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‘Persecution of Jews is educationally significant’: How a school district put a contested Bernard Malamud classic back on the shelves



(JTA) — Even before Joanna Sargent had read “The Fixer,” she knew about it. 

A middle-school librarian in South Carolina, Sargent first heard of Bernard Malamud’s novel about antisemitism during her professional training. Budding librarians often study Island Trees School District v. Pico, the only U.S. Supreme Court case to address the holdings of school libraries. The 1982 case pitted a high school student against his school board, which had removed several books from the school library — among them “The Fixer.”

Last year, Sargent felt she was seeing history repeating itself when the book showed up on her own district’s list of challenged materials and was temporarily removed from library shelves. “The Fixer” was one of 96 books challenged by a local parent affiliated with the conservative activist group Moms For Liberty and a local business owner who doesn’t have a child in the district. 

When the Beaufort County School District convened a committee to review the challenged books and appointed Sargent to join it, she finally got a chance to read “The Fixer” herself. 

“I was blown away,” Sargent recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The novel, based on the real-life case of Mendel Beilis, a Jewish day laborer in Kyiv accused of murdering Christian children to make matzah in 1913, reminded her of the Biblical story of Job. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this poor man! Is anything going to go right for him?’”

Sargent and the six other members of the review committee got together to discuss the book and several others that had been challenged as inappropriate for students. The experience, she said, didn’t feel like a politically charged debate on censorship. Instead, it felt like a book club.

“We were all fascinated and captivated by the book,” Sargent said of the committee’s reaction. “It was about a man who had so many things going on for him, and the antisemitism was just so heartbreaking to me. I think I was in tears reading that book. I was just like, ‘How can we not let this voice be heard?’”

Sargent’s experience, along with the notes recorded by her fellow committee members and obtained by JTA, sheds light on an oft-unseen battlefield of the culture war over books currently playing out in states and school districts around the country. Parents’ challenges against books tend to make headlines, and so do districts’ decisions to ban books in response — but there’s frequently a review process behind closed doors that does not. That process, which in many districts requires staff and others to read books their own challengers may not have read, can be key to whether children continue to have access to contested literature.

In Beaufort County, the school district convened a rotating committee of seven people to review the challenged books, making their way through about seven a month starting with titles used in classroom instruction. For each book, committee members had to complete a checklist with their assessment of the book’s quality and content, its value in an educational setting, how thoroughly it avoids “pervasive vulgarity” and, in an echo of language frequently used by book challengers, its “appropriateness.”

The district signaled from early on that it was not very sympathetic to the charges leveled by a handful of parents that it was making explicit and inappropriate books available to children. A district spokeswoman said the books were removed from public access, despite not being contested according to the district’s regular process, only because of concerns about the safety of educators and officials in a heated environment. Over the course of the school year, the committee had returned all but four of the titles it reviewed to school library shelves.

When it came time to review “The Fixer,” Sargent was tapped alongside three other district employees, including a middle-school language arts teacher; a parent; a member of a school improvement council and a “community member.” The committee is meant to represent different constituencies in the district community, according to the district’s own guidelines for dealing with book challenges.

None of the members, to Sargent’s knowledge, were Jewish; the district, which has relatively few Jewish students, said it does not always achieve representation from the groups whose stories are being contested.

“The district could have done a better job with that,” Sargent said. “As librarians, we want to try to make our libraries inclusive and diverse.”

A review of the committee’s notes on the novel, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that every member endorsed keeping the book available in schools, with one participant specifying it should only be accessible at the high school level. (The book had previously only been stocked in high schools, according to Sargent, who estimated it had been a part of the school library’s collection for more than 25 years without any controversy.) 

In their notes, the committee members said they thought “The Fixer” had the power to offer students a valuable perspective on bigotry — and on Judaism.

“History of the time period and persecution of Jews is educationally significant,” one reviewer wrote.

“Something I really like about ‘The Fixer’ is that it introduces an education of Judaism to the reader,” another reviewer noted. Despite saying that they personally “don’t think it holds up as a timeless novel of literary quality,” the reviewer said the book “helps to expand the world of many Lowcountry students,” referring to the coastal region of the state where the district is located. 

Another reviewer included a list of vocabulary in the book that could be of educational value, including terms like “Torah,” “pogrom,” “shtetl” and “goyim.”

A few panelists took things a step further, declaring that the story, about the persecution of Yakov Bok by antisemitic Russians, had echoes in the book’s very placement on the banned list.  

“The same individuals banning these books follow the views of the Tsarist persecutors in this novel,” one wrote. 

