1940s, authors, books, historical fiction, history

(4) Writing Historical Fiction: Jewish Neighborhoods and a sister named Zorka

Welcome to a monthly post about the research for the third novel. If you are new to my blog, this project is about 20th Century U.S. History featuring underrepresented voices. There are six books in the series moving forward in time by twenty or so odd years. A character jumps forward to the next book, too. Book One, set in 1900, is called The Knife with the Ivory Handle. You will find the link at the right sidebar if you’re curious. Book Two, set in 1928, is called Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. You’re invited to check out the page for each novel at the top of the blog. Thanks to everyone who read them. I appreciate your time and feedback.

Research Report

This month’s research centers around Judaism in the 1940s, specifically Jewish neighborhoods in Minneapolis. This is the backdrop for the second principal character, Zorka Kiss. While Barbara is in the Philippines making do as a nurse in the jungle at he Bataan Peninsula, back home, little sister Zorka is restless. She meets a Nisei linguist soldier stationed at MISLS, Military Intelligence Service Language School. This sets up two challenges. One, what was it like to live and belong in the northern neighborhood of Minneapolis where an enclave of Jews resided? What was that culture like? Two, what was it like for Japanese-American soldiers who volunteered to join the U.S. Army? How did they face the racism after the attack of Pearl Harbor?

Judaism in Minneapolis

Rhoda Lewin’s Jewish Community of North Minneapolis is a chief reference point for precise names of streets, businesses, family statistics, and life at the synagogue. I’m going with the Beth El Synagogue, formed in 1926. It was located at 14th and Penn Avenue North before it moved to St. Louis Park in the late 1960s. The charismatic Rabbi David Aronson led over four hundred families from mostly Russian, Lithuania, and Romania in the second wave of immigration which occurred in the U.S. from 1870-1920. Of course, they raised families. Their first-generation children were caught in two worlds. Japanese and Asian groups flocked to America looking to escape economic hardship. When they did, ethnic regionalism occurred. That is, immigrant families tended to congregate to neighborhoods where work, personal histories, language, and religion were similar. Americanization was important for the reform groups who were scared of their “foreignness”, and families who wanted their children to blend in as American. Immigrant children attended American schools, spoke English, and adopted the American way of life, for example, movies, sports, food, boy scouts, and dancing. One site I liked to learn about Judaism was Shavuot 101: My Jewish Learning. I found this interesting article by Lisa Huriash, “Uncle Sam Keeps Kosher Kitchen for Servicemen Who Need It” HERE.
Another key site for learning about Jewish history in Minneapolis was the Minnesota Historical Society found HERE. Apparently, Minneapolis has a sordid past with racism and anti-Semitism which raised its ugly head yesterday in the papers. The scholarly article “Gentiles Preferred” by Laura Weber was fascinating.

Click to access v52i05p166-182.pdf


Finally, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series Unorthodox about a young lady from Brooklyn’s Jewish Orthodox neighborhood who flees to Berlin. It’s been a revelation. Actress Shira Haas is outstanding as Esther Shapiro. It is a story of non-conformity and insight into Jewish culture–I highly recommend it.

Next month, I will share the research behind Japanese-American soldiers fighting in WW2. It deserves a post all of its own.

Introducing Zorka Kiss

Chapter 2

Zorka Kiss hated her name. How flamboyant the sound when she heard someone pronounce it. Her classmates had teased her by accentuating the Z sound. Add to it the awkward last name with the final drag of the S as though she was a tempestuous snake–suddenly Zorka Kiss sounded obscene. If not a snake trying to seduce, then a secret body part with the capability of kissing. Her mother’s friends were just as bad as her peers. “Give me a Zorka Kiss! Where’s my Zorka Kiss?” When her brother came home to visit, he got in the habit of saying to her, “I need a kiss from the Zorka.” Her parents told her she was named after her father’s grandmother. The family name Kiss was a common Hungarian name, but Zorka knew of no other families in Minneapolis with it. Once she looked up her name in the city phone book. There were two Kiss families, a few Kissingers, and a handful of Kitzingers. It gave her no comfort, but she understood it was not important in light of the times. It was late April, 1942. She was twenty, and the world had gone mad.

She finished her morning classes at the University of Minnesota, and the bus dropped her off at Penn Avenue North. She carried her viola case and walked to her lesson. Her heart was heavy. The war raged, and here she was, far removed from the attacks and imprisonments, pretending all was normal in her daily routine while the apprehensive eyes of her family constantly reminded her all was not well. When they attended the Sabbath, the 400 member community gathered under a shroud of worry. The northside neighborhood exhaled hand-wringing energy that made her stomach cramp and her ears ring.

As she walked down 14th Avenue inhaling the crisp air, Zorka pulled back dense curls the color of burnt toast. She wrapped a scarf around the mass that made her head large compared to her slender frame. Her hazel eyes looked up at the globe veiled behind wispy clouds and concentrated on the tips of the trees that finally sprouted leaves. Spring had won the battle over a long winter even though patches of snow clung to the shady parts of bushes. Zorka admired the yellow and red tulips lining a sidewalk and acknowledged the annual perfection of color and egg shape symmetry with an impulse to wack off their heads. In an ugly world, such beauty seemed rude.

Thanks for reading!