Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Summer of 1927

Bill Bryson's recent book One Summer: America, 1927, is a very enjoyable treatment of what it must have been like to live through the excitement of Lindbergh's flight in May, the thrill of watching Babe Ruth make his record number of home runs throughout the baseball season, and the pain of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which took place on August 15 of that year.

Other events of the summer occasionally distracted the newspapers from their nearly incessant coverage of Lindbergh and his triumph and his trip through the US, which Bryson returns to throughout the narrative. I admired his broader treatment of aviation before and after Lindbergh, and the way that Lindbergh's flight inspired the rise of the American flying industry. Bryson also explains the continued development of the automobile, especially mentioning Henry and Edsel Ford, the end of the Model T, and the upcoming Model A.

Bryson presents the political scene as it developed that summer. President Calvin Coolidge announced while enjoying his summer vacation that he did not choose to run for a second term. Of great importance was the pervasive negative effect of prohibition. Also interesting: the rise of both J.Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover.

One Summer: America 1927 is a fascinating book, and I found it much more fascinating because my parents often remembered certain events that Bryson detailed.

My mother graduated from Soldan High School in St.Louis in June 1927. She often spoke of Lindbergh and how his great success dominated the last weeks of her high school experience. Lindbergh's flight had a variety of St.Louis connections. Her class motto was "Ad Astra" -- to the stars -- and her classmates' vision was of going to the stars in a plane like "The Spirit of St. Louis."

Less often, my father spoke of how devastated he felt when he heard of the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom he believed were innocent. My parents rarely mentioned the politicians of that era, and I seriously doubt that they ever mentioned or thought about baseball in that age -- though Bryson several times mentions the St.Louis Browns ball team in his descriptions of Babe Ruth and his team's success.

Here are some pages from my mother's scrap book and graduation memories that illustrate her experience of the year that Bryson wrote about. (I've used them in earlier blog posts a few years ago.)

Little souvenir plane on a place card from an
event celebrating my mother's graduating class.
Family photos from that time.
Class photo. My mother's photo (which also appears on the place card) is in row 5, column 5.
Somewhere on this photo is the most famous member of Soldan's 1927 graduating class. Her name at the time was Kitty Fink. Soon after graduation -- under the name Kay Thompson -- Kitty Fink became a Broadway and Hollywood character and author of the children's book series about little Eloise who lives at the Plaza in New York. My mother didn't really remember her, because at the time, Jewish students (like my mother) didn't mix with Christian students (like Kitty Fink). When my mother attended her 25th class reunion, Kay Thompson didn't show up. She was far too famous, and I think by that time her age had diminished too much to allow her to admit what year she had graduated.

I don't believe that my mother ever knew that Kitty Fink's paternal ancestors were Jewish but abandoned the religion. "Unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed on both sides of the Atlantic and so, like many others, the Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society," writes Kay Thompson's biographer.

Bryson deals with antisemitism in his discussion of Henry Ford and his trial that summer (where he officially rescinded his virulent attacks on Jews) and on the later support for Nazism of Charles Lindbergh. He mentions the fact that both of these paragons accepted and never repudiated medals from Hitler. I appreciated Bryson's treatment of this issue in the midst of all the excitement of the era.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Best Seller: "My Promised Land" by Ari Shavit

The popular book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit deserves its reputation. The portraits of Israeli individuals, starting with the author’s own great-grandfather in 1897 were vivid. Each chapter depicted an era, epitomized by one or several individuals who embodied the spirt of that age – the essence of history, both negative and positive.

In each era, as Shavit presents it, the vision of the Zionist founders, pioneers, leaders, defenders, settlers, or good citizens contrasts to their blindness towards the Arab inhabitants who were displaced as the country of Israel emerged. However, the author’s sympathy and loyalty to his country allows him to provide nuances, understanding and empathy, as well as a keen analysis of the situation. He sees both sides, but he knows which side he’s on.

I’m not going to write a review, exactly, as this book has been reviewed vastly often including in all the mainstream journals and over 1000 times on I’m going to talk about what it means to me.

In my own reading, I especially enjoyed revisiting my past experiences in Israel as Shavit’s geography introduced me to a great deal of history of places I have been. He was born in Rehovot, where I have spent most of my time during my three visits to Israel, making the descriptions of how the original old orange groves were planted most interesting. Shavit’s promised land may not exactly be my own, but I loved the overlap!

On all three visits to Israel, we stayed at visitor housing in Rehovot, where Len was visiting the Weitmann Institute. Shavit was born here: his father was a physicist. Two photos of the Weizmann campus from our 2006 stay:

He also talks a great deal about the history and impact of Israel’s nuclear program, headquartered at Dimona. While driving from Rehovot to Eilat we once passed by this area – full of warnings to mind your own business, so we did. 
Google map showing the nuclear complex near Dimona (I think)
One high point of that trip was a visit to the moshav at Nahalal. And during all our trips, on several weekend outings, we stayed at various kibbutz accomodations: Shavit obviously has much to say about the history of the moshavs and kibbutzes. I’m not sure he mentions that one way that they have tried to adjust to the way their world has changed is to transform family accommodations for members into tourist accommodations for both Israelis and foreigners.

Moshav Nahalal seen from the Nahalal cemetery.

I never visited any settlements in the West Bank or Gaza, but I found Shavit’s discussion of the settlers extremely enlightening. Don't get the idea that I'm not interested in the political and moral dimensions of his fascinating book. The other reviewers have definitely done them justice -- I'm just describing the other thoughts I had when reading, and the expanded historical dimension that his writing offered me.

A tower in Ramleh, near Rehovot,
which I saw without knowing what I was seeing.
Shavit's book has provided me with much more insight.