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Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In this extended, two-part Jewish Press story, I tell the remarkable journey of Omahan Shirley Goldstein in the Free Soviet Jewry movement and how this historic campaign changed her life and is remembered today. In Part One: The Education of Shirley Goldstein, the story of how this “typical” housewife became politicized and educated in the movement is explored. In, Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist, discover the lengths Goldstein went to in her human rights activist work and the generosity displayed, then and now, by her and her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein.

 

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part I: The Education of Shirley Goldstein

©by Leo Adam Biga


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Housewives and Students and…
They were housewives and students and teachers…They called America and many other Western nations home. Galvanized by the plight of Soviet Jews, this army of everyday citizens, together with activists inside the former Soviet Union, formed a grassroots human rights movement that began modestly enough but grew in force. Activists within the movement wanted nothing less than to make the USSR stop its systematic persecution of oppressed minorities. What made the task so daunting is that the target of this action was an authoritarian super power engaged in an ideological Cold War with the West. Nothing suggested this intractable juggernaut would ever bend.

But bend it did. Some say the freedom movement even contributed to the Soviet state’s eventual collapse. It’s one of the great triumphs over tyranny in human history. And Omaha’s own Shirley Goldstein played a part in this epoch. But she could only do it after she transformed herself from causalobserver to in-the-trenches activist. In a remarkable journey, she went from zero political involvement to fervent militant. Once caught up in themovement, she devoted much of her time to it, as she has to other causes since then. The experience changed her life.

“It opened up a whole new world,” Goldstein said.

Her diverse work on behalf of Soviet Jews found her, variously: meeting refuseniks and dissidents in Russian apartments or hotel suites; lobbying U.S. government leaders back home to voice criticism of Soviet human rights violations; discussing conditions and strategies with world statesmen and fellow activists at conferences in Washington, D.C. and overseas; and picketing on the streets, almost anywhere, the latest Soviet transgressions.

She saw and did so many things in the course of her involvement that her story provides a useful insider’s look at how the movement evolved and operated.

Like many who got involved in the fight, she found in it a higher purpose. As she put it recently, “What does one do with their life?” Serving others became a calling. “And I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

Her politicalization and activism mirrored that of others who came to the cause.

“Shirley was typical of the middle class women who normally would not take any part in politics as such. They were really concerned to do something to help the Soviet Jews. They felt it very deeply. I have a great deal of admiration for Shirley Goldstein. She was a leading light for giving morale and financial assistance to refuseniks and for helping them get out, and she did a great deal for those who managed to get out to resettle in Nebraska,” said Michael Sherbourne, a London-based activist who fed Goldstein information from his contacts in the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Place to Be a Jew
Life behind the Iron Curtain was harsh for the mainstream populace, but even more intolerable for racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Long the target of anti-Semitic pogroms and policies, Soviet Jews were routinely denied such basic rights as the practice of their faith, employment in certain jobs, free travel within the country and emigration outside the USSR. An internal passport all Soviets carried was used to target Jews, whose documents, and whose documents alone, denoted their religion. Jews and sympathizers protesting such discriminatory practices could be arrested, interrogated, harassed or imprisoned.

By the mid-1960s the pleas of a few Jewish dissidents were heard — enough to coalesce the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. But much of the world remained unaware of or apathetic to just how bad things were and just how many Jews wanted out. Compared to the trickle allowed to leave each year, millions more wished to go but were refused. Once a visa was denied, the applicant was branded and blacklisted. Refuseniks automatically lost their jobs and what few privileges they enjoyed. Even more than before, they became outcasts in their own society.

From the mid-’60s through the early ‘90s, the movement — both within the Soviet Union and outside it — forged ahead despite political setbacks. Free Soviet Jewry committees organized. Under Goldstein’s leadership, Omaha had a particularly active one. Agitators like her from the West, both Jews and non-Jews, made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and dissidents and activists. She and other Western visitors smuggled in banned materials, such as Judaica, along with items like Levi jeans and Marlboro cigarettes, which brought much on the black market. They also made audio recordings of individuals, whose messages — testifying to the tough conditions and rallying support for freedom — were snuck out and then disseminated to Western media outlets.

Defying initial opposition from the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government and flying in the face of official U.S.-Soviet diplomatic channels, the campaign eventually gained widespread support. The pressure applied by the campaign and by detente succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to. Faced with sanctions and growing world condemnations, the stubborn Soviets finally ended reprisals and eased restrictions. The sweeping changes ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev under Glasnost and the eventual dissolvement of the Soviet state, opened the borders for a flood of people to legally emigrate. In the end, 1.5 million Jews left, most for the U.S. and Israel. Some 200 families resettled in Omaha.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an Activist
Shirley Goldstein (formerly Gershun) seemed an unlikely candidate to make history. The Council Bluffs, Iowa native did part of her growing up in Schuyler, Neb., where her family moved, before returning to the Bluffs to complete her schooling. Upon graduation from Abraham Lincoln High School she did what any good Jewish girl did then — she worked (at the Martin bomber plant),  got married, bore kids (four) and stayed home raising them. Her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein, had his own transportation business.

An “ordinary” housewife, mother and grandmother, she only became politicized in middle-age. It was the early ‘70s when the Free Soviet Jewry movement overtook her and she morphed into an impassioned advocate. There was a precedent in her past. Her merchant father, Ben Gershun, led the Council Bluffs resettlement of Jewish refugees from post-World War II Europe. She recalls refugees at his general store and at her parents’ home. Much like she’s embraced diversity in her own home, her family’s home was “always open to everybody.”

She feels she may also have been prepared for her activist role by the many years she and Buddy hosted international students and dignitaries, many from Asia, at their place. The couple even sponsored a Cambodian refugee family. She said, “I’ve always been interested in other peoples and cultures.”

Not content with merely educating herself on the subject, she went to the USSR seven times, meeting with leaders and rank and file Jews alike. She took chances, brazenly ignoring U.S. State Department warnings and Soviet orders to steer clear of “troublemakers.” Indeed, she became a familiar figure to refuseniks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa and other cities. A benevolent angel from the West bearing contraband gifts. A tiny rebel with the brass of a cat burglar. She recorded testimonies and snapped pictures, concealing cassette tapes and film cartridges under her clothes. She sneaked things in and out with a kind of mischievous glee. A true believer unafraid to upset the Politburo or defy the KGB, who knew of her and tried discouraging her, she carried on anyway. She was on a mission.

“The world had to know what was happening. It was a priority. I would have rather done this than anything else,” she said.

As her involvement deepened, she made more contacts and increased the scope of her activities. She organized Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and served on the board of the national Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. She led demonstrations (including ones outside the Orpheum Theatre and Joslyn Art Museum, using the appearances of Russian performing artists as the pretext or stage to protest Soviet policies), she walked in marches and she participated in vigils. She called on members of Congress. She attended meetings in Washington, D.C. and in Madrid, Spain (for the Helsinki Accords). She raised awareness and funds.

When not educating elected leaders herself, she recruited new blood, such as the late Ally Milder, to do so. In her role as an aide to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa), Milder brought him on board with the movement. Goldstein also spearheaded letter writing campaigns that sent morale-boosting notes to refuseniks and that made appeals for support to public officials. She organized relief drives that collected goods and shipped them to families in the USSR.

“In the big picture of the Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley was a really great foot soldier and the leaders knew that,” said former Omahan Stephanie Howard (Seldin), co-producer of Let My People Go, a new documentary on the movement. “Shirley’s is a great story because she rallied a whole Jewish community and they did great things, and they’re recognized for it. You talk to people in New York or San Francisco or Chicago who were in the movement and everybody knows Shirley.”

Goldstein never strayed from the fight. When Soviet Jews began coming, she picked up the mantle again and immersed herself in all facets of the resettlement program.

Through it all, Buddy Goldstein, was by her side, just as he remains today. He didn’t always accompany her on her far-flung travels, but he supported her and underwrote her activism, sharing her concerns and encouraging her efforts, even when some friends questioned if she was going too far. In a recent interview at their home, the couple recounted her remarkable journey from uniformed innocent to well-traveled activist.

It all started when the two returned from a 1972 trip to the USSR frustrated by the limited access they’d had to the Jewish proletariat and their daily lives. “I’d been doing a lot of reading. I was interested. But I wasn’t able to see anybody — I didn’t know how to do it. Being tourists, it was all surface. It was definitely controlled. We only saw what the government wanted us to see,” she said. She itched for a way to bypass approved itineraries in order to connect, on a human level, with Jews and learn first-hand their struggles.

“I wanted to see the real Russia and visit with some refusenik families.”

Enter Glenn Richter. A veteran of the civil rights movement and a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, Richter is a brother-in-law of Goldstein’s. He’s married to her cousin Lenore. The couple live in New York.

“Glenn and Lenore had been to Omaha (on a cross-country speaking tour) not too much before we took our trip talking about a lot of the things that were going on in the Soviet Union,” she recalled. “After we got back, I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know more about what’s happening.’ But first I registered for a couple courses on Russia at the university (then Omaha U.-now UNO). The courses culminated in a 1973 trip to the USSR led by chancellor Ron Roskens. I decided I wanted to go. I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know how to meet these people, by which I meant refuseniks. We spoke every Sunday morning for weeks. Then he outlined it all for me on a sheet of yellow paper (now in the archives of Remember and Save, an Israeli-based initiative documenting the Jewish Aliya Movement of the USSR). Glenn told me what to do, what items to take, who to visit, what things to tell them and what information to bring back. He gave very good directions.”