Another alluded to the review of “The Fixer” on BookLooks, a ratings site started by a former Moms For Liberty member cited by the local parent who challenged the books. BookLooks gave the novel a “minor restricted” rating in part because of the use of an antisemitic slur directed at the Jewish protagonist.

The site’s administrator told JTA the rating was not meant to encourage schools to remove the book altogether.

“Banning any book because of the term ‘Jew noses’ is doing exactly what the antagonists in the novel are doing,” the reviewer wrote.

The committee’s final decision was unanimous: The book should be returned to shelves

Mike Covert, a Republican former Beaufort County council member in South Carolina, challenged Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer” in his district and appealed a committee’s decision to return the book to schools on Aug. 9, 2023. (Screenshot via YouTube)

The ruling drew at least one formal appeal: from Mike Covert, a former Republican county council member who frequently attacks the school board on a conservative internet stream. Covert, a local business owner whose children no longer attend school in the district, worked with Ivie Szalai, the parent affiliated with Moms For Liberty, to file nearly identical challenges within minutes of each other last year. Covert added one more book, bringing the total of challenges to 97. He has appealed the review committee’s rulings regularly, without success.

In the appeal form, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, Covert referenced “The Fixer” by name and wrote that it and the other six books the committee returned to shelves during its most recent session are “lewd and vulgar. Period.” On recent video streams, Covert has taken his rhetoric a step further, telling his followers that “these books have no education value to anyone under the age of 18,” and declaring, “For those that think it is perfectly OK for your kid to read that s–t — and that’s all it is — there is something seriously wrong with you.”

Reached by phone, Covert told JTA he had read “The Fixer” — unlike Szalai, who said she had not read the books she challenged. He said the book had landed on his and Szalai’s radar because it was featured on conservative-run websites listing objectionable texts. He said he had appealed the board’s decision to restore it to shelves because he believed “it would be challenging my credibility if I didn’t.”

Covert also said he didn’t know the book was based on a true story or that it described a real episode of antisemitism in Russian history. His objections, he said, had largely been based on the incorrect idea that it was “completely fictional.”

“I like to think of myself as a pretty learned individual, and if somebody had said, ‘Would you bet that this was real?’ I would have taken that bet and said, ‘No, of course not,’” Covert said. “I would have had a different opinion right off the bat knowing that it’s true.”

Covert allowed that older grades could get some use out of “The Fixer” but also echoed the thinking of the Island Trees school board in 1982 in suggesting that reading the book could encourage antisemitism, rather than educate about it.

“The last thing we need is more kids going out there thinking, ‘Well, you know, maybe I should go shoot up a synagogue,’” he said. “Let them be kids. Let them mature physically as well as mentally, and then understand why were the Jews persecuted so disgustingly by the Russians. I mean, what was the reason? This book doesn’t go into the reason.” 

At the same time, Covert said he could understand why Jews would be concerned with the specter of Jewish books being removed from schools. In addition to “The Fixer,” other books with Jewish content that have been challenged multiple times in various places include Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and a new graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.

“If I was you all, I would be on guard as well,” Covert said. “Anne Frank and the whole litany of material with that is absolutely, completely educational, in my opinion.”

Other than Covert’s appeal, the review committee’s restoration of “The Fixer” to the Beaufort County School District hasn’t yet elicited any particular response, Sargent said. The committee still has dozens of titles to wade through, under different configurations. Having rotated off, Sargent has her own thoughts about the sort of people who bothered to challenge the novel nearly 60 years after its publication.

“I don’t think they’re seeing the significance of them,” she said of the parents who challenged “The Fixer” and others in the first place. “It just seems like, ‘Jump on the bandwagon, and here’s a list of books. Let’s just try to get all of these out of as many places as we can.’”

The post ‘Persecution of Jews is educationally significant’: How a school district put a contested Bernard Malamud classic back on the shelves appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner




(New York Jewish Week) — For many generations of New Yorkers, eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their Coney Island flagship location is a staple of summer. The iconic hot dog stand just celebrated its 107th season at the city’s iconic beachside destination. 

Nathan’s Famous — which started as a nickel hot dog stand and grew to a franchised business that today has over 350 locations in 12 countries — may be most famous today for its annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It is named for its founder, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jewish immigrant who, along with his wife, Ida, opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916, when he was 19.

“It was his life,” Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who made a 2014 documentary and wrote an accompanying book about his family history, both titled “Famous Nathan,” told the New York Jewish Week

“He had brilliant instincts about running a business — basic ideas which seem simple, but they work well,” Lloyd said. “Which is keeping the price low, having the quality be great, being a stickler, paying people well and caring about the customer.”

On Sept. 24, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous, New York City co-named the corner of the Surf and Stillwell Avenues Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way. 

