So Pretty


From Ghetto to Ghetto: An African American Journey to Judaism

Ernest H. Adams

iUniverse | $20.95 | (ISBN: 978-1-4401-2085-5) | 272 pp

Reviewed by Daji Kuweza


In the interest of full disclosure and transparency, it should be noted that I have been a friend of the author and that I’m specifically cited in the text as one of his colleagues during his college experience at New York University. He also makes a point of mentioning me when he makes public presentations.

The Good:

Writing an autobiography is a task that carries the potential for perilous revelations about oneself and those we know. The author, Ernest H. Adams, does an excellent job of making the reader aware of all his imperfections and insecurities as he struggles to overcome them and ‘make something of himself’. His epilogue provides a fantastic summary of his obstacles and triumphs and proposes a philosophical view of what African-Americans need to do in order to adapt to the changing world as full members of the human family.

His life literally begins in the basement of life - a smelly basement apartment in Harlem, NY - and his life-path involves difficulties to which many of his friends, neighbors and associates succumb. The path is made even more difficult by some of the in-grained mechanisms that African-American culture has developed as a means of compensating for physical and mental abuse by the dominant white culture – usually in the form of self-defeating thoughts and actions built upon expectations of under-handed treatment and other actions that lead to distrust both of whites and of fellow blacks. Adams had a certain amount of dysfunction in his family, specifically with his mother and father, which he resolves and understands better by the time he concludes his story. It is encouraging to see him evolve and work through his numerous self-doubts. He gets little support from his mother or father in this regard, both of whom had been beaten down by the system and both of whom try to guide him to limit his expectations and keep them in line with those that they’ve created for themselves.

At a young age, he confronts racial discrimination and terror in South Carolina and a less harsh version in New York. His mother occasionally tries to show him a broader world by exposing him to the New York life, specifically in Manhattan, beyond the borders of Harlem. He mentions additional broader exposure, through a school program, but he doesn’t provide detail. We follow him through the coming of age during the Civil Rights movement and the development of the Black Power movement. He provides insights into the struggles he and his friends confronted in trying to make sense of those social movements and learning to apply their lessons to their individual lives.

But we’re constantly finding that he has tremendous problems with self-esteem. Friends, and sometimes acquaintances, have greater success than him in navigating and attaining rewards for their efforts, which causes his self-esteem to further erode.

At his core, he shows that he is a deeply troubled man in search of self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Even as he makes academic and career progress, he remains a messy, unhappy person. One must be happy for him when we discover that he finds this confidence and purpose. In his case, he finds it via exposure to Judaism.

His writing is somewhat confusing while occasionally jumping back-and-forth through different years and events in a somewhat incoherent fashion, with overblown and over-embellished flowery phrasing and imagery, but it becomes clear that he finds acceptance among friends and professional colleagues who happen to be Jewish and this leads him to explore their methods of worship as well as their ideas.

The Bad:

In my experience, people who study and become psychologists often do so in hopes of discovering things about themselves. This author is no exception. While he makes declarative statements about Judaism and his experiences in the US and Israel, we never get a road map of how he arrived at his decision to embrace Judaism as his own religion.

He never reconciles his pre-Judaism beliefs with his new religion, nor clearly states what most of them were. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and he grew up fully participating in their affairs, even making regular Sunday morning bible presentations. Although he later eschews Witness views, and rejects Christian ideas - declaring himself an Atheist - we never hear what makes sense to him and what does not, in terms of religious doctrine. Yes, in his youth, he finds it impossible to accept that God allows outrageous harm and death to happen to black people, and so rejects a belief in God’s existence. But his later acceptance of God in terms of Judaism does not explained in terms of why and how he reconciles this idea with the idea that God allowed the Jewish Holocaust.

In fact, the essential weakness of his story of conversion is that it does not have a religious focus, but an ethnic one. This is done at the same time that he tries to make a case for the universality and non-ethnic appeal of Judaism by citing non-European groups of people, of various colors and nationalities, who are Jewish. Yet, simultaneously, he writes about confronting reactions to his being a Jew, from the larger white American Jewish community.

The bad news is that when confronted with negative reactions and actions from white American Jewry, he is always forgiving, but when confronted with negative reactions and actions from African-Americans, he is not forgiving and extremely annoyed. In one segment, he even gets cowed into accepting an obvious racist slight because he wants acceptance from all his Jewish friends who are appalled that he has “out-ed” a fellow synagogue member as a “racist.”

Being accepted is such a strong desire for him, but he never attempts it with any other groups besides Jewish people and definitely not with any groups who are not white. He exhibits limited exposure to other cultures and religions and makes poor comparisons.

Adams goes to Ethiopia via Israel and is surprised that most Ethiopians immediately recognize him as an American. Later, he finds another Ethiopian who thinks he is an African from another part of Africa. He doesn’t try to understand this, but regularly declares no particular connection to Africa, but a definite connection to Israel as his ”motherland.”

He references Alex Haley’s Roots in a way that this writer personally knows is inaccurate. We both heard Haley’s story, in 1969, while students at NYU, several years before the book was published and seven years before it became a TV-mini-series. At one point during Haley’s presentation, he noted that various Africans could ”see” places of origin in facial photographs of black people in Ebony magazine. Adams notes this, without specifically mentioning Ebony, while referring to the same discovery his mother made when she made a trip to Africa. Yet Adams doesn’t realize that this type of African recognition should apply to him, as well. If he truly associated, socially, with Africans who had resettled in the US he could have made this discovery without leaving American soil.