“Without Glenn’s help I never would have gotten into this as I did,” she said. “I did exactly as he told me and it was very successful. I met many people. Each time I went it made me hungry to learn more. And that was the beginning of it.”

Richter recalled Goldstein being an avid student.

“We were dealing at that time with what was largely a hardly-understood situation, with few appeals coming out from the USSR, relying basically on facts known to us at that point, rather than the personal contacts which we all developed. Shirley was quite interested. She’s a good listener — and a good questioner,” he said.

He added she and Buddy were well-positioned to serve the cause.

“One of the great strengths of Jews in smaller Jewish communities, such as Omaha or Denver, is the long-term friendships they may have with people who get into political power. Shirley and Buddy were excellent examples. Their Congressmen and Senators became their advocates. Shirley knew which political buttons to press, and did so on behalf of individual refuseniks and prisoners and of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — the landmark legislation linking Jewish emigration with trade credits for the USSR.”

He admired her dedication.

“Dogged, committed, focused, interested would be understatements when it came to Shirley’s advocacy for Soviet Jews,” he said. “I see the same traits in my wife Lenore. Perhaps it’s family genes.”

Goldstein’s involvement in the movement came just as it was picking up steam. Or, as she likes to put it, “When I came into it, everything was already going on.”

“I don’t think anyone of us in the early 1970s knew where the Soviet Jewry movement would take us,” Richter said. “By ‘73-’74 we were in the big leagues, utilizing Congress to take on the Kremlin head-to-head over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Shirley was in the thick of things, using all the political connections she developed (with Sen. Jim Exxon, Rep. John Cavanaugh, etc.). It was crucial for Congress to see pressure not only from the traditionally large areas of Jewish population, but from a wide swath of communities with smaller Jewish populations, as in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. Politicians will stick their necks out only if they believe their constituents are with them, and Shirley and her colleagues made sure of that.”

Richter said the famous Soviet dissident, Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, “often tells the story that his KGB interrogators tried to torment him by telling him he was only supported by Western ‘students and housewives.’ But that was the strength of the Soviet Jewry movement. We utterly believed in what we were doing. We didn’t let considerations that would sidetrack a ‘professional’ get in the way. From what I saw, Shirley was absolutely typical of the Jewish housewife who devoted the same focus and energy to Soviet Jews thousands of miles away as she did to her own family because, indeed, these Soviet Jews, became our family. I’d sit at meetings of the Union of Councils in Washington, DC and marvel at the truly diverse dozens of women and men who, for whatever personal reasons, simply decided that they had to get involved, and became heroines and heroes of the movement.”

“Most people watch history go by. Shirley and her colleagues simply decided, each on her/his own, that they were going to shape history. The core group of activists, like Shirley, seemed to utilize every waking hour to create new ways of advocating on behalf of our friends trapped in the USSR and to keep their spirits up,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Russia with Love
By the time she made that ‘73 UNO trip to the USSR, accompanied by her daughter Gail Raznick, she was well-read on the Soviet Jewry issue. She’d been briefed by Glenn Richter and other Union of Councils members and been given contact names.
But her real education began abroad, meeting Russian Jews whose lives were filled with hardships in the totalitarian and anti-Semitic regime. She met them in their homes or in her hotel suites. She visited their synagogues and schools. Despite little hope for change, Soviet Jews yearned and struggled for freedom. That’s when it all hit home. That’s when the cause got in her blood. Until then, the problems faced by Soviet Jews were still abstract and far removed.

“Then you meet people, like I did, who can’t get out and, well…Once I met this young family — Aba and Ida Taratuta — I became totally committed, not only to work for Soviet Jews but people in all the Iron Curtain countries.”

In an interview she gave during the height of the movement, Goldstein explained why she threw herself into the fray: “These people cannot speak out for themselves, so other people must do it for them. I feel like what I am doing is something important. It’s hard for people in the U.S. to grasp what all they have to give up just for wanting to leave and how much support they need just to survive. Seeing all they endure makes you want to help just one more case. You get hooked. It’s like an addiction.”

She and Buddy were also alarmed by how the world kept relatively silent as the repression went unchecked. It was an ugly reminder of what happened during the Holocaust. “People didn’t speak out then about the oppression,” he said. “Those were atrocities,” she interjected. “Atrocities, yes, but a lot of people felt anything could happen” in the Soviet Union. “That’s right,” she added, “because people were disappearing in Russia. They’d just be taken off the street…for no reason. And we thought if they can do that, they can do anything.”

Then there was the outrageous situation of a government holding hostage, in effect, some of its own people, preventing them from practicing their professions and thus depriving the country of their talents — all as punishment for wanting to leave. “I never understood why,” Shirley said. “The Soviets weren’t using them. It wasn’t as if the refuseniks kept their jobs and were still vital to the economy. They weren’t. They lost their jobs. They were having a hard time. They were wasting their lives sitting around waiting to get out.”

She was also dismayed by the travel strictures and identity tags foisted on Jews.

Refuseniks she met expressed their despair. Sensing she was someone they could trust to get the truth out, they confided in her. The fact-finding and reporting she and others did there helped the movement gain momentum. Through networking and communication, the Free Soviet Jewry issue was kept alive. Getting information out meant taking risks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing the Limits, Courting Danger
Just how far Goldstein was prepared to go would be tested on that ‘73 trip and on later trips. Refuseniks Aba and Ida Taratuta, whom she met in Leningrad, witnessed her resolve. She’d been given their names by Glenn Richter. They were soon impressed by her sincerity and tenacity.

“She was interested in our life, financial situation, the possibility to leave the country and what to do and how to help,” Aba Taratuta said. “She was ready to do everything to help us. And from that visit there was just a constant contact between our families. She wrote a lot of letters describing what she did to help us and other refuseniks. She became very active in the struggle on our behalf.”

Goldstein came bearing gifts.

“Shirley brought many items — books, records, tape recorders — that helped us in studying Hebrew or in supporting Zionist activities. The same with cameras, watches and jeans, which we sold. And every time she would bring something personally for us, for our family,” Aba Taratuta said.

Let My People Go producer Stephanie Howard said Ida Taratuta recounted how once Shirley “came with a suitcase full of embroidered towels, fine soaps and things, and Ida told her, ‘I can’t accept this,’ to which Shirley said, ‘But for a twist of fate, I could have been in your place and you could have been in mine. Wouldn’t you do the same for me?’ And Ida replied, ‘How can I argue with that? Of course’”

But the little Jewish woman from Omaha came with an agenda far beyond trinkets.

“Shirley visited us in Leningrad several times and she was interested in seeing more people, more refuseniks. And for a foreigner in Russia it was not so easy to do,” Aba Taratuta said. “So we tried to gather as many people in our apartment as possible. She was interested in every one and taped the story of everyone and smuggled the tapes out on her person. And it was really dangerous.”

In turn, Goldstein said Aba “was one of the main figures in Leningrad. Gail and I were the first Americans to ever visit him, but he was already well known in the West.” She said he’d “have so many activists come to his apartment…they crowded to get into the rooms. I kept coming back to hear their stories. I made tapes.”

The couple were classic refuseniks-turned-activists. Their situation symbolized the problem, Goldstein said.

“They’d applied to emigrate and were released from their jobs. They were well-educated people. Both spoke good English. He had been a professor. She was a translator. He was reduced to being a caretaker where they lived. She was doing some translating on the side. Their son was taunted at school. I think maybe they were receiving some packages from the West and selling things on the black market. Mail and phone service was compromised. That’s the way it was.”

Goldstein’s good friend, Miriam Simon accompanied Shirley and her daughter on the ‘73 trip. Simon well recalls what it was like as Shirley went off to attend “clandestine meetings late at night.” “She took a lot of risks. We didn’t know for sure, but we thought everything was bugged. We were very careful what we said to each other,” said Simon. When Goldstein made later trips to the Soviet Union, Simon added, “We always worried if she would come back. They (Soviet authorities) got to know her and didn’t like her.”

“Shirley often did dangerous things,” Aba Taratuta confirmed. “For example, on her first visit to us, she and her daughter Gail brought some very important books and hid them in Gail’s boots. These visits were very important for us refuseniks. We felt, ‘We are not forgotten…there are people who care and want to help.’ We felt If we were known abroad, it was our best defense from the Soviet government. Then they could not do with us what they wanted.”

Below, in Part II of Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, you will read about how just far this Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist has gone for the cause of human rights.

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Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing Limits, Courting Danger Continued: Contacts, Safe Houses and Spy Games
Once swept up in the Free Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley Goldstein set about indoctrinating herself in the tactics of an underground activist. She read, she discussed, she kavetched. She formed Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and joined the Union of Council for Soviet Jews. She became a part of an international network whose advocacy and activism sought relief and release for Soviet Jews denied basic human rights. She learned who to contact among refusenkiks, activists and dissidents in the former Soviet Union. She learned where and when it was safe to meet them. In short, she became a secret operative there, much the way a spy is, sneaking information and materials in and out of that oppressive regime.

