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Stompin’ at the Savoy

A picture-book writer learns the identity-politics dance

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I’m not black. And I can’t dance. I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

My last picture book was titled Too Young For Yiddish. It’s about a Jewish boy in Brooklyn whose grandfather spoke Yiddish. I am Jewish. I grew up in Brooklyn. My grandfather spoke Yiddish. There are other coincidences. “In the old country,” Grandpa Sam (hey, I had a Grandpa Sam) says, “I spoke Yiddish to the chickens,” so the boy in my story wants to learn Yiddish, thinking he too will then be able to talk to the chickens. Grandpa Sam, however, wants his grandson to speak only English, to play baseball, to be 100% American. He shuts the door to his past, and the child doesn’t knock. Death, however, always knocks. Luckily, before Grandpa Sam’s death, the boy realizes he does not know who his grandfather is, or for that matter, who he himself has become. He learns Yiddish, speaks with his grandfather, and hears the story of his past, which he later passes down to his own son, Samuel. (I have a son named Samuel.)

When I speak at Jewish book festivals, I am pleased to see generations talking together after my presentation. But it is the grandparents who rush up to me as I’m packing my bags. “A dank,” they say, “thanks.” And then, in the mother tongue, they begin to tell me their own stories. Sometimes I listen and nod, but most times I stop them at the onset and apologize. “Sorry,” I say, “I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t speak Yiddish.”

I can understand the disappointment on their faces. But no one has ever suggested that because I don’t speak Yiddish, I should not have written my book.

“I’m a writer.” I explain. “It’s a story.”

Illustration by E.B. Lewis from 'Happy Feet'
Illustration from Happy Feet

Then I add: My new book is about a black child whose father opens a shop, works hard, and gives up his dream of dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem so that he can create an environment where his son might have a better life. (My father opened a shop, worked hard, and gave up his dreams so that someday I might be able to realize mine). “And as you see,” I say, “I’m not black. And I can’t dance.”

“Can I read you the text of Happy Feet: The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me?” I ask a friend who has studied the Harlem Renaissance. I respect his opinion greatly. He is black, though he grew up among whites, and married white—does that matter? I grew up in a transitional neighborhood. It was a Jewish neighborhood when I was born, and I am not saying that we would not have joined the white flight if finances allowed. The blacks later fled as the Hispanics moved in.

“Put it back in your drawer,” my friend counseled. “It’s our history. We own it. A black person should write this story. You’ve got no right.”

“But a black person didn’t,” I protested. Must I always write Jewish? I didn’t think so, but then why was I both thrilled and relived when my publisher signed up E.B. Lewis to do the illustrations. E.B. is a brilliant, talented artist and no one can question his African-American credentials, his Coretta Scott King and Caldecott Honors. “It’s everybody’s story,” E.B. told me. “And you’ve nailed the dialect.” I felt vindicated. But why didn’t I press to have my picture on the back flap? And how should I answer my son Sam, who grew up on gangsta rap, despite my ranting and railing—Pull up your pants, embrace your roots, stop acting ghetto; you’re middle-class—when he asks me “What’s up with your recent books? Do you think you’re black?”

Busing Brewster, which is forthcoming, is about a black child bused to an all-white school in Boston. What must that feel like? I tell the story looking through Brewster’s eyes. Would it matter if I told you I was one of three whites at an all-black school? What if I wasn’t? My publisher has not yet chosen an illustrator, and they have asked me for suggestions.

I make mental lists only of black artists as I sit in a Jewish coffee house in the Kazimierz section of Krakow, Poland. I have come in search of my roots. This morning I visited Auschwitz, but tonight I am clapping along to klezmer music. It is an affirmation after the darkness, I tell myself. The Jewish quarter of the city is booming with seekers just like me. During the break, I go to speak to the lead singer. She is beautiful, and I have never heard such an authentic sound. I am transported back to the old country, to my grandfather’s shtetl, which I, of course, never visited in the first place. Did anyone in your family survive, I ask her? Who taught you to play?

“Sorry,” she says. “I hate to disappoint you, but I am not Jewish, nor is anyone in my band. We used to play polka, but then learned the klezmer music to meet the demand from tourists.”

I sit back down next to my wife. She was born Methodist, but converted to Judaism. It is she, not my Grandpa Sam, who brought me back to an appreciation of my own culture. It is she who insisted our young children have a Jewish education. “There’s no excuse,” my grandfather had said, “for marrying outside the tribe. Study, shmudy—she will never understand what it feels like to grow up as Jew.”

I take my wife’s hand and close my eyes as the second set begins. The music might sound the same, but will I hear it differently?

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Stompin’ at the Savoy

A picture-book writer learns the identity-politics dance

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