Whenever he travels to Israel, he is subject to terrorist searches and pulled out of the line because he laughingly says that he is a “BMW” – Black Man Walking. Even his white Jewish-American friends are pulled out when the airport security people learn that they are with him. He makes no effort to ever visit Africa, Ethiopia or elsewhere, except via Israel and as a Jew. He meets African Jews in Israel and knows of other African Jews from his readings. He has no curiosity or interest outside of his self-imposed confinement.

Adams notes that he regularly gets questioned – but only by African-Americans - about the political aspects of being Jewish and supporting Israel. He cogently notes that the question is posed because most African-Americans see the Palestinians as victims in the establishment of the State of Israel. Although he pronounces that he once believed and supported this position, now that he has become Jewish, he doesn’t know why people don’t see that Israel has a “moral” right to exist. In this, too, there is no explanation of his road map or how he arrived at his new position or view, but merely declarations.

The Holocaust happened in Europe and the Israeli settlers and Zionists were Europeans, who looked-down upon their non-European Jewish brethren. This is one of the things that Adams discovers in his travels to Israel, and which we (myself and others) published in a NYU publications in 1971, but he wasn’t paying attention.

He also makes a poor analogy between the efforts of Marcus Garvey and Theodore Herzl. Zionist Jews, who originally planned to go to Uganda, but later shifted to Palestine, differed from Garvey’s ‘”Back to Africa” movement in an essential way: Garvey intended for the African diaspora to re-integrate itself with the inhabitants of their African motherland; Zionism was a plan for the Jewish diaspora to displace the inhabitants of their Arab-Palestinian motherland.

The Not So Pretty:

I have never seen a statistical study of Jewish intermarriage with other religious groups that cites the number of females versus the number of males who engage in intermarriage, but from anecdotal references (people, news stories, etc) and observations, it seems that most conversions are made by women who convert to Judaism rather than men.

When Adams came to Atlanta for a book presentation and signing, he shared the stage with one such female convert. Her story was about being in love and making a change, and it was told in terms of religion, not ethnicity. She was white and her husband was white and the issue was about religious observance.

The Portuguese used to have a colonial strategy in Africa that required any native African who wanted to attend school, achieve educational goals and improve their lives to become an “assimilado,” effectively eschewing one’s African connections to family and clan in order to become “Portuguese.”

One cannot but wonder if Adams is a willing victim of a form of ‘assimilado’-ism. Whenever discussing inter-ethnic relations, he ponders why people cannot see that he is both Jewish and African-American. In reality, he is both, but when he discusses how to resolve differences he descends into the litmus test argument: that African-Americans must recognize the moral right of Israel to exist. This belies an ability to be effectively both. He chooses one side over the other, as he makes plain in several pronouncements throughout the text – that he is Jewish, first and foremost.

Our great icons of the Civil Rights struggle built coalitions with many people of different opinions and religious persuasions. Jews were a part of this coalition, but were not the only white participants. Catholics, Protestants, Greeks, Italians, etc., were all a part of the effort, but historically, they got short straws in any discussion about non-black participation.

In one peculiar sentence, Adams states that “I had no knowledge then and have none now of Jews precipitating racially motivated attacks on black people.” When I read it, I thought, ‘has this man never heard of Meir Kahane?’ Kahane, who was eventually assassinated in New York City, established his Jewish Defense League in Brooklyn, as a semi-terrorist organization that Brooklyn African-Americans knew was capable of baseball bat attacks, if one could not explain what they were doing in a particular neighborhood. Kahane eventually moved to Israel, where he was an advocate for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs, and eventually banned by the Israeli government from running for office when he was classified as a racist.

At one point, Adams references the killing of a Jew in Brooklyn, during a riot. He exhibits ignorance of the events that precipitated this killing – the vehicular homicide of black children, playing on a sidewalk, who were run over by a car driven by a Jew. That driver was never charged with the crime, never had a trial, and was, instead, given a pass out of the country so that he could flee to Israel. This would never have happened if the situation had been reversed and a Jewish child, playing on a sidewalk, was killed by a black driver. None of the major Jewish organizations offered to help return the Jewish driver to the US to stand legal charges and trial, an action that would have undoubtedly prevented the riotous situation.

Those Jewish individuals who were instrumental in Adams conversion are fellow Manhattanites, a sort of distinctly different class of professionals who are relatively liberal. His book is primarily written as a sermon-to-the-choir, those who are already converted, considering it, or who were raised as Jewish. At the same time, it is appealing and memorable as a stroll-down-memory-lane for those who lived through the same time period and dealt with some of the same issues of the 1950’s thru 1980’s. His triumphs over self-doubt and low self-esteem are inspirational. Those who don’t have the same levels of self-doubt and need for acceptance, will find some portions of his views disturbing.

Ernest Adams has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and JD from New York University. He practices as an Executive Coach, Life Coach, Diversity Coach and Consultant and psychologist. He lives in New York City.

Daji Kuweza, is a software developer and technical writer, a sometime publisher of various socio-political periodicals, and has recently agreed to be a blogger for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He resides in metro Atlanta, GA.



Return to home page