Back home, she made calls, wrote letters, collected and shipped goods, appealed to politicians, etc., all in an attempt to ease the burden and secure the freedom of Soviet Jews. For the few refugees who made it out at first and then for the flood that followed, she helped their resettlement here.

But nothing she did compares to the missions she conducted in the USSR under the guise of “tourist.” This little Jewish lady carried on her work there despite becoming a person of interest to the KGB. When they tried scaring her off, she simply snubbed her nose at the mighty Soviet state. On a 1973 trip there, Shirley and her daughter Gail Raznick went as part of a UNO-sponsored tour. As Part I explored, Leningrad residents Aba and Ida Taratuta were among the first refuseniks she met. The Taratutas opened their lives and their hearts to her, using their apartment as a meeting place for fellow refuseniks to come and share their stories with Shirley, who faithfully documented it all via tape recorder. These meetings built her circle of contacts and added to the testimonies she collected.

Another key early contact she made, Edward Sorokin, was not a refusenik at all, but sympathetic to Soviet Jews’ plight and to her humanitarian mission. Shirley and Gail met Sorokin by accident in Leningrad. For Goldstein, such contacts were invaluable as she didn’t speak Russian and didn’t yet know her way around.

“He wasn’t even Jewish,” Goldstein said. “Edward and I became very good friends. He helped me on all my trips during the next 15-20 years. He made sure I got places. He was a big source for me. He became friendly with some of my other friends there…helping me if something went wrong. He made phone calls for me. When I got home, I’d send packages and he would see to it they got delivered.”

In Moscow, Shirley and Gail were unsuccessful locating the prominent dissident Vladimir Slepak, but they did meet an English-speaking couple, Galina and Victor Faermark, who soon put them in touch with all the leading Moscow refuseniks and activists. Among these were Benjamin Levich, for whom Victor Faermark served as translator. Levich had been one of the USSR’s most highly decorated scientists before he applied to leave, whereupon he was dismissed from his position and stripped of his medals. “One of Levich’s boys had been kidnapped off the streets in Moscow and sent to Siberia, just for being Levich’s son,” Goldstein said. “We became very good friends with Levich. While we were in Moscow he kept giving my name out and it became known, and before I knew it we were meeting Vladimir Slepak. All of them were intertwined. While we were at Slepak’s, people came in and out, including a woman who was a legend, Ida Nudel.”

Once back home, Goldstein acceded to a request by Levich. She prepared and shipped care packages, filled with dried foods, for his imprisoned son. She also returned to the states with lists of names of other Soviet Jews in need of various things. She enlisted the help of Russian emigres in Omaha to box the goods “We shipped out a lot of supplies,” she said. The Goldsteins’ home became a storehouse for hot ticket items, especially, jeans, large quantities of which she got donated from suppliers she appealed to.

Her return home from that ‘73 UNO tour of the USSR was nearly delayed, however, when she was detained at customs in Leningrad. Authorities objected to some posters she carried. It was one of many attempts made to hassle her and discourage her actions. They soon discovered she couldn’t be intimidated.

“I had visited a Jewish day school, whose children made drawings for me to bring back to children here in Omaha. As I went through customs, I carried the posters under my arm when the agents said, ‘Hand it over — you’re taking out important artwork.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s children’s artwork.’ And they said, ‘No, you can’t take them out.’ I argued, ‘But it isn’t anything…’ They wanted my purse, and I said, ‘No,’ and I just held onto those things under my arm. I was angry with them.

“Well, the other people in the tour group were saying, ‘Just give it to them…’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not theirs. It has no monetary value. Nothing.’ Well, the Russians still wanted it. The plane was held up and I could see either the group was going to leave without me or be stuck there with me, so I said, ‘OK, here it is, and I unrolled the posters and tore them up, piece by piece, right in front of the agents. I said, ‘If I can’t have it, you can’t have it.’ And they said, ‘Pick it up,’ and I walked right by them. When I got on the plane, everybody clapped. ”

“She was defiant,” her daughter Gail said.

Ask Shirley Goldstein if she was afraid, and she tells you, “I was never afraid of them because I knew they wouldn’t touch me. They didn’t want an incident.” “They could harass you though,” Buddy said. To which Shirley adds, “Yeah, they wanted you to know they had the upper hand. But I really felt in command. I really did. Besides, it was ridiculous. All that fuss over nothing.”

Ask Buddy if Shirley’s someone not to trifle with, and he says, “Oh, boy…”

Still, it took some negotiating before she could board the plane with her American tour party. She said Roskens and company flashed enough money and threw around enough names to secure her release. “Roskens could talk his way out of almost anything,” she said. That’s the way things worked there. “All the way along, if you had the bribes, you could do anything. I’m convinced of that,” she added. “I took cartons of cigarettes with me. You could show a cab driver a pack and go any place. I learned lots of little tricks…”

To avoid hassles, she carried official credentials and letters of recommendation.

“Before leaving for the USSR each time, I’d go to my Congressmen and have them write letters of referral for the authorities that said I was seeing people I knew and that the U.S. government would appreciate it if I were not bothered. When KGB or customs agents wanted to see my papers, those letters always came out first.”

To the end, it was a war of wills between her and the apparatchiks. When Goldstein made her last visit to the Soviet Union in 1989 she went with her friend Ruth Potash and then Jewish Press editor Morris Maline. Potash recalled how customs agents confiscated Shirley’s wedgies, even unscrewing the bottoms “to make sure she wasn’t smuggling any tapes in the heels of her shoes. She was on their list. But she was fearless.”

Gail said she and her mother often got crank phone calls in the middle of the night. That didn’t stop Shirley from slipping out of hotels after midnight to meet people.

“It was very spy-like. It was like you knew you were being watched but you couldn’t see anybody. I’m amazed by how courageous she was,” Gail said.

“She’s a gutsy lady,” Buddy said of his wife.

In Odessa, another attempt to scare off Goldstein at first angered her and then only emboldened her, but not before she had a good laugh at her own expense.

“I was asleep in my hotel room when I woke up to find a strange man standing inside the door, looking at me. He didn’t say a word. He just wanted me to know somebody was there. Harassing me. I told him to get the hell out. He did. After that, every time I went out of the room I walked backwards and sprinkled baby powder on the floor so I’d know if anybody came in. And, you know what? I was the first person to walk in and mark my own tracks,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Her chutzpah could be inspiring, Laura Bialis, the director of a new documentary film about the movement, Let My People Go, said: “David Selikowitz tells a great story about that. In the ‘70s he was a young American living in Paris who’d come to Moscow to drop off some stuff for refuseniks. He and a friend got to the apartment building, but he was scared by all the KGB cars lining the street. He said, ‘I can’t do this.’ The friend said, ‘Well, we’ve come this far, let’s try it.’ So, they go inside and find the apartment, and there is Shirley Goldstein with Ally Milder…schlepping in all these contraband items.

“And David said to himself, ‘Oh my God, here’s this housewife-grandmother from Omaha, and if she’s not afraid, why should I be?’ She encouraged him to start a French arm of the movement, which he did, and he ended up sending all kinds of people into the Soviet Union. It’s a great image of Shirley,” Bialis said, “because she’s so unassuming and so modest, and yet she did such incredibly brave things.”

Goldstein’s most historic trip to the Soviet Union came in 1975. It was an Omaha World-Herald sponsored tour that, as usual, she used as cover for her activist work or, as she called it, “doing my own thing.” The tour’s hosts were Herald reporter Wally Provost and his wife Irene. Shirley informed Wally what she planned doing and he agreed to tag along with her to a meeting of refuseniks.

“Well, he came with me the first night in Moscow and after that he said, ‘Every time you go see somebody, I want to go.’” Provost found enough material to write a series of articles, one titled Shirley Goldstein Goes to Russia, about the movement and how tough life was for Soviet Jews. “Wally’s series brought the issue to the forefront. It made a lot of difference. I got lots of calls and letters from that. And he and Irene really became dedicated Soviet Jewry activists.”

Another journalist she brought to the movement is former Jewish Press editor Morris Maline, who traveled with her to the USSR. Under his watch, the Press closely covered the Soviet Jewry struggle and local efforts to address it. She even filed occasional reports for the Press from some of her travels.

Also in her own role as a reporter for the movement, she took still pictures of an incident outside a synagogue in which a gathering of Jews were rousted by police. “It opened your eyes as to how they took care of affairs they didn’t want shown to the general public,” she said. Her pics were published around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharansky
On that same ‘75 trip she was interviewing refuseniks one morning outside a Moscow synagogue closely watched by the KGB when someone asked her, Have you met Sharansky? “And I answered with the now famous words, ‘Sharansky, who’s he? Never heard of him.’ Well, Anatoly Sharansky was the voice, really, of all the refuseniks. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize his name. I wasn’t into it deep enough yet I guess. Slepak said, ‘We will be at your hotel at one o’clock. I’ll bring Sharansky.’ So, a group of them came. There must have been 15-16 people in the room. And there was Sharansky. He was a young guy. Very vocal in meeting with people. I said to him. ‘I want the names at the top of the list for being refused and what’s happening to these people.’ And he went in the bathroom with my tape recorder, closed the door and made a recording. That became the famous ‘bathroom tape.’ He named people, how long they’d been held back and many of the details that weren’t well known in the West.”