“Nathan and Ida Handwerker worked together for over 50 years and were part of the few generations who formed the rich Coney Island culture that is now renowned throughout the nation and all over the world,” Lloyd Handwerker’s cousin, William, said at the unveiling event. “It is an honor to celebrate their legacy by memorializing their names on the street corner that houses the original Nathan’s.”

(Lloyd was supposed to give a speech alongside his family, but his father, Sol, died just days before the ceremony.) 

Also present that day was Eric Adams, who at the time was Brooklyn Borough President, and Mark Treyger, the Jewish city council member for District 47, which includes Coney Island. “The corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island is now known as Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way, after the husband and wife team who grew a hot dog food cart into a brand that is known worldwide,” Treyger said at the ceremony. 

“The inspiring story of these two immigrants, who came to this country facing an uncertain future, working hard to create a product that means so much to so many, is what the American Dream is all about,” he added.

Handwerker arrived in the United States from Poland in 1912 and took a job as a delivery boy during the week. On the weekends, he sliced rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island — where he met a waitress who would become his wife. 

By 1916, the couple had saved $300, enough to open their own, competing hot dog restaurant. They used Ida’s secret spice recipe to make their hot dogs, for which they charged 5 cents — half the price of a dog at Feltman’s. 

Considering the low price of the product, customers were skeptical at first, so Handwerker allegedly hired men to wear white coats while eating his hot dogs. The image would lend his business credibility, as customers figured that if doctors were eating the hot dogs, they could, too. 

The business grew steadily over the next half century, with Handwerker working 18-20 hours a day cooking food, selling it and running the business. When the company went public in 1968, Handwerker was elected chairman of the board.

“As a grandfather, he was a very sweet, soft guy. I had no idea what kind of boss he was,” said Lloyd. “It’s different for different people, but I found out he was pretty tough. He was a stickler, and he was clearly a perfectionist about everything — about the quality, about the workers.”

As for Ida Handwerker, in addition to creating the recipe for the hot dogs, she was often in the back kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, garlic and potatoes, Lloyd said. “My grandmother, too, my dad said, was also pretty tough in her own way,” he said. “She worked in the business for many, many years alongside [Nathan], especially in the early days. She was a great grandmother, warm and wonderful. But I guess they both came up hard and tough.”

By the time Nathan Handwerker died in 1974 at 81, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was a household name. Over the years, the hot dog stand became a favorite for celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Regis Philbin. In 1936, the hot dogs were served at a lawn party hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

The Coney Island location was also an essential stop for politicians from City Council members to the president of the United States. “No one can hope to be elected to public office in New York without having his picture taken eating a hot dog at Nathan’s,” former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller once told Handwerker during a campaign visit to Coney Island, according to the New York Times. 

Handwerker retired to Florida in 1972, with his son Murray taking over and expanding the business. Nathan’s first hot dog eating contest was that same year.

Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of ‘Nathan’s’, standing in front of ‘Nathan’s’ restaurant in Coney Island, New York, NY, June 29, 2016. (Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lloyd Handwerker, who was 17 when his grandfather died, began working on his film in the 1980s, and over the course of 30 years he interviewed some 75 friends, family members and associates of Nathan’s Famous. “My grandfather was always telling stories around the dining room table at the holidays and dinners,” he said. “By the time I took a video class and had access to a camera, my grandfather and my grandmother had passed away, but I still thought ‘we should be preserving this history.’”

Though he never worked at Nathan’s Famous, Lloyd, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Long Island, said that he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ office in Coney Island, as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at their house in Florida. “My grandmother cooked amazingly, so I have a lot of great memories of Passover in particular,” he recalled. Lloyd said that though his grandfather grew up traditionally religious in Poland, he didn’t keep many traditional customs by the time he came to the United States. 

And yet, some tenets of Judaism were deeply ingrained in the entrepreneur: Though he didn’t hire a rabbi to certify the kitchen, Handwerker coined the term “kosher-style” for his restaurant, because his hot dogs were made with 100% beef and therefore could be kosher. 

Plus, “the one day that the restaurant was closed out of the whole year was Yom Kippur, so it still obviously meant something to him,” Lloyd said of his grandfather. 

Nathan’s Famous is now owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group. However, the family still owns the original Coney Island building and is the landlord for Nathan’s Famous there.  

“As far as his legacy, he was obviously very proud of what he created,” Lloyd said of Nathan. “He was a pretty humble guy, but look at what he did: He came from starvation in Poland, without an education. He didn’t know how to read or write, he was basically illiterate and he built this institution that  everyone has a story about. It’s amazing.”

