seeing and believing

3 April 2010

Alana Newhouse’s article about photographer Roman Vishniac, his photographs, the stories he told with and about those photographs, and the evidence that challenges those stories, is really kind of fantastic. Never heard of Vishniac? (I hadn’t.) Not sure you’re interested?

Take a look at the slideshow that goes with the article – whatever you think of Vishniac’s storytelling, his photography was very, very good. Then read these three paragraphs from near the start of the article:

But the center will not only be acquiring Vishniac’s entire life’s work; as the father-son spread suggests, it is also inheriting a fascinating set of ambiguities and unanswered questions — all unexpectedly uncovered by a 34-year-old curator named Maya Benton. As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.

Sometime in 1989, Maya Benton, then a 14-year-old living in Los Angeles, had an epiphany. The daughter of a single mother, a psychoanalyst who as a child lived for years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Benton grew up in a household that was a relative rarity in American Jewish life: Yiddish speaking but cosmopolitan, well off and not Orthodox. As she lolled on the couch of her grandparents’ home, Benton started sneaking chocolate rum balls from a sterling silver box — one of two family heirlooms from, she had assumed, Novogrudek, the historic Jewish town in what is now Belarus from which her grandparents hailed before the Holocaust. As Benton stared at the weighty birthright from the alte heym, or Old World, bafflement struck: she knew, from an interview she conducted with her family members for a history class, that they fled the German invasion, hid in nearby forests, were interned at multiple labor camps and trekked through miles of often snow-covered forest in the east. How on earth, Benton thought as she considered the ornate container, did they manage to schlep this through Siberia? The confusion grew when she considered the second heirloom: a full set of Rosenthal china.

As it turned out, the box and the china had not been in the family for generations, nor were they from Novogrudek. As Maya’s grandmother, Tonia Benton, explained that afternoon, they were among the things that she and her husband bought from impoverished Germans after the war; bartering the chocolate and cigarettes they received in the displaced-persons camp, they were able to buy valuable items that could be used as currency to get the family to America. That day, Maya Benton says, she learned a lesson about people’s need for, and uses of, mythical narratives.

Then decide if you want to click through (or, you know, just click through, really, it’s worth it).


no donuts, though

29 December 2009

I wonder how many Americans experience their ethnicity most clearly through food. Ok, I’m not sure what it means to say that one is experiencing ethnicity, or what it means for that experience to be clearer, but in a social world where most people’s daily rituals are quite similar to others’, food is one of the few major areas open for wide variation. Clothing is another, I suppose, but I tend to associate it more with religion than with ethnicity, at least within the United States (which is why I wrote “Americans” instead of “people” above.

My family celebrates Christmas in a mostly secular American fashion; for Christmas dinner we usually eat sukiyaki. I can’t remember how we started doing this. Sukiyaki has always been one of our traditional family meals, along with jiaozi and a chicken soup my Swiss grandmother made (I’d find a wikipedia entry for that one too, but I don’t know how to spell the German name my grandmother used; at least the recipe has been passed down) and some others, but I can’t remember what occasions went with it until it became a Christmas tradition. It may have been a day after Christmas thing first, and then we moved it up.

I do remember once, during Thanksgiving, we wondered why we were having turkey if we didn’t really want to have turkey, and after that sukiyaki became a Thanksgiving meal too. But that was only if it was just immediate family; when representatives of the rest of the world are around, we still eat turkey.


points of origins

18 December 2009

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.


lactose prejudice

18 February 2009

I used to have dairy products all the time as a kid: milk with cereal, milk with cream of wheat, ice cream, milk with cookies, and less often, milk on its own. Then I noticed that drinking milk by itself was making me sick, but it was still ok with cereal. Then even milk with cereal made me sick. Then I started avoiding dairy. I’ve since found lactose-free milk and lactase pills and various other things that let me have dairy products without too much trouble.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m less lactose-intolerant than I think. When I’ve had gelato in Europe, it hasn’t been a problem even without lactase supllements, but I always take a supplement in the US with ice cream. But this might be the result of different processing methods; I can handle some yogurts – active culture – but not others. Same with cheeses. But when I’ve decided not to take any precautions with dairy I’ve usualy ended up paying a price for it. (It’s not really that bad; certainly not worse than stomach flus I’ve had.)