Naming names, she said, helped ensure refuseniks were afforded better treatment. “If your name became known, Soviet officials knew the West was watching out for you, and so you were likely to have you mail and phone calls go through.”

Sharansky’s words, widely circulated thanks to Goldstein secreting out the tape, were a kind state-of-the-union address and call to action for the movement’s followers. Despite painting a bleak picture of the fate of Soviet Jews who dared assert their rights, his message was somehow optimistic and appealed to the international community to apply pressure on the USSR to do the right thing. Goldstein’s proud to have helped made his voice heard.

“I was the first person to bring a tape by Sharansky out. When I returned home, I sent the tape to the Union of Councils headquarters. I didn’t even think to make a copy of it. Look how I trusted the U.S. mail. When it got out I’d carried the tape, I got phone calls from all over.”

By her third trip, she was an expert at bringing banned articles in and out. She knew which American items brought the most on the blackmarket. While she knew a pair of jeans could be sold for enough rubles or bartered for enough food to last a family weeks, she didn’t realize just how vital that exchange was for survival.

“A few years ago a gentleman called us from Canada saying he’s coming through Omaha. He wanted to see Shirley, whom he’d met in Russia,” Buddy said. “We met him and he said to Shirley, ‘I was at your hotel and you gave me two pair of jeans and those two pair of jeans helped me survive for three years.”

The chance to impact a person’s life this way is why she continued to help.

“Well, you never want to hear of people suffering. And then seeing them and seeing how it was…and finding out what to do to help them and then doing those things — it was satisfying. When you look back on it, it was a lot of fun.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruits of Her Labor
Her last visit to the USSR came in 1989. She planned going once more, but by then she’d become such “a nuisance” to the Soviets they revoked her visa. Undaunted, she tried going in with a group of Catholic nuns before being rebuffed.

But by then the process she’d been part of to influence Soviet human rights reforms had merged with sweeping changes inside the USSR. “It was public pressure,” she said. “The Soviets hated a bad image and they had one.” She said when the U.S. and its allies tied future trade deals with the Soviets to their making human rights concessions, the USSR capitulated. For a time. Then tensions mounted and the borders re-closed. Pressure was applied again as Western leaders decried the USSR’s hard line. In the era of Glasnost, the Soviets finally relented. In the face of government and media denouncements, much of it fed by the movement, the borders reopened and Jews streamed out to stake their freedom.

Shirley Goldstein helped make it possible. She’s considered a hero in the struggle.So say her fellow activists in the movement and so say refugees whose freedom they feel is, at least in part, due to her work.

Glenn Richter, founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, considers her “the cream of the cream. We all marveled at her energy, devotion, focus and creativity. God gave her an opportunity to make up for American Jewry’s relative silence during the Holocaust. Shirley proved one didn’t need to be a political big shot, Hollywood star or billionaire to move mountains. She kept and kept at it — the mountains moved, and the Kremlin walls fell.”

“I love Shirley. I’m proud of her and I’m proud I’m among one of her friends. She’s an absolutely exceptional person. She did very much, not only for our family, but for every family wanting to come here. Shirley met with refuseniks and activists like us, people who believed in the right to be free. That’s why we fought for this. And finally, with her help, we won,” said Lydia Linde, who emigrated in 1990 with her husband Eugene thanks to the Goldsteins sponsoring them.

“If you think of the things she was able to do, she definitely could be considered a hero, because she was risking her well-being doing these things and getting the attention of people around the world to what was going on in Russia. Her work definitely helped people in Russia who wanted to be free. It rose a tremendous amount of awareness of how to help, how to fight, how to push governments to change their views,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis, who came to the U.S. with her husband Igor and their two children in 1991.

The story of the movement’s success endures in the lives and in the accounts of people like Richter, Goldstein, Linde and Yuz-Mosenkis. With each passing year, however, the number of surviving activists and refuseniks declines. Thus, there’s an urgency to recording this story for posterity. That’s what drives the makers of Let My People Go, the new film that tells the story of the movement through the experience of Goldstein and others. It’s also what drives the organizers of an archive, Remember and Save, dedicated to preserving the history of the movement with materials from activists like Goldstein.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exodus and Resettlement
Waging the campaign for the release of Soviet Jews was one thing. Helping sponsor refugees once they came here to start a new life was quite another. Yet Goldstein aided Miriam Simon in leading the Omaha resettlement effort.

From 1971 to 1980, the USSR let tens of thousands of Jews emigrate each year. When tensions with the West increased, the USSR made people pawns by closing emigration to Jews. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later that a mass exodus happened. During the migration of the ‘70s, when cities across the U.S. were accepting refugees, Goldstein said she and Simon decided, “If we’re going to get them out, we ought to get some here. Miriam was the organizer. I was the instigator. We were like the mothers of the thing.”

The two women secured the support of the Jewish Federation. Jewish Family Service pitched in. Private donations from individuals and businesses like Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims helped. The first families came here in 1975.

“As many families as we said we could take, HIAS would send,” Simon said. “In the beginning, the families that came had no relatives here. They didn’t know a soul. They couldn’t find us on a map. Before they came, we got them furnished housing. We met each family at the airport with flowers, gifts and welcome signs. Once settled, we helped them get jobs and arranged for them to learn English. We did all the things you have to do to bring someone from a totally different culture and make them American. It was a very exciting time, and Shirley helped with all that. Then, as families made lives for themselves, they started bringing over relatives.”

“Anytime somebody came or anytime there was a problem, we had it. We did everything we could for them. We really worked hard. It was an exciting time. The Federation’s done a great job resettling them, too” Goldstein said. “We’ve had such good rapport with refugees. I’ve been to their weddings and funerals and birthdays and graduations…So many have been successful in their careers and in the community, and now their kids are winning scholarships. It’s been great.”

Simon said refuseniks hold Goldstein in high regard because she not only worked to free them but was always there for them after they arrived. She’s been called “an angel” to Omaha’s Soviet Jews. “Whatever happened to anybody here, Shirley came to help,” said Lydia Linde. “She was very good and friendly and helped us a lot,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis. Well known for doing special things, Shirley’s donated money for the Kripke Library’s Russian-language section that Linde heads and she ensured pianist Yuz-Mosenkis got a piano of her own after she and her family came.

“They needed help and she responded,” said Simon. “She was committed to doing what she believed was the right thing to do. She never got tired of doing it. She didn’t give up. She didn’t abandon it and go onto the next thing. And she’s that way with everything. If it’s important, well then it’s important. This became her life. At times some of her friends thought she got carried away, and she really didn’t give a darn what they thought.”

As more refugees began leaving the USSR, the resettlement effort needed more funding and the Operation Exodus drive led by Tom Fellman and Jay Lerner raised more than a million dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Giving Nature
Friends note Shirley and Buddy have continued taking up what Simon calls “wonderful causes,” adding, “She and Buddy are always sponsoring something.”

In 1999 the couple endowed the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at UNO, which annually features presentations on emerging human rights issues. They provided seed money for the documentary Let My People Go. They’ve supported Israeli resettlement efforts. They support the Jewish Historical Society, the Kripke Library and countless other things.

Their contributions have been recognized. In the 1980s Shirley won the Jewish Federation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. In 1996 she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from UNO “for her timeless efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the cause of human rights worldwide, for her conviction and example that one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and for her ability to inspire compassion and humanity, both near and far.” She’s also been honored by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 2005 the couple received the My Brother’s Keeper Award from Chabad of Nebraska.

“If you know somebody who needs help, you call Shirley and she figures out ways to help,” said Ruth Potash. “I teach English as a second language to adult immigrants. I called her with a problem one of my students was having trying to get his wife here from Syria. I asked Shirley, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘We’ll go see Congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.)’ She’s willing to help with anything. She has all these contacts. And she’s very direct…She tells you exactly what’s on her mind and what she wants done. And she accomplishes it. She’s not namby-pamby. I think Buddy deserves a lot of praise, too. He supports her. They’re definitely a team.”

Goldstein acknowledges she couldn’t do all she’s done without the support of her husband Buddy and children. “It wasn’t just me doing this alone. I had a good family that stayed behind me. They’ve always been there for me.”

Her work for the movement and for other causes has been all about the journey.

“I’ve made wonderful friends I still have today,” she said. “It’s been a great period of my life. Everybody’s got their thing. This is my thing. I’m not a card player. I’m not a golfer. I’ve had a great time.”

Like any giver, her life’s been enriched for her generosity.

“I’ve traveled places I never would have gone to. I’ve seen how Washington works. I’ve seen how Israeli politics work. I have friends in Europe and Israel and here in the States I never would have otherwise. I can go anywhere in the world and see friends. I’ve seen the families brought in. I’ve seen them resettled. I’ve seen their children grow and their accomplishments. It’s been a wonderful part of my life and I can’t imagine having done anything else. I’m pleased I was a part of the movement and that I did not sit by and not do anything about it. I hope it doesn’t happen again to the Jewish people.”

She reminds us anyone can make a difference. It starts with taking an interest and then acting on it.

“Anybody that does any reading can always find something good to work on.”


