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In his latest novel, James McBride defuses the ‘dynamite’ of Black-Jewish relations

(New York Jewish Week) — James McBride’s latest novel began as a book about a Jewish camp, and “ended up being a book about equality.”

Set in the small town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” opens in 1972 when construction workers discover a body and a mezuzah at the bottom of a well. To unfold what happened, the narrative travels back to 1925 in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, where immigrant Jews and struggling Black families find common cause in a town sharply divided by racial, ethnic and religious differences. 

“Anytime you start talking about Black-Jewish relations, you’re dealing with dynamite,” said McBride, who told the story of his mixed-race childhood and his white Jewish mother in the classic 1995 memoir “The Color of Water.” “You say one word and people are ready to throw you out the window. But there was and there remains a lot of love, a lot of getting along that happens. There’s a lot of cooperation, and there needs to be given the times we are living in.”

There’s a glancing reference to a Jewish summer camp near the end of the novel, but, as McBride explained last week at an event hosted by the New York Jewish Week and UJA-Federation, the book was inspired by his experience working at The Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children, a Jewish-owned summer camp for children with disabilities outside of Philadelphia, while on his summer breaks from Oberlin College. Indeed, its late Jewish director, Sy Friend, receives a grateful acknowledgement from McBride in an foreword.

“The camp was open to everyone,” he told interviewer Sandee Brawarsky at the event. “The camp was very, very integrated… racially and religiously. The way Sy ran things really changed my life. It was a camp for handicapped, so-called ‘disabled’ children. The way he did things was just extraordinary. The staff was like the United Nations; it was very diverse, long before that word became a part of American vocabulary. He loved the kids. He was gay and hid it. He was just a unique person and we all loved it.”

 Although Friend does not appear in the book, his spirit infuses its pages. Its central characters, Moshe and Chona (which McBride said is pronounced “Sho-na”) are a Jewish couple who own a theater and a grocery store, which loses money because Chona extends easy credit to her Black neighbors. When they take in a 12-year-old deaf Black boy whom the state wants to put away in a notorious institution for people with intellectual disabilities, they bring together the community at large to protect him.

“I wanted to write a book about that for many years, and I tried unsuccessfully for a long time. Chapter after chapter wasn’t any good,” McBride told the virtual audience of more than 1,200 people. “When I put things together and looked at it, the only chapter that seemed to work was the chapter about this guy, Moshe, who in the book, and in real life, was a Romanian Jewish immigrant and theater owner who donated the land for the camp. So I scrapped all the other chapters and just went dove right in at Moshe. That’s how the book was born.”

A Washington Post review of the novel described Chicken Hill as a place “where Jewish immigrants and African Americans cling to the deferred dream of equality in the United States.” McBride said he long wanted to tell the overlooked story of “poor immigrant Jews and poor Blacks living in the same part of town.”

“That’s an old story that’s happened in America, especially on the East Coast of America, probably from Maine all the way to Georgia. But it’s never really been told in a way that I can tell in terms of how people lived,” he said. “These men and women fanned out into America and they had these experiences that are largely not documented in the commercial literary world, at least in my opinion. I wanted to show how that worked out within the framework of the Black American experience and the immigrant experience overall.”

McBride grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the eighth of 12 children. “The Color of Water” tells the story of how his mother, who immigrated from Poland and was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, raised him and his siblings. Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, Ruth McBride Jordan and James’ father, Reverend Andrew Dennis McBride, founded the Brown Memorial Baptist church in Red Hook in 1954, where the author is still an active member. His previous book, 2020’s critically acclaimed “Deacon King Kong,” is about the deacon of a small Baptist church in the southwest corner of Brooklyn.

McBride based Chona, who runs the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store and is deeply admired by the Black residents of Chicken Hill, on his Jewish grandmother, who also owned a grocery store in a Black part of town. “My grandmother didn’t have a lot of love in her life beyond her children. She wasn’t really loved in life and her marriage. So I put her on the page and I made her loved,” he said. “I wanted her to have the things on the page that she did not necessarily have in life. And then once Chona became a real person, she simply evolved into this character that moves the whole novel.”

Brawarsky asked McBride about his personal relationship with Judaism, religion and spirituality, and that of his siblings and children. He said that while he does not study Judaism, the Torah — or even the Christian Bible — very deeply, he was raised in New York and had many Jewish role models throughout his life. “I’m more interested in Jewish things than the average Black guy walking around on Broadway,” he said. He added that “I am alarmed and to some degree outraged, I suppose, by the level of antisemitism there has been… let’s be thankful that we all have the same wall to push against, and let’s get to pushing.”

When asked what he wanted people to take away from the book, McBride said, “We are all much more alike than we are different. Those of us who are right-thinking people, we have to be strong in our belief and in our will to show how those of us who want to live right can live. This is proof that we know how to live together.”

Watch a recording of the rest of McBride’s and Brawarsky’s conversation here.

The post In his latest novel, James McBride defuses the ‘dynamite’ of Black-Jewish relations appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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