So I’m a bit surprised to see Ezra Klein quote the following about Nestle in China:

In Asia, ice cream is proving surprisingly popular among a people that aren’t supposed to tolerate dairy products; in fact, Nestle’s researchers now contend that Asians aren’t any more lactose intolerant than any other ethnic group. The problem, Brimlow [director of Nestle’s Chinese research center] told me, is that cow’s milk, has historically been so scarce and expensive in China, that most Chinese never developed the enzyme needed to digest dairy foods. If Chinese children are introduced to milk early on, says Brimlow, they have no trouble tolerating lactose — a finding that has spurred Nestle’s China operation to launch a wide range if dairy products aimed at the youth market. “Even as adults, it takes only three months to develop the enzyme,” Brimlow says. “They may feel a little sick for a while, but they get used to it. Yogurt is a great way to reintroduce dairy.”

I’d love to be reintroduced to dairy (without supplements), but I don’t see that happening based on my experience growing up. It’s not like I never had the enzyme. However, when I went to Taiwan, I noticed people having a fair amount of milk products and my relatives didn’t seem to have heard of lactose intolerance – we had to explain that it’s not an allergy. (A commenter over at Ezra’s place notes the same thing about Taiwan.) Among the American side of the family, I’m about the only one with a problem, though my sister has a milder reaction. So who knows what’s going on with me.

Maybe I’ve already had and lost my chance by having milk as a kid. Or maybe I’m just one of those people caught between worlds, not European enough to handle dairy – but my paternal grandmother is Swiss! – not Chinese enough to adjust as if it were new. If I ever have a MooLatte, the results no doubt will be tragic.


outside the lines

16 February 2009

This biography of Clarence King, geologist, geographer and more, sounds fascinating. I don’t know why it takes the New York Times review (via) so long to reveal that:

What they did not know was that when King was not living in various clubs and hotels, he was married and the father of five children. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada, a black woman 19 years his junior. This blue-eyed man, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, had successfully cultivated the impression that he was black too.

The existence of Ada and their children became publicly known only in 1933, at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the trust fund she had been promised by Clarence. He had been dead for more than 30 years, so the shock waves generated by the trial were considerable. Most dramatic, in Ms. Sandweiss’s account, is the way that revisionists demoted Clarence from hero to “tragic hero,” not to mention “the most lavishly overpraised man of his time,” upon discovering the he had been married to a former slave. This was typical of the sickening headlines surrounding the trial: “Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist.”

All of this has long been a matter of record. It took Ms. Sandweiss to pinpoint and explore the fact that Clarence went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends. He also adopted the name Clarence* Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

Or why you have to read to the end to learn this (which, incidentally, points to one of the ways in which the census has always been important):

But if race had clear, stereotypical meaning for this one odd man, it worked in entirely different ways for his wife and children. At the heart of “Passing Strange” is the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that the existence of one black great-grandparent defined an American as black. Not only did this ruling entitle Clarence to his claim as a black man; it also left the racial classification of Ada and her children to the whims of census takers who freely made assumptions about the people they questioned. Over time Todd family members were variously designated “white,” “negro” or “mulatto,” based not on evidence but on context. Ada and Clarence’s sons were deemed black when seen with their dark-skinned mother. But their two daughters married white men and effectively turned themselves into white women.

_____

*This might be an error. An Amherst press release about the book says he took the name James Todd, not Clarence Todd.


the fabric of society

24 November 2008

It seems like Cory Booker is channeling Randolph Bourne (via):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From Bourne’s “Trans-National America” (in the July 1916 Atlantic):

The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit not only of themselves but of all the native ‘Americanism’ around them.

What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity.

Bourne’s prefers the metaphor of a weave to food; he comes out against gluttony:

Only America, by reason of the unique liberty of opportunity and traditional isolation for which she seems to stand, can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise. Only the American — and in this category I include the migratory alien who has lived with us and caught the pioneer spirit and a sense of new social vistas — has the chance to become that citizen of the world. America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans- nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. I do not mean that we shall necessarily glut ourselves with the raw product of humanity. It would be folly to absorb the nations faster than we could weave them. We have no duty either to admit or reject. It is purely a question of expediency. What concerns us is the fact that the strands are here. We must have a policy and an ideal for an actual situation. Our question is, What shall we do with our America?