Natan Sharanksy, Shirley Goldstein and Buddy Goldstein reunited at Shirely and Leonard Goldstein Lecture at the University of Nebraska at Omaha







Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered

September 5, 2011 3 comments

Writer Jack Moskovitz is like the comic strip character with a dark cloud over him wherever he goes, always seemingly in a blue mood no matter the situation. I first laid eyes on him as he kvetched from his writer panelist perch at the Omaha Lit Fest. He looked and sounded like a character from gritty crime or hard-boiled fiction. I sought out some of his own work as an author, and not surprisingly his short fiction reads on the page much like the man reads in life. That is to say it’s thick with gloomy irony but make not mistake about it, the man can write. The following profile I did of Jack for the Jewish Press takes an unvarnished look at the man and his peccadillos and idiosyncrancies, moods and laments.

 

 

Jack Moskovitz, ©jewishomaha.org

 

 

Being Jack Moskovitz, , Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Jack Moskovitz long ago concluded his writing, like his acting or DJing, wouldn’t put him on Easy Street. That’s OK, you tell him. The mere fact you do write and write well is something to be proud of. He points out he’s only published by small vanity presses. That his book sells and royalty checks amount to little or nothing. Not important, you explain. Talent is talent, and you’ve got it, Jack. Thanks, he says, before launching into a riff about still being an obscure author after 60 years and how he’s destined to remain unknown.

Like the world-weary souls who schlep through his hard-boiled fiction, the Omaha native takes a cynic’s view of life. He reminds you of Rodney Dangerfield with his deadpan “I don’t get no respect” gripes and self-deprecating cracks about “my hunched back, my wide feminine hips and my flabby body.” The retired civil servant bends your ear about supposed failures and slights — unpublished manuscripts, lost parts and so on. He doesn’t mention his well-reviewed novellas, short stories and plays or that he’s been an invited reader and panelist at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. He does acknowledge the event’s founder/director, renowned author Timothy Schaffert (Devils in the Sugar Shop), “has been in my corner.”

Instead of enjoying his inclusion among Omaha’s literati, Jack talks about “not being in their class.” “I’m the kind of guy that’s whistling in the dark and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Just like I thought I could have a career as a writer just because I loved to write. But it’s like a steer wanting to sire off-spring: the desire might be there but because of certain limitations the steer can’t.”

“Every time I feel sorry for myself it comes out in my writing,” he said.

He also takes a bleak view of his work as a character actor in local community theater, this despite working with some of Omaha’s finest players and directors since the mid-1950s. He still bristles with resentment over the late Charles Jones’s refusal to cast him at the Omaha Community Playhouse. But as recently as last spring he played four parts — a judge, a reporter, a physicist and a tourist — in the Playhouse’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry, one of dozens of plays he’s acted in there and on other stages. As soon as Harry closed he went into rehearsals for the Blue Barn Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation, in which he did a funny turn as a doorman.

He’s had on-screen bits as well, including as “featured atmosphere” in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and a scene-stealing cameo as a cross-dressing grandfather in Jeremy Lerman’s Nebraska Supersonic. But to hear Moskovitz tell it his film work doesn’t amount to much. He says the same thing about his decades-long career in radio, a field that saw him work as an announcer-DJ for stations in Omaha and Lincoln. He was good enough to work for some of this market’s top call letters — KOIL, WOW — yet he ruminates over lost chances.

Acerbic and neurotic in an Oscar Levant sort of way, Moskovitz, 72, compulsively sells himself short and finds a dark cloud in every silver lining. He speculates his depressive nature is “in-born, and all it takes is just a little push.” He suggests he’s never really gotten over losing his father as a teenager. The death, he says, devastated his mother, who “had a complete physical collapse” and depended on Jack to help her out. When she passed, the last semblance of family went with her, as he and his two brothers suffered a falling out that never mended.

“The dissolution of a family is exactly what happened,” he said. “I went through four years of depression, which writing helped alleviate to a degree.”

In truth, he said, the fissures in his family were always present. He felt apart, not just from them but from society. “I am estranged from just about every unit or community I tried to be part of. I’m always on the outside,” he said. “There’s a panoramic photograph from a family picnic back in the late 1940s and, stage right, who’s this guy standing all by himself? Me.”

His radio work offered a sanctuary. “Radio was kind of like the glue that held everything together. It got me out of the house,” he said.

It’s only after you spend some time with him you understand his bitter jags are just Jack being Jack. He kvetches not so much to wallow in self-pity or elicit sympathy, as to frame the world for his sardonic stories. His terse style is inspired by pulp fiction and its tradition of gritty action and gloomy sensibilities. His titles, The Tuxedo Square Job and Feast of the Purple Beast, are in keeping with the genre. Jack himself is the model for his cranky, Guy Noirish protagonists. Like him, they’re wise-cracking figures with a chip on their shoulder and a thankless task to perform.

His hand-to-mouth characters are habitues of flophouses, dive bars, diners, after- hours joints and dead-end jobs, all of which he’s familiar with from personal experience. Once a heavy drinker, he knows the despair of the bottle. He’s had his share of women, too, and therefore is on intimate terms with the emptiness of one night stands and the loneliness of mornings after. The hard road he’s traveled has given him insight into what it means to hustle, scrape by and see dreams fade away.

That’s not to say Jack or his work is all dour. Indeed, he and his characters engage in the kind of witty, edgy repartee Dorothy Parker and her vicious set went in for, only his verbal sparring matches unfold at the corner cafe, not the Algonquin. In the last decade he’s found a measure of calm with his companion Johnnie Mae Hawkins, a voracious reader like him. She’s also a writer. Besides their shared love of words, the two are fellow travelers in another way — as outsiders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s Jewish, she’s African-American. He confronted anti-Semitism here, she endured racism down South, where the Arkansas native was of the last generation to pick cotton in the fields. She sharecropped alongside her folks, doing backbreaking labor unfit for man or beast. Based on her recollections of those times he wrote a poignant poem called The Voiding Tree.

Late in life these two seemingly disparate people found each other as kindred spirits do and they’re not about to let each other go now.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting her,” he said. “She’s a very sweet-natured woman. Very understanding, very considerate, very helpful, even in my writing. Dependable, loyal. You know, everything I never found in a woman.”

His recent books feature the dedication: “To Johnnie Mae Hawkins, who likes thrift shops, kittens, and me.”

Until she came along, he admits his taste in women left much to be desired. “They weren’t the kind of women you brought home to mother,” he said. “In my glory days it was the beginning of the sexual revolution where you locked your valuables in  your car and carried just enough money for the night. It was just like Frank Sinatra sang, ‘Strangers in the Night,’ and still strangers the next day.”

One relationship, with an actress, ended badly. “I fell for her. I really fell for her,” he said. But then he learned her declarations of “I love you, I need you” were mere lines she practiced on him in order to seduce the man she was really after. “It was just really bad melodrama…bad soap opera.”

After years of abusing alcohol, he long ago cleaned up his act.

“I haven’t had a drink in, what is it, 45-50 years. I was getting to the point where I was looking forward to losing myself in…things like Screwdrivers and Vodka Collins. I used to drink when I was really feeling kind of happy, but then I found myself drinking more when I wasn’t happy, which was most of the time. That’s when I stopped. I changed jobs and dropped the lady I was seeing at the time and kind of got some other things taken care of. I just had no more need for it. “

Growing up, he often felt things spinning out of control and the solitary pursuits of reading-writing-acting were escapes into worlds of his own dominion.

“When you’re the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, that’s really tough,” he said. “Back then, there wasn’t this liberal bent. These blue collar guys living here didn’t have any use for Jews or any minorities. If you weren’t Catholic, forget about it. If you were Protestant, that was almost as bad as being a Jew. So it was very unpleasant…the Jew bashing.

“When you have the insularity of a family you get a sense of security, even though you know when you walk out the door somebody’s going to throw something at you. In fact, a good day for me…was not having hard objects hurled at me. A good day was when all that was hurled at me was invective.‘Jew boy.’ Geez, I don’t know how the hell I survived that, but I did.”

 

 

 

 

The sense of injury Moskovitz carries around with him was exacerbated when he saw his father, a restaurant fixture sales manager, get demoted and take a pay cut.

“We were in a helluva fix,” Jack said.

His father later partnered with others to start their own supply house, but soon thereafter Bert Moskovitz fell ill. “The cancer got him,” is how Jack puts it. Rabbi Myer Kripke officiated at his father’s and mother’s funerals at old Beth El Synagogue, just as he did at Jack and his brothers’ bar mitzvahs.

Jack was 14 when his father died and to help make ends meet he went to work for one grocery store after another, cleaning, stocking, bagging, delivering, whatever needed doing. His mother worked at Hayden’s Department Store.

With few friends, Jack slipped increasingly into his interior life. He’s never married. He has no kids. “It’s been a lonely life,” he said. His imagination was fired by the stories that transfixed him on radio, the stage, in the movies and in books.

Moskovitz was fated to be a writer when, as a child, he steeped himself in the “beautiful library” his immigrant grandparents kept at home. The library contained the complete works of Dickens, O Henry, Sir Walter Scott, et cetera. There were full-length play scripts. He read it all.

“That’s where I would do my reading,” he said. “It was something I looked forward to doing.”