The post A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader




(JTA) – The Biden Administration’s new point person for combating book bans at school districts and public libraries across the country is a gay, Jewish progressive activist who has served as a government liaison to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

The appointment of Matt Nosanchuk comes as the thousands of book challenges nationwide have focused on books with LGBTQ as well as Jewish themes, in addition to works about race. Nosanchuk was named a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s civil rights office earlier this month. In that role, he will lead training sessions for schools and libraries on how to deal with book bans — and warn districts that the department believes book bans can violate civil rights laws.

An Education Department official recently told the 74, an education news site, that the bans “are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

“I am excited to return to public service to work on behalf of the American people,” Nosanchuk posted to LinkedIn earlier this month. “There is a lot of important work to do!”

The Education Department declined to make Nosanchuk available for an interview. He has already taken heat from conservative outlets, which have pushed the narrative that the books being removed from schools and libraries are too sexually explicit for children. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News host who served as Donald Trump’s press secretary, called him a “porn enforcer” on-air.

But his appointment has been celebrated by librarians and book access activists. “This is a step forward for the Biden Administration, who has heard the concerns of parents and taken action, but it is just the beginning,” the National Parents Union, a progressive parental education activist group, said in a statement.

Nosanchuk’s career has largely focused on working with the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. In 2009, after serving in a number of roles in Washington, D.C., Nosanchuk was appointed as the Department of Justice’s liaison to the LGBTQ community — a position he held while Obama was still publicly opposed to same-sex marriage. He later worked on the Obama administration’s opposition to a law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

He subsequently served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during Obama’s second term, and in 2020 was the Democratic National Committee’s political organizer for Jewish outreach and LGBTQ engagement. That same year, he cofounded the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive policy group that he led until earlier this year.

Nosanchuk’s first webinar in his new role was held Tuesday in partnership with the American Library Association, an organization with which a number of Republican-led states have recently cut ties. He begins his work after a year that has seen several school districts take aim at books focused on Jewish experiences or the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, a Texas school district fired a middle school teacher reportedly for reading a passage from an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to eighth-grade students. Other schools’ removals of “The Fixer,” a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust and other texts have been likened to Nazi and Stalinist book burnings —  comparisons that proponents of the book restrictions reject.

Democratic politicians, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have accused Republicans of wanting “to ban books on the Holocaust.” A recent Senate hearing on book bans included testimony from Cameron Samuels, a Jewish advocate for access to books, along with numerous references to “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust that was pulled from a Tennessee middle school curriculum last year.

PEN America, a literary free-speech advocacy group, welcomed Nosanchuk’s appointment.

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” the group said in a statement. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”

The post ​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Ohio high school football coach resigns after players use ‘Nazi’ in play calls




(JTA) — A high school football coach in suburban Cleveland has resigned after his team used the word “Nazi” in addition to racial slurs in its play calling during a game on Friday against a team in a heavily Jewish town.

Tim McFarland, the coach of Brooklyn High School in Brooklyn, Ohio, submitted his resignation Monday and apologized via a statement written by the district, the Cleveland Jewish News reported. Local Jewish groups have also reached out to district officials, who have indicated a willingness to work with them.

Brooklyn was playing the team from Beachwood, a suburb with the second-highest rate of Jewish residents in the country.

The offensive play calls were first flagged by Beachwood’s head coach, Scott Fischer, at halftime, the school’s athletic director told parents in an email after the game.

“During my discussion with Coach Fischer at halftime, we agreed that if these actions continued we would pull our team off the field,” wrote the school’s athletic director, Ryan Peters, as reported by the Cleveland Jewish News. Peters said that McFarland admitted to using the “Nazi” play and agreed to change the name of the play for the game’s second half. The mother of a Beachwood cheerleader told the Cleveland Jewish News they couldn’t hear the offensive language in the stands.

The language was also condemned by the mayor and city council of Beachwood.

It was not the first time in recent memory a high school football team employed antisemitic language in its play calling. In 2021 a Boston-area school was found to have used terms including “Auschwitz,” “yarmulke” and “rabbi” in its own plays for at least a decade, part of what an investigation revealed was a long history of antisemitic and homophobic behavior. That school’s football coach was also fired, and the state of Massachusetts soon passed new laws to require genocide education in high schools in response to that and other antisemitic school sports incidents in the state.

In recent months, Jewish high school sporting events in Miami and Los Angeles were home to alleged antisemitic taunts. Both were alleged to have come in response to antagonistic or even racist behavior by Jewish students, according to local reports. Another high school in the Sacramento area is investigating reports that four students made Nazi salutes on social media earlier this month.

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