His creative side was nurtured by his mother, who played violin “beautifully,” he said. She’d trained on the instrument and could read music. He still has her violin and the original case for it and displays them on the dining room table. Also, his older brother, Mayer, brought him to plays. Jack adored musical theater. Mere blocks from where he grew up was the original Omaha Community Playhouse site at 40th and Davenport, where he saw many productions

But, always, there were books. Piles of books surround he and Johnnie Mae today.

As a young man he devoured coming-of-age classics like the Signet edition of Catcher in the Rye and the Studs Lonigan trilogy and he found his niche in the spare, masculine style of Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, James Jones, Leon Uris, Richard Prather, John MacDonald, Vin Packer and others. His work betrays the influence, too, of realists Raymond Carver, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.

“They all wrote in a fast-paced, very terse style and each word was carefully chosen,” he said. “It whips along.”

He strives for the same efficiency of language.

“I write the flabby prose on the first draft and then I go take each sentence and try to telescope it. I weed out chunks.”

He began writing stories and plays way back at Saunders Elementary School, just up the block from the stucco house he grew up in and occupies today in the Cathedral neighborhood. His love for theater sparked his interest in writing. Cast as the lead in a school play, he heeded the ham in him when a castmate got a bad case of stage fright and missed her cue and he covered for her by ad-libbing. That’s when he fell for acting and got it in his head that maybe he could craft his own dramas. “That’s what I started doing,” he said.

As a boy he began sending out his work, even play scripts, to publishers, once getting a reply from the famed play publishing company, Samuel French. “I got back what I thought was a personal letter from Mr. French himself and, of course, it was your standard rejection slip,” he said.

He was serious enough about acting that he began auditioning at the Playhouse right out of high school and soon landed a role in its production of Secret Service, which was part of Omaha’s centennial celebration. He averaged about a play a year at the OCP until Charles Jones arrived in the ‘70s.

Jack also went to the west coast with the idea of trying to break into Hollywood. He had the cockeyed notion of being “the Semitic Troy Donahue,” but was dissuaded by family friend, Lynn Stalmaster, already a casting director scion, who warned him of the struggles and heartbreak ahead. Jack appreciated the straight talk. “What a mensch he was,” he said.

Even with the intoxicating scent of Jasmine in the air, all that gorgeous sun, the ubiquitous palm trees, meeting stars and limited prospects back home, Jack heeded the advice. He’s not sorry he did.

“I’ve never looked back,” he said.

With “no marketable skills,” he returned to doing “stoop labor,” content to act and write on the side. Besides the Jewish grocers he worked for, he was a grunt in an appliance warehouse and washed and bused dishes at a restaurant. When he worked at Shaver’s market on 40th Street, between Dodge and Farnam, he hit upon an after-work routine to indulge his passions for good eats and good stories.

“I’d get me a bowl of chili and I’d buy a Gold Medal paperback for 25 cents. I was reading Westerns written by Vin Parker. They were real hard-boiled, lusty, action-packed plots that Gold Medal was famous for. Then I’d go across the street to the Admiral Theater and see whatever was on there. Then I’d walk over to the West Dodge Pharmacy and get me a Lime Ricky at the soda fountain.”

Another favorite pastime was sitting in front of the radio to hear the world come into his home. He and his old brother Mayer loved listening to network radio broadcasts like The ShadowThe Bell Telephone Hour and Stella Dallas. They were so crazy about radio they wormed their way into the studios at KFAB and WOW as audience members for live shows whose formats ran the gamut from quiz to music.

He said it was heady stuff for a boy with a flair for the dramatic. “Wow, this is kind of fun,” Jack recalls thinking. “The announcers would be personalities. What kind of clinched it for me was when I met a neighbor who was in radio. That’s when I thought, Maybe I ought to try radio, too.”

By 1956, at age 21, he was on the air in Denison, Iowa, learning the ropes for no pay at tiny KDSN. A year later he got his first paying on-air gig at KLMS in Lincoln. Then he went over to the capitol city’s KLIN. When he lived in Lincoln he stayed at the Sam Lawrence Hotel, a low rent roomer that often shows up in his stories. He and his radio cronies bent a few at after-hours hangouts like Hamp’s.

One night he was going to help a KLIN staffer celebrate the birth of his first child when an urgent phone call came in. Moskovitz said the new father took the call, “turned to me, and said, ‘Jack, there’s not going to be any celebration tonight. We’ve got a triple homicide.’ Well, that was the beginning of the Starkweather spree.” Moskovitz covered the morning police briefings from the start of the manhunt to the suspects’ capture and arrest.

This was the start of his itinerant, he’d call it checkered, radio career — from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and DJ’s spinning records on turntables to the age of talk radio and automation. He worked for KOIL and at WOW with such local legends as Ray Olson, Dale Munson, Ray Stevens and Jim Murphy. What he lacked in the “basso profundo” voice department of his colleagues, he made up for with personality.

He did stints at KOWH, KEMO, KBON and KCRO, “a holy station where four people worked and nobody got along. Can you imagine that? It wasn’t very brotherhoodish, that’s for sure.” His last radio job was with “easy listening” KESY in 1989.

In the ‘60s he pulled an Army Reserves hitch. He also worked a year as a reporter-photographer for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.

As much as radio and the theater fascinated him, his true heart was in writing.

By the time he graduated from Central High School, where he appeared in some plays, he disciplined himself to write every day. It’s a practice and ritual he follows to this day. Now that he’s retired, it’s no problem applying himself to his craft. But when he worked steady, it was tough.

“It was hard working some of these crappy jobs I had and then coming home and trying to get the energy to sit down and write something that was possibly commercial,” he said. “As tired as I was, I turned out some stuff…”

His last regular job was working for “the fed” as a Grade 3 clerk-typist at Douglas County Veterans Hospital, OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He wasn’t crazy about the work, “but by God I liked the security, that paycheck, the benefits,” he said. A back problem forced him to take early retirement in 1985.

Moskovitz was in good company when it came to toiling at a 9 to 5 job and still maintaining a writing life. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. held an insurance post for decades while churning out his award-winning verses.

Jack doesn’t go to a job anymore, but old habits are hard to break and so he still bangs out copy on his Olivetti typewriter. He prefers it to chancing his work on a computer, which he professes to be “illiterate” at. Call him old school or old fashioned, he doesn’t mind. Another example of how he and Johnnie Mae lead a simple life, is their lack of a car. They walk or ride the bus most everywhere.

Unlike his brothers, who graduated college to become professionals, Jack went his own way, did his own thing. He studied radio broadcasting at then-Omaha University, but didn’t get a degree. As the family’s black sheep, he said, he felt his brothers’ contempt for squandering a life to pursue this writing dream. When you hear enough disparaging remarks, he said, “you get to kind of believe it.”

Where his brothers may have had the edge in book smarts, Jack has native intelligence. His instinct for thinking on his feet goes back to childhood, like the time he saved the school play by ad-libbing when his co-star went AWOL.

 

 

 

 

Fast forward five decades to Jack at the Playhouse. The actor was on stage one night in Over the River when he once again found himself playing for time. Unbeknownst to him, a fellow actor banged his head against a heavy picture frame back stage. “I throw a cue for him to enter and he staggers on stage, holding his eye,” Jack recalls. “I could tell something was wrong. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ and he said, ‘Yeah…no, and then he walks off. I said to the actress playing my wife, ‘Ida, go see what’s wrong with him,’ and she went off and so did the other two actors on stage, and I’m standing there by myself.”

Seizing the moment, a resourceful Jack filled the silence the best way he knew how — by talking. The audience thought his improv was part of the show.

“In the story I’m supposed to be learning to play the mandolin and I’m standing there with this out-of-tune mandolin I wouldn’t know how to play even it was in tune,” he said. “So I start ad-libbing, telling a few jokes. Like, ‘Why does it take two actors to change a light bulb? One to do the work, one to point and say, Hey, that should be me up there.’ Or, ‘The hottest day of the year this old rummy staggers into a bar and says, Whaddya got that’s tall and cold? The bartender says, Have you met my wife?’ You know, doing these little Henny Youngman routines.

“Then I started singing show tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s. ‘42nd Street, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’… I did that because in always auditioning for musicals at the Playhouse and never even getting picked for the chorus, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to sing there again.”

What gives him the moxie to make up bits out of thin air? “The same chuztpah that got me interested in theater at Saunders when I was 10,” he said. Moments like these, he said, give him “such a sense of empowerment, because I’m controlling this thing.” Much like the mastery of events reading and writing provides.

Words have always offered solace for the turmoil inside him. “After all these emotional setbacks — the deaths, the betrayals, the antipathy, and so on — what I would do just to get away from the house is walk down to the library.” Alone with his prose, he found peace. Writing and DJing gave him a satisfaction he misses.

“It really heightened my life. It provided the toots and whistles for an otherwise monotone existence.”

He talks about this being the end of the line. About his window of opportunity having passed. How he’s done putting himself through the “pain” of rejection. “I’ve pretty much given up any possibility of getting anything produced or published. I took the pledge to quite wasting my life on that,” he said. But he still plugs away. Only last year he finished a new novel, Brothers and Sisters. It’s with a publisher now. He’s even learning to write Haiku. He still scans the trades seeking outlets for his work. He also continues to audition and win parts in plays. If a radio gig were offered tomorrow, he’d jump at it. If a publisher called, he’d dance a jig.

When the phone rings at his place, his sense of anticipation is palpable. He interrupts a conversation with a guest — “Hang on a minute” — to ask Johnnie Mae, “Is that a call from a publisher?” He’s ever hopeful his writing will find an appreciative audience. Having a major publisher discover his work would be his legacy, which is much on his mind given he’s the last of the Moskovitz line. He’s already achieved a legacy of sorts. Several volumes of his work are carried by the Omaha Public Library.

Do Jack a favor and check his work out. You won’t be disappointed. And he’ll be glad you cared enough to read some of what he’ll leave behind.

Women’s and Indie Feature Film Pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s Journey in Cinema

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

To date, I have written a handful of extensive pieces on filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a seminal figure among women’s and independent feature filmmakers in America. This is one of those stories and the others can also be found on this blog.  Sooner or later I will add a couple much shorter pieces I’ve written about her and her work and her thoughts on women directors in Hollywood. When Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), the first person I thought of was Joan, whom I called to get her to weigh in on what that breakthrough meant to her and to the other women filmmakers. Joan, who began making a lot of television movies in the 1990s, hasn’t made a feature in going on a decade or more, but she has been developing two feature-length documentaries – one on the Catskills and great Jewish women comedians and the other on the history of the bagel in America. I look forward to her completing the projects.

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver on the set

 

 

Women’s and Indie Feature Film Pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s Journey in Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

When Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial feature film debut, Hester Street, proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success in 1975, women gained a stronger foothold behind the camera in American cinema. The breakthrough independent film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael Silver, paved the way for more women to call the shots in the chauvinistic playground of moviemaking.

Twenty-five years later Micklin Silver has seen women go from being ignored to tolerated to, finally, respected.

“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said by phone from her New York home. “But women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. It is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.

The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said by phone from her New York home. Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.

“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”

Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York State occurred right around the time her father died. Later, she met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

 

 

 

 

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened. At a party she met Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of the Children’s Television workshop, who put her in touch with Linda Gotlieb, then an executive with an educational film company. Gotlieb fed her freelance script writing work and when Micklin Silver told the company head she wanted to direct as well, she got her wish — writing and directing three short educational films.

One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

Later, she and Gotlieb formed their own production company. Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.

“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” Micklin Silver said.

Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets and cast and crew. It was very helpful.”

Getting that close to a major motion picture further wet her appetite for directing. “It emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”

That’s when she and her husband took matters in their own hands and developed Hester Street themselves (under the Midwest Film banner). Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the movie grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation.

Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin. Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.”

Her mother, who was only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”

Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

 

Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film (14 years after Hester Street she revisted the Lower East Side to explore the intersection of old and new Jewish life in Crossing Delancey), most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script produced live on Playhouse 90, the made-for-cable film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”

In her acceptance speech the filmmaker explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.” But, she added, “making movies about the Jewish experience is a dangerous prospect. Every other Jew has an opinion. You can never satisfy everyone. I learned this after an early screening of Hester Street.”

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called John Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as films for cable (including A Private Matter for HBO). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

 

 

From Chilly Scenes of Winter

 

 

“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s glad to share her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film.

“Absolutely. It’s great.” She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the gates of opportunity long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed feature films (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with a new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggles to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality.

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she prefers generating her own material. “In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.

Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new Lifetime original movie drama starring Rita Wilson.

Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”

She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive.” Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, the romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss.

Her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, illustrates the point. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara star as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz. “It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

 

 

Promotional image with Peter Riegert and Amy Irving from Crossing Delancey

 

 

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, her films delight in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas… and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue  partnering on some projects and pursuing others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.

While rarely returning to her home state anymore, she did accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across state and admired the unbroken prairie.

“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”

A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a hoped-for future project called White Harvest, a period piece set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. “It has a great feeling for place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” she said. If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s tinkering with.

Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of a Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.

Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking.” Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers. “Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

September 5, 2011 2 comments

Here is the latest story I’ve done on author Rachel Shukert, this one about her second book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. If you don’t know her work, make a point to discover it. If you do, well, then, I’m preaching to the choir.
Rachel Shukert

 

 

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent‘s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

 

Playwright, essayist, blogger and author Rachel Shukert (Have You No Shame?) mines “the ruins” of her life again in her new Harper Perennial memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great. Its subtitle, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, gets to the heart of her expatriate experience.

In her early-20s the Omaha native did what many aspiring writers do: go off on a a finding-one’s-self spree. A theater gig landed her in Amsterdam, where the meta self-indulgence of her new book takes place. The surreal life that ensued provides the arc of her sardonic, self-deprecating narrative. This borderline debauched interval abroad served as her coming-of-age and rude awakening.

While her first book consisted of short stories, this one, she said by phone from her New York City home, is “more traditionally a memoir, but I think of it like a true novel.” She said even in the midst of this “fairly action-packed” interlude, it felt like “living in a novel.” The book’s characters are emblematic of that time.

The book charts her penchant for falling into weird, risky situations. She said, “I’ve always been sort of an adventurer. I’ve always gone looking for that stuff, but I also have always been a magnet for that kind of thing. When I was younger I hadn’t quite figured out where my boundaries were just yet. I think a lot of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and my life has gotten more settled.”

Getting away from it all was an act of emancipation from parental purse strings. Her new found independence allowed her to get lost in a way not so easy to do today.

“The particular couple of years when this story happened was kind of the very last gasp of that ability to not be connected to everyone you know all the time. It was before Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t WiFi everywhere yet. No one had a Blackberry really. I didn’t have a cell phone. There wasn’t Internet banking. It would have been really different if this had happened just two or three years later.”

She also found herself as a writer there.

“There’s something about being removed from the mainstream culture that makes you retreat into yourself in a way that’s really productive,” she said. “You don’t get as distracted the way you do here, you just don’t have as many options for procrastination. And you also need to keep yourself company a little bit. Even if you know some people and have friends it’s still a bit of a lonely state of being, and writing alleviates that.

“For the first time I was really enjoying writing. I’d always written, I knew I was sort of good at it, but I didn’t like it and was really resistant to it. I discovered writing could be really satisfying and joyful. I think that’s the most important thing that happened there as far as me being able to eventually write books.”

It wasn’t until back stateside, regaling friends with stories of her mishaps, she said she realized she had material for a book. “Some of the deeper, more painful stuff I never really talked about until I wrote this book,” she said. “I feel like the reason is I needed enough distance to really excavate it.”

Shukert feels she took away as much as she gave up from her grand tour.

“I think it was an even trade. I left behind a lot of illusions which are both beautiful and harmful. I left behind a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I think I proved to myself I was maybe more self-sufficient and resilient than I thought. That I could get along in relatively difficult circumstances. I mean, I didn’t survive the Holocaust or anything, I just didn’t have a credit card.

“I feel like i did a lot of growing up while I was there.”

Through it all, her high-low humor resounds.

“For me when something is spinning out of control, and I think this is a very Jewish thing, if I make a joke of it it, it doesn’t seem so big and scary, and you can ultimately not be destroyed by it. A lot of my sense of humor and the humor of my work comes from that juxtaposition of using sort of very high prose to describe a situation that is really terrible or even vulgar.”

She just sold a three-book young adult series. She has a new play opening in New York and she’s working on an adult novel.

Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.

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Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

September 5, 2011 3 comments

Author Rachel Shukert is every bit as entertaining to interview as her books are to read. For being quite youbg she has a remarkably developed sense of style and a satiric voice that is hers and hers alone. What follows are two short pieces I wrote about her and her first book, Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, one for the Jewish Press and the other for The Reader. I look forward to chatting with her again and to reading more of her work. In a separate post, you’ll find a third story I did about Shukert, this one about her seconod book, Everything is Going to be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.

 

 

Rachel Shukert

 

 

Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

Omaha native Rachel Shukert is coming home to face the music after the publication of her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard). In it, the New York-based writer applies her unsparing satire to growing up a rebel and Jew here.

She’s appearing at two local events to promote her book: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the Jewish Community Center; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

For a long time she was hell-bent on being a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. In New York she grew disillusioned by the business of acting. She turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences…but I just never really wrote them down.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “…people were really responding and suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow. I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed.”

On the heels of getting her plays staged and essays published in NerveHeebMcSweeney’s and Salon, her agent struck a deal for the book. Its irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right?”

The stories express the dissatisfaction she felt growing up a brilliant, defiant free spirit. “When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Shukert Gets Personal with Her Satiric First Book

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

For a long time playwright/author Rachel Shukert saw herself not as a young literary lioness but as a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. Picture a Jewish Marisa Tomei. Then reality hit. In New York the Omaha native grew disillusioned by the business of acting — making the rounds, et cetera.

Unable to find monologue material to suit her satiric bordering-on-absurdist tastes and suffering from anorexia, she turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard), is lauded for its collection of unsparing satire. Shukert will schlep through town for two book events: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the JCC; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

Reinventing herself as a writer both liberated and tested her.

“I was having a hard time as an actor in New York,” she said by phone from the L.A. Book Fair. “I’m not particularly castable and I also really dislike the process and the dues you have to pay as an actor. All of the things actors have to do to get started I found completely anathema to my way of being. I’m a total narcissist but I’m not a narcissist in the right way.

“I have a really hard time sending photographs of myself to people and constantly being up and being really hungry for roles I have absolutely no interest in. I hate going to the gym. I hate doing hair and teeth and skin. The actual day-to-day grind of being a professional actor did not sit very well with me.”

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences that I would repeat over and over again but I just never really wrote them down.”

She’s always been an attentive reader. She counts Phillip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Franzen, David Sedaris, Truman Capote, Kingsely Amos and F. Scott Fitzgerald among her favorite authors.

“I’ve always been very turned on by very elegant writing — people who are really wonderful stylists.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. When you’re imprisoned by your anorexia there’s not a lot else you can do. You don’t want to go out and eat or drink with people. So to keep my self company almost through this I started to write a lot.

“It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing eventually superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “I was moving forward at a rate I never had for the two years I was trying to be an actor. I felt like I was getting all this traction, things were moving really fast and people were really responding. And suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow.”

One thing led to another. “I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed,” she said. “

Her theater influences include Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Charles Ludlam, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady.

With her plays getting staged and assignments flowing in from online magazines Nerve, Heeb, McSweeney’s and, more recently, Salon and Jewcy, she said she decided, “Well, maybe this is what I should be doing instead of struggling at this thing I don’t really like and that doesn’t really do it for me creatively. But I definitely had like a mourning period for my acting, just because it had been like who I thought I was going to be for so much of my life – from the time I was 7 or 8. But now I really haven’t looked back.”

The transition’s not all roses.

“I’m not a writer that finds writing particularly easy. It can be pretty torturous, like extracting teeth or driving needles into my hand. So I have to give myself a lot of time. I’ve never been able to just knock it out.”

The book produced a breakthrough.

“This is a project where I think I really figured out a lot about my writing style and rhythms because I never had…such a protracted process before. What’s been kind of a nice surprise is that writing is a lot easier than it was at the beginning. I’m a pretty good editor of my own work. I have a pretty sharp eye. I’m pretty down with cutting things and getting rid of things that don’t work.

“I write every day. I’m pretty disciplined about that and I won’t stop until I have something. When I was writing the book I really tried to do about a thousand words a day. I’m pretty good about punishing myself. If I slacked off and didn’t write a thousand words then I wrote two thousand words the next day.

“I remember there’s one section I wrote after I woke up in the middle of the night. I wrote 15 pages in like four hours and that’s one of the sections of the books that’s the most unedited and unchanged.”

That section, about the bacchanal of a Jewish youth convention she attended, elicited negative feedback when a shorter, harsher version of it appeared online.

“That was one of the very first pieces I wrote as a freelance assignment,” she said. “I think I was still like trying to make a splash. I mean, I still think it’s a good piece and I totally stand by it but I’m glad I got to do it over again and give it a little bit more perspective and space. The chapter in its extended form is a lot gentler…”

The book’s irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right? While obviously that kind of satire is part of my work and it’s sort of the way I see the world and the way I write, it’s very important to me to not be unnecessarily cruel or hurtful…And I find turning that critical gaze on myself sort of tempers that.”

Her book’s partly an expression of the dissatisfaction she felt growing up as a brilliant, defiant free spirit.

“When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

A maddening thing about the Midwest she still can’t shake is how one’s Jewishness is made an issue here by gentiles. “Like they need to point it out. It’s very weird.” It’s one reason why she prefers New York. She and her husband Ben, an advertising creative director, reside in Manhattan on the Upper East Side.

All of the pieces in the book long simmered in her.

“I think I’ve sort of been writing them in my head for most of my life. I mean, it’s funny how a lot of my close friends have been reading this book and they’re like, ‘I know about this. This is the way you always told this story.’”

Her stories invariably throw in stark relief our shared human frailties. Life’s comedy and tragedy exposed side by side.

“That’s kind of my thing. I try to combine the two,” she said. “I want them to be hilariously funny and you only realize how serious they are afterward.”

The title chapter ends the book on a warm, funny, sad, graceful note describing the final days of her beloved grandmother. Shukert’s love for family shines through.

An autobiographical work is a rite-of-passage for first-time authors. “It’s almost like you have to get it out of your system before you can do something else,” she said. “Like you have to tell your own story before you can tell other people’s.”

Today, she’s busy writing essays and cultural criticism for online mags and, increasingly, for print publications. “I really like journalism,” she said. “It’s a chance to exercise your craft without having to like think it all up yourself, which can be intimidating. It’s nice to have that jumping off point, even if it’s something editorial like a movie review or a blog post. At least you have that information to analyze. I really like analyzing everything.”

Her penchant for picking things apart may be a function of being the daughter of a psychologist mother and urban planner father. Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

After Night of Violence, Downtown Coffee Shop Owner Ponders Venue’s Future

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

David Hall is a born entrepreneur, and if savvy instincts and good intentions mean anything then his newT-shirt design and screen printing  business SweeTees should flourish. But the cold reality of business doesn’t much care about whether one’s heart is in the right place or not. The following short piece I did about Hall for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared not long after a senseless act of gun play disrupted his previous venture, Terri Lynn’s Coffee Shop, injuring several and scaring many more, and not long before business fell off so badly that he was forced to close. Terri Lynn was his late sister, who herself fell victim to gun violence. The T in his new SweeTees is for her. In addition to his sisters, Hall’s lost others close to him as well to reckless gun violence. He’s trying to do what he can to succeed while paying homage to Terry and giving young black men in the community a positive role model to follow. I am not alone in wishing him well.

 

 

David Hall

 

After Night of Violence, Downtown Coffee Shop Owner Ponders Venue’s Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Terri Lynn’s Coffee Shop attracted a corps of regulars to its inviting 1618 Harney Street digs before an act of violence changed things. Now, business has slowed to a crawl and owner David Hall is left wondering if the venue, named for his late sister and meant as a safe haven for inner city teens and young adults, can last.

It all went down the evening of Friday, May 13, when a private graduation party turned real life fright night. About 60 people were there when a fight erupted inside. Hall, security staff and chaperones removed the troublemakers and the party resumed. Later, gun shots fired from outside riddled the place. In the ensuing chaos, eight people were injured. One was shot. Some $2,000 in damage was done to the shop, whose register was looted. A week later, an arrest was made and the incident became another statistic in Omaha’s black-on-black crime wave.

Despite taking precautions, Hall feels he was “naive” not requiring a “mandatory guest list. The kids that caused the trouble just slid in,” he said.

The events shook Hall to his core. He couldn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t bring himself to visit the shop that weekend. He contemplated closing for good.

“I felt like a ton of rocks got dropped on me, man. I was so discouraged,” he said. “Then I prayed on it and went to church and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Everybody came up and they hugged me. I thought they were going to blame me more than anything. But my pastor and my community told me, ‘Don’t quit.’ That’s what made me not give up. They wouldn’t let me quit if I wanted to.”

Besides, he said, “Something is telling me, Why penalize all the good kids that come in here for the acts of a few?” Terri Lynn’s had become a live music and dancing hot spot. Hall said there’d been no serious problems until the shooting. He sees what happened as part of a larger, city-wide problem with youth violence.

He has reacted strongly to the shooting because it struck so close to home. His only sibling, Terri Lynn Hall, was fatally shot with her boyfriend in 1994. That same year alone, Hall said, he lost five friends to gun violence. This most recent event was a slap in the face to a man trying to “be part of my community.” The negative pub hurts a fragile business that’s been at its present location just since last fall. He said he faces enough hurdles already as a black small business owner in a white district. Add the fact he’s one part of an interracial couple — his wife Carol is white — and he feels things are stacked against him in a town obsessed with race.

Although an aberration at what’s been a calm spot, he’s afraid the incident brands his place a hazard in the public’s mind.

“I’m a young black dude, man, and it’s hard to beat some of the stereotypes thrown my way. I’m already one of the few minority owners downtown. I didn’t know if people were going to see through all of that — a black on black crime — and be open-minded to what I’m trying to do here,” said Hall, an Omaha native and nephew of Charles Hall, proprietor of North O’s now defunct Fair Deal Cafe.

In an effort to make sense of the violence and to dispel perceptions about Terri Lynn’s as a dangerous place, Hall held “an old fashioned town meeting” there on May 28. The event offered an open forum to discuss the violence and sought donations to help Hall recoup his losses and to pay medical bills of those injured in the melee. Less than two dozen people attended — most of them family and friends. He was discouraged, but he’s not ready to give up on his dream yet.

“I talked to the police and city, and they don’t want me to quit. They want a place for young people to go. They don’t want them to run the streets. That’s what I wish I would of had. That’s what I wish my sister would of had,” said Hall, who plans hiring uniformed officers at parties and installing more surveillance cameras.

“Since Terri passed, I’ve always tried to have a way for her to live on through my life. This is my passion. This is what I want. But as much as I want to be here and to make this work, it’s about dollars and cents now. We were already just getting along, but since reopening May 18 it’s been slow. I’ve refunded six parties we booked. If we don’t have the public coming here supporting the cause, we can’t make it. We’ll remain open as long as we can afford to. I’ve got my rent paid for June, so we’re good for 30 more days. Check back with me